Chocolate makers follow their passion to create artisan businesses

9 Mar

Delicious Chocolate