October 6, 2008

In Memoriam, Robert Steinberg of Scharffen Berger ~ via Carl Castro

Death is real and comes without warning; this body will be a corpse.  
At that time, the Dharma will be my only help; I must practice it with exertion.

My good friend Robert Steinberg passed away on Wednesday, September 17, due to complications of a lymphoma with which he had been living for many years.

Although he had had recurrences in recent years, and had undergone chemotherapy and other treatments and procedures, his death was somewhat unexpected, and apparently the result of a sudden decline in general bodily health.  Robert, who was a doctor, had decided a few days before his death, while hospitalized, to forego further chemotherapy treatments.

Robert was a kind and generous friend, and an intelligent, engaging and accomplished person in the world.  

Robert was born in Boston and educated at Harvard.  He practiced medicine in California for many years, earlier with his own practice in Ukiah, a small town in Northern California, and later in San Francisco, where he became the Chair of Family Practice at California Pacific Medical Center but was also an early supporter of and volunteer at the San Francisco Free Clinic.  In between, Robert studied acting in New York.  
After being diagnosed with lymphoma, Robert retired from medicine, and devoted himself to one of his avocations, gourmet cooking.  He wanted to change his life, and became interested in artisanal chocolate making as a meaningful endeavor that would engage his interests and passions.

Robert soon partnered with John Scharffenberger of California “champagne” fame to found Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, the premier and trend-setting artisanal chocolate company. Their chocolate making began as small-scale experiments in Robert’s home, as he applied his intelligence and scientific background to learning the art and chemistry of chocolate-making.  This operation grew into a factory in South San Francisco, then into a larger facility in Berkeley.

Theirs was the first company founded in the U.S. to make chocolate “from bean to bar” since the 1950s.  Robert worked very closely with San Francisco’s culinary luminaries to perfect chocolates suitable for professional baking as well as for eating.  It is not an exaggeration to claim that the current artisanal movement in chocolate originated with Robert, and that its good high standards are due to his relentlessly challenging mind, with its formidable combination of scientific knowledge, intellectual curiosity, refined taste and rich appreciation of worldly qualities.

Via LA Times: Robert Steinberg, left, and John Scharffenberger of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, in a 1998 photo, pose with a melangeur, a machine whose granite wheels blend chocolate and sugar. Steinberg “changed chocolate from being seen as a mere sweet candy to having the status of a complex and interesting food. A new age of chocolate was started in this country with that company,” cookbook author Alice Medrich told The Times.

To share a personal anecdote with you:
Before Robert began making chocolate, I would fairly often bump into him at our favorite restaurants in San Francisco, many of whose owners Robert knew well.  One day, I walked to South Park Cafe for the last lunch serving of the day, and spied Robert sitting in the sun on the sidewalk in front.  He invited me to sit with him, and I asked him what he had been doing.  He told me that he and the owner of the cafe (Bob Voorhees) were planning to trip to France and Germany, to explore old-world chocolate making methods, and to consider returning with these to start a small-scale, gourmet chocolate-making company in San Francisco.  My first (or perhaps second) thought was that, with Robert and Bob touring France and Germany, there would be many fabulous dinners, perhaps a few crazy parties, and a big tax deduction – but no realchocolate-making company.  Robert’s vision and perseverance proved me wrong.  A few years later, he brought to my birthday party a big block of chocolate from one of the last pre-production runs of the new factory.  The cake for that party, a gilded architectural construction by celebrity rock-star baker Elizabeth Falkner, a friend and collaborater of Robert’s, had also been made with his chocolate.

