It was not until his tour in the Israel Defense Forces that Oded “Max” Brenner even came in contact with a kitchen.
“At first, I had no interest in cooking,” Brenner, founder of the Max Brenner international chain of chocolate-inspired restaurants, said in an interview with JointMedia News Service. “All I wanted to do was write.”
However, after serving in the IDF, Brenner took pastry-making courses that were subsidized by the Israeli government. Though his dream still involved the pen more than the pan, Brenner found himself working in pastry shops (apprenticing to the legendary likes of George Maushagen in Germany, Fauchon in Paris and chocolatier Michelle Chaudun) to support his writing. It was at that time that he said he “fell in love with the happiness chocolate brought people.”
“I wanted to bring that back to Israel and around the world,” he said.
Upon his return to Israel, Brenner opened a small retail chocolate shop with a workshop in the back. It was there that his Wonka-esque proclivities began to come to the fore. Having experienced the branding brilliance of Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris, Brenner said he came to see chocolate as “an emotional product that should be experienced through all senses.” The result was the 1996 founding of Max Brenner—derived from Oded’s last name and co-founder Max Fichtman’s first name—in Ra’anana. Oded has since adopted Max as a middle name.
The popular chain—easily identifiable with his face on the logo, accompanied by the slogan “Chocolate by the Bald Man”—has locations in Israel, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, New York and Boston, with more sites in the works.
The venues look like chocolate factories gone haywire (with décor including pipes filled with chocolate, and almost every fixture in some shade of brown), and the menu—with items ranging from the “after party” Belgian waffle and the “guilt free” omelet to a full bar of slider sandwiches, the Sandwich of the Seas (fish) and the signature Brenner Burger—maximizes choice while always keeping the chocolate in your mind.
To wash down your food, Max Brenner restaurants offer everything from custom-made “Hug Mugs” of (yes) hot chocolate, to “chocolate aphrodisiacs,” to fruity (and chocolate-free) smoothies, mojitos, and margaritas, to a do-it-yourself pot of chai tea. The menu offers the reminder of “First food, then chocolate,” leading to dessert choices including a peanut butter sundae and a full chocolate pizza, among other items.
Keeping in line with Brenner’s ambition of being a writer, his chain’s menu and website (maxbrenner.com) are full of stories that are intended to explain, share, and promote his pro-chocolate, pro-people philosophies. Brenner also wrote a book, Chocolate: A Love Story.
Brenner designs his own store not so much as a Parisian chocolatier or patisserie, but like an upscale atelier. He offers customers access into his research and development lab and even lets them dip spoons into the mixing bowls to get the first licks of his latest creations.
“Customers were more interested in the workshop … than shopping in the front area,” Brenner said. “I then realized that people want to experience chocolate with their emotions and fulfill their dreams.”
When asked to identify his favorite meal to prepare, the man behind the cacao craziness gave a surprising answer: pasta.
“I love the smell, the simplicity, the comfort it creates both in cooking as well as eating,” he said, noting that the element of fresh-made food is what makes his pasta “totally me.”
Nonetheless, chocolate remains what inspires most of Brenner’s menu—and what inspires him on a personal level.
“[Chocolate] inspires endless creativity,” he said. “It is the fuel of life for me.”