The Untold Truth Of Phillip Ashley Rix, The 'Real-Life' Willy Wonka

In 1964, Roald Dahl, a British children's book author, introduced the world to the delicious, whimsical, and oftentimes absurd story of Charlie Bucket and, of course, title character, Willy Wonka. The chocolatier was then brought to life on the big screen by Gene Wilder in 1971, followed by Johnny Depp's wild interpretation in 2005. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" may be a staple story in fiction, but meet Phillip Ashley Rix, the real life Willy Wonka.

Rix, who received a degree in chemistry, is considered a "mad scientist" by Food & Wine for his one-of-a-kind confections. His approach to chocolate making is not based on the magic and mystery of his fictional counterpart, but rather focuses primarily on the chemistry of tastes, flavors, and scents of foods someone might not think work well together.

Rix's artisan chocolate company is a celebrity favorite, as Forbes pointed out in its 2014 profile of the chocolate mastermind. Morgan Freeman keeps a box on his nightstand, and others have indulged in the chocolates at high profile events such as the Oscars. While the modern day Willy Wonka may be revered by elite CEOS and the everyday chocolate lover, there's still so much about Rix's ascent that many don't know.

The women in his life helped him explore his love for food, especially chocolate

As Forbes reports, Rix spent his childhood "tugging at his Grandmother Jean's apron strings." Just as many who have heard of the various justifications for indulging in chocolate, the extent of his knowledge at a young age came from the belief that dark chocolate offered health benefits. And then there was the dream he had: His mother was taking him on a tour of a Godiva chocolate shop, and Willy Wonka showed up, a bit like a future chocolatier's encounter with Santa Claus. Rix told Food & Wine, "When I woke up, I knew I would make chocolate for the rest of my life." Although his career path wasn't a straight line, Rix has now become one of the nation's most sought-after chocolatiers.

While Rix was said to have had a lifelong passion for food, it wasn't until 2007 when the idea of a chocolate business hit him, and he then would "eat, sleep, and dream chocolate," says Forbes. Rix's first handcrafted design is a tribute to his grandmother, called the Mama Jean, a combination of sweet potatoes, cinnamon, pecans, and spices all mixed in milk chocolate (Spectacular Magazine).

His background in business marketing propelled his model of experimental chocolate making

Rix worked for FedEx and Apple as a corporate marketing executive, which established a mindset of starting his own business that he could create and develop from the ground up (Forbes). He studied, researched, and worked to understand chocolate for two years without actually touching the substance himself, he told Spectacular Magazine last January. After that, he knew how to break down the rules.

His marketing background has come in handy as he works with some of the world's most famous (and also picky) clientele. As Forbes relates, Rix targets corporate gift giving because of its longevity, but also because it's a powerful marketing tool. The marketing of a specialty box of chocolates shows off the personality of the brand he's working with, and also the identity he's formed through his chocolate flavors. He explained to Forbes that through a corporate gift sale, his gift boxes are placed into the hands of 300 people. It's like marketing himself and his skills not to just one corporate business, but to 300 individuals.

While Rix consults with companies to design flavors uniquely to their brand, he also says he's looking for "sustainable" customer engagement. A few examples come from his impromptu pop ups at charity events, art galleries, and boutiques.

His history in chemistry has shaped his knowledge of flavor combinations

As Rix explained to Food & Wine in May, "I spend a lot of time studying herbs, spices, proteins, beer, and wine." The former chemistry major breaks down the traditional rules of chocolate making and concocts taste pairings many wouldn't think to combine. Take, for instance, his Sweet Tea Caramel Vodka Lemonade chocolate, Crown and Coke, Sweet Corn Basil, and Puffed Brown Rice, all of which are signature flavors found in boxes on his website's shop.

His manipulation of flavors comes from a desire to design something that has never been produced before. Each flavor is meant to "create a piece of art that's almost a miniature dish," he told Forbes.

The study engaged in by the "real-life Willy Wonka" formed a diverse knowledge of technology and sales, intermixed with a love of art and culture, says Spectacular Magazine. So, Rix's experiences are a mix of artistry and logistics.

His desire to capture identity through flavor is a big business drive

One of Rix's most elaborate chocolate collections, the Tastes of America, is described as his magnum opus. The 50-piece set includes a unique specialty chocolate for each state, as an attempt to capture the personality and culture of each place. The American flag-bedecked box is meant to resemble all the people and cultures its image represents. As Rix said to Food & Wine, "At the end of the day, we may look different, but we are all human beings trying to achieve our respective goals."

This representational box appears to be at the heart of what Rix hopes to achieve through his artisan candy. Each chocolate has an identity and a purpose. He tells the story of his birthplace with his Tastes of Memphis collection. The 12 flavors include creations like Peanut Butter Bourbon and BBQ Chocolate (via Phillip Ashley Chocolates). His creations also highlight well-established and long-beloved brands like the Black owned brand Uncle Nearest Premium Aged Whiskey.

He's one of Oprah's favorite things

Rix's public endeavors include making it to the finals in "Chopped Sweets" on the Food Network, becoming an Ambassador of Taste, and getting an exclusive feature at the Emmys, Grammys, and Oscars. More recently, his Perfect Turtle gift set was named one of Oprah Winfrey's favorite things in 2020. The set includes eight chocolate truffles that can be customized by all one flavor or as a variety, from milk-chocolate pecans and dark chocolate cashew (Spectacular Magazine).

The truffles aren't a small bite, either. As Oprah exclaims, "each one is nearly the size of a tortoise!" (Oprah Daily).

Perhaps the Oprah stamp of approval comes in part from the high quality of ingredients Rix incorporates. As Rix told Forbes, "One of our chocolates has a 50-year old balsamic vinegar, which costs about $300 for a 3-ounce bottle. Some of the cheeses can cost up to $17 a pound. I wanted to create one of the most unique lines of chocolate out there." His care for exotic flavors elevates each of his creations.