King of Cocoa

Before he reigned over the chocolate world, Max Brenner wrestled with words

Max Brenner never wanted to be a modern-day Willy Wonka, and he credits his rise to chocolate superstardom to pure “coincidence.”

“I actually wanted to write,” says the Israeli-born king of cocoa, who now calls New York City home. “Writing was all a part of a scene of the Bohemian guy, sitting in coffee shops in Paris, working and writing and all this. And that’s what I did, and that’s what I liked.”

Seven Things Max Brenner Can’t Live Without

  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “I read it … when I’m sad or when I’m happy.”
  • A nap. “I have a nap every day, an hour or an hour and a half. It’s not really sleeping, but it’s laying down and closing my eyes and just resting.”
  • Dreaming. “I’m very disappointed if I have a night without dreams. I have beautiful dreams—even the scary ones. They’re very visual.”
  • My quill pen. He bought a Pelican quill pen in Austria that he loves dearly. “Just playing with it, putting the ink in it and writing with it—I love it.”
  • His daughter, Nellie. His 3-year-old is the love of his life, and both of his tattoos—one of the inexplicable nickname he had for her when she was an infant, “Tito,” and another of the Egyptian letter “N”—are in her honor. “And to think I didn’t want to have children, and I was not sure that this was the lifestyle that I want!” he says.
  • Bikes. “I have nothing to do with cars,” he says, noting cycling is a way of life in New York’s West Village. “I hate to drive, but bikes are so romantic.”
  • Chocolate. “I eat it every day, if I’m happy or if I’m sad. It’s a great mood-influencer. It’s my medicine.”

After completing Israel’s mandatory three-year term of military service, Brenner enrolled in what he thought was the easiest government-sponsored class—pastry-making—in hopes of focusing on his true passion. His path took him to Paris, where he continued his pastry training while living the writer’s dream. But the dream was short-lived.

“Eventually I ran out of money and I had to go back to Israel,” he says.

When he returned, he met a man who suggested they go into business together (“I had no idea what ‘business’ meant,” Brenner says) and soon their little chocolate shop took over. “After two years, I was the chocolate man in Israel,” he says.

Nearly 15 years later, he has yet to finish his book, but he’s OK with that.

“I find myself today writing the novel I always wanted to write through this,” he says, scanning the handsome interior of Max Brenner: Chocolate by a Bald Man, his 30th location (the third in the U.S.), inside the Forum Shops at Caesars. “Yes, it’s a restaurant, but the more you dig in you will see it’s a whole story. It’s really a piece of art.”

Six varieties of hot chocolate are served in handle-free, teardrop-shaped “hug-mugs”; milkshakes come in Alice in Wonderland-inspired milkshake glasses that have “Drink Me” written on the sides; and cappuccino fills “kangaroo” cups, with little shelves built into the sides to hold chocolate. Meanwhile, spoons with two sides—one for mixing the chocolaty goodness, and one side for licking and eating it—come in very handy.

The restaurant menu is all over the map—from Thailand to France, with influences ranging from Mediterranean to American—and no, not every item involves chocolate.

The offerings, which Brenner describes as pure comfort, are all-American with a twist, include a playful collection of appetizers (things to dip such as spinach and artichoke fondue, and food on a stick such as Thai-style chicken satays), and entrées are organized by those for your hands (burgers, sandwiches and panini) and those to be enjoyed with a knife and fork (lemon and herb-roasted chicken, black sesame salmon, skirt-steak quesadilla). The restaurant also serves a sweet and savory brunch on Saturday and Sunday until 3 p.m.

It all takes place in the 9,400-square-foot space formerly occupied by Chinois (and, upstairs, Poetry nightclub), which has been renovated into a chocolate-lovers wonderland.

“We took chocolate out of the cage,” Brenner says, noting how most chocolatiers approach “chocolate like jewelry: You cannot touch it; it’s all very intimidating.”

Granted, Brenner’s 24 bonbons are displayed in a jewel case for health reasons, but that’s where traditional chocolate shop conventions stop: Choco-a-holics can satisfy their cravings in liquid, solid and/or powder form, grab a syringe of liquid chocolate to suckle as they shop, or indulge in a line of cocoa-butter-based spa products.

It all sounds good and tastes fantastic, and when it comes to the diet- and waistline-busting impact of his creations, Brenner—who is in great shape, despite his daily indulgences—has simple-yet-effective advice: Don’t ask.