Sept. 19, 2012
By Nick Kostenko, Digital Communications Intern
It's not often that an athlete goes from the playing field to the kitchen, but that's exactly what happened for former ASU football player and current chocolate artisan Michael Barnes.
Barnes was recruited out of Norco High School in California by then-offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto. He played both right and left guard at Arizona State from 1994-1998 and was a member of the team that made it to the 1997 Rose Bowl. Barnes knew immediately that the 1996 squad would be special.
"It all started at Camp Tontozona, you could tell right away everyone was on the same page and more focused than previous season," Barnes said. "Don't get me wrong, we still found time to have fun but the main focus was winning the Pac 10 and going to the Rose Bowl for the National Championship."
A big reason for ASU's success in 1996 was the atmosphere head coach Bruce Snyder created among the players.
"It was always one at a time," Barnes said. "Coach Snyder and his assistant coaches never prepared or looked past an opponent on our schedule. We prepared to win, not just play."
Snyder's coaching style set the tone for Barnes and his teammates, including junior linebacker Pat Tillman. Like many who played with him, Barnes remembers Tillman as a humble man who was always easygoing. Barnes's favorite memory of Tillman occurred after a game between the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals. Barnes and a former ASU teammate, Glen Gable, walked to the locker room, hoping to talk with Tillman after his interviews with the media had concluded.
"Pat looked over and saw us and just walked away from an interview with three different news stations," Barnes said. "He came over to the fence, told the security guard to open the gate and gave me a big hug...Pat never saw himself a celebrity, he just wanted to be Pat...#42."
Despite a dream season that included a 56-14 victory over UofA at the end of the season, the Sun Devils eventually lost the Rose Bowl 20-17 on a last-minute scoring drive.
"The loss to Ohio State was tough," Barnes said. "It's still difficult to talk about. Everyone played their hearts out. The win was ours, we just ran out of time. Our coaches immediately started talking about preparing for the next season, so that's where the focus turned."
After graduating, Barnes took a number of corporate jobs before pursuing the culinary arts. Though he began with the intention of working as a restaurant owner and spent time under Chef Mark Tarbell at Tarbell's in Phoenix, his time at Scottsdale Culinary Institute led him down a different path.
"I studied under Chef Tracy DeWitt who helped me understand the basics of chocolate production," Barnes said. "She is one of the most talented chefs I had the pleasure of working with and I learned a great deal studying her techniques."
Barnes ended up opening his own company, Pieces of Chocolate, which is headquartered in the Bay Area in California. Another San Francisco based artisan, Joseph Schmidt, inspired his technique.
"I thought it would be the best place to master my own techniques and it's a wonderful place to live," Barnes said. "Unlike Arizona, the seasons here actually change."
Pieces of Chocolate takes a unique approach to chocolate making. Unlike many companies, where chocolate comes in predetermined shapes and sizes, Pieces of Chocolate allows for customization of its orders. Barnes was unhappy with the notion that companies could only use whatever molds the industry produced. He took it upon himself to change that trend and he now creates all of the chocolate molds himself, from concept to the actual plastic mold. Barnes studied woodcarving for over five years before finally perfecting his technique.
"It took a while to figure out, but now I can create anything into chocolate," Barnes said. "We create the designs that can't be found in the industry, anything you can imagine."
Over the years, Barnes has received countless requests for custom chocolate, ranging from the mundane to over-the-top ideas. He was contacted by Lucasfilm for the recent release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3-D, who asked him to produce 3-D version of one of the movie's characters, Darth Maul.
"That's one of the toughest molds I had to create, but I would have to say the strangest chocolates I was asked to make was from a neurologist who wanted a giant chocolate brain," Barnes said. "Like I said, anything goes when you can create custom chocolate."
Though football and chocolate don't often intersect, Barnes is still applying what he learned as a Sun Devil to his current business. Barnes and his best friend and eventual college teammate Troy Davis made a pact in high school to go undefeated in high school and eventually make it to the Rose Bowl. Even now, over 15 years late, Barnes still looks back on the pact and knows that success is always an option.
"It just showed me that when you set your mind to achieve a goal there is absolutely nothing that can stop you," Barnes said. "Many people said it was a waste of time and a fruitless venture, but I have never been happier with my passion and career."