Robert also had many connections with Buddhism.  He knew Jack Kornfield and had done meditation retreats in New Mexico.  He also had connections to the San Francisco Zen Center and the Hartford Street Zen Hospice, where I believe he had also volunteered.  Robert had also come to our Sakyong’s talk in San Francisco in 2006, and I was hoping to invite him to Compassionate Leadership events with The Sakyong, Queen Noor and Rabbi Kulla, which seemed perfectly designed for him.  Robert had many friends and connections in many circles – including Buddhist circles – and I never pressed him for information on these friends and connections, partly because I knew others sometimes did (and partly because we mostly just talked about a few very close mutual friends, if talking about friends).  Although he would not have identified himself as a Buddhist, and although his exposure to meditation didn’t quite blossom into a daily practice, I believe he had great appreciation and respect for Buddhism, and a definite leaning and curiosity toward it.
During our last meeting, before I left for the Sakyong Wangmo Empowerment in Halifax – another lunch on a sidewalk in front of an excellent restaurant – Robert (whose life did not seem to be in immediate danger then) asked me about the difference between the Buddhist and Western psychological views of mind and their implications for death.  His questions and comments were those of someone very engaged in discovering a deep, beneficial and human truth but also someone with a healthy scientific scepticism relying on both experience and reason over mere belief.  At the conclusion of that conversation, I told him that I would be glad to tell him whatever I knew about the bardo teachings, if he ever felt he wanted or needed them.  

The next lunch we were supposed to have, upon both our returns from East Coast duties and vacations, never happened.  While I was leaving messages about rendezvouz-ing at cafes and restaurants on an unchecked cellphone voicemail, he was rapidly declining in the hospital.

I was very grateful to be able to be with Robert both just before and just after he died.   He was not what would be called conscious before he died, but an hour and a half after, his heart center was very warm and there was a peaceful, almost blissful relaxed quality about him, despite there having earlier been hubbub and hovering as many friends came to pay their last respects.  I was able to spend about ten minutes alone with him, to try to connect, to practice and to try to fulfill my promise regarding the bardo teachings.  
(I have been present during the deaths of loved ones in recent years, but nothing (even perceptual familiarity) is preparation for seeing the body of a person about to die.  It can be a surreal experience, but powerfully invokes the most final of the Four Reminders (quoted above)).

Although Robert is most famous as a chocolate maker and in culinary circles in San Francisco, I remember him best as an exceptionally loyal, caring and helpful friend to our close mutual friends.  I also remember cases in which he unstintingly provided free medical advice to my friends who were only his acquaintances but who faced challenging medical situations without necessarily being able to afford institutional health care.  Especially, I remember one case, which happened to involve a beautiful, interesting and talented woman friend of mine who lived on the East Coast and who had also become a friend and occasional dining companion of his (Robert seemed to have the ability to magnetize a rather exceptional entourage of powerful dakini friends).  When she fell concerningly ill while on a visit to California, Robert dropped everything to evaluate her condition and to get her a prescription; this, while he was still running chocolate-making at Scharffen Berger.  

I feel grateful to have had in this life many friends who, while not explicitly, definitely or fully connected to the Dharma, are nonetheless examples of Shambhala warriorship in relating to the world and caring for others, and whose beings and lives are rich with wonderful, inspiring and meritorious qualities.  Robert was an exceptional one of those friends.

Please include Robert in your practice, and hold an aspiration for him to let go fully and to be completely enlightened in the bardo, or at least to have good transition and a favorable human birth in a situation through which he can meet the truth of Dharma.

There are now many places where you can read about Robert, some of which are noted below.   (You can actually learn about chocolate from a few of these, and why single-origin chocolates are bogus – a favorite expert opinion of Robert’s 😉 )

[If you would like to reply, please do so to my personal email, at [email protected]]

NYT obit:
(This is evidently no longer freely accessible…)

NPR obit with audio interview with John Scharffenberger:

Statement from John Scharffenberger:

Voracious food blog obit:

Dishing food blog obit:

Blog for and by Robert’s friends:

Some features about Robert, before his death:

Here is an audio clip of Robert talking about chocolate, founding the company, and chocolate tasting (…and mentioning his illness):

Here is a brief article (from his alma mater’s alumni magazine) with a photo:
It’s a bit more “smiley” a photo than I would prefer to use for a remembrance of Robert. 😉

This video story emphasizes how Robert changed his life after his diagnosis of lymphoma:

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