'Real-Life Willy Wonka' Phillip Ashley Rix Is Changing The Chocolate Game - Exclusive Interview

Phillip Ashley Rix, founder of Philip Ashley Chocolates, has received high praise for his work as a chocolatier. Forbes called Rix a "real-life Willy Wonka." Rix found a spot among Oprah's Favorite Things in 2020. He's also created chocolate masterpieces for a variety of clients and notable events, from Cadillac to the Emmys and Oscars.

Take even just one look at the Philip Ashley Chocolates lineup online, and it's easy to see how Rix has claimed his status. Elegantly designed chocolates come in surprising flavors like banana pudding and collards and cornbread. Collections focus on geography and events, as well as collaborations with famous names like Woodford Reserve.

But despite Rix's current status as one of the game-changers in chocolate, he hasn't always been a chocolatier. In fact, he had an entire career in corporate marketing and sales for brands like FedEx and Apple before he made his way to the chocolate world. In an exclusive interview, he told Mashed how he found his way to chocolate, what excites him most about the business, his keys to creating successful flavors, and where he's going next.

Bringing imagination to life

Can you tell us a little bit about where this passion for chocolate came from? Was this a lifelong thing for you? Was it new? How did it come about?

In a sense, it was new, but when I started recollecting, I [remembered], "Oh, yeah. My mom was giving us Godiva when we were little kids, trying to bribe us to not run all over the mall."

But literally, I had some crazy dream. I woke up at three o'clock in the morning in 2007, in my 20s, and said, "You know what I'm going to do? [I'll be a] chocolatier and make chocolates for the rest of my life." I had cooked for a long time at that point, but I was working in transportation logistics and consumer packaging, so it was a whole different arena.

Was that a challenging leap, to transition from a corporate career to being in chocolate?

When the time came for me to make the leap, it wasn't as much of a challenge. It was more so like, "I definitely want to do something different." But it was certainly a journey between that thought and me moving into doing it by myself. It was about a five-year period. I spent three or four years teaching myself how to make chocolate and also developing what it is that I would be doing.

Why chocolate specifically versus some other food? You could've chosen anything else to focus on, but why was it chocolate?

I was always fascinated by the whole Willy Wonka concept, but I wanted to do something different in food. I didn't want to be a restaurant chef. I wanted to essentially merge what I knew from consumer-packaged foods and make a product, put it into a sales channel, and move it up the supply chain. That fascinated me with all the elements of product development, and chocolate fit with it.

[Chocolate also] allowed me to bring my imagination to life. I grew up on "Reading Rainbow," "Fraggle Rock," "Sesame Street," [and] "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" — and I always had a crazy imagination as a kid. What could I do that would allow me to put all that to work?

Creating chocolates from cornbread and collard greens

You've created a large number of different luxury chocolates with lots of unique flavor pairings. What have been some of your favorite creations?

I enjoy developing chocolates for other brands and people. What does their brand taste like? That's usually the question I start with. We're working with a luxury hotel right now, developing flavors based on the region it's based in.

For instance, [there's our partnership with] Cadillac. I was like, "How do you turn a luxury automotive maker into a chocolate flavor?" Or what does Nike taste like? That's what I get the bigger kick out of, translating things into food.

Aside from that, from our collection, [there are] things like the chocolate barbecue and the sweet potato. I'm usually making things that have some connection to growing up [in] or being from Memphis or traveling. I'm also big into film and TV. I always wanted to do something inspired by Spike Lee's movies or roughly something inspired by "Black Panther." There's endless inspiration out there.

Out of all that inspiration, has there been anything that's been the most unusual or unique chocolate flavor or chocolate pairing that you've created? Anything that stands out as totally unexpected?

Our soul food collection ... You've got fried chicken in there. You've got bacon [and] macaroni and cheese. You've got collard greens and rum cake and red Kool-Aid. They all taste really good, and they taste like the things that we say they taste like. The fried chicken chocolate tastes like fried chicken, but it's chocolate, too.

Has there ever been anything like that, that maybe you tried but then it didn't work for some reason?

Typically, I try to work the formulas out in my head first and have a good sense for how things taste. But the chocolate that got away was one [from] a long time ago; it was a beer hops and bee pollen chocolate. That one didn't work out too well.

We may have to tweak things — something here or there — but when we set out to make the collard green chocolate, we pretty much knew we could make it work. There's not too much that we haven't been able to make work. Some of it, like I said, mainly needs to be worked on. A lot of times, I may think about one for six months and [then] figure it out at some point and wake up in the middle of the night and realize what it is I need to do.

You've worked with a lot of impressive clients, and you've received a lot of high praise in the press. Is there an achievement that you're most proud of?

Being able to hire more and more people — creating jobs. We pay anywhere from $18 to $20 an hour. That's probably the biggest thing ... It's one thing to say, "Oh, I do this." But to be able to continue to grow a thing from five people to 10 to now, around 18, and still going ...

Next up: elevation

What is the most exciting thing you've worked on recently, whether that's a collaboration or a new collection?

By far, our most recent collaboration with Cadillac has definitely been the most exciting. They've definitely challenged me in terms of [what] we've designed.

Tell us about the new Phillip Ashley Foundation. What is that going to be, and why was that something that you wanted to do?

The foundation is a continuation of what we've been doing for the past decade, helping other organizations and raising money for other organizations. The most important part is working with Black and Brown founders who have consumer packaged goods, companies who are out there making cool products ... and figuring out what I can do to help other people be successful.

Was there anything else that you wanted to mention?

We're in the phase of rebranding. We're celebrating 10 years in November, so we're going to spend all of 2023 celebrating being 10. We have a lot of cool things, and new collections will be coming out. We're actually refreshing the brand's name ... We're elevating [ourselves] to be at the top of the commercial chocolate market.

Check out all of Phillip Ashley Chocolates' currently available creations at phillipashleychocolates.com.

This interview was edited for clarity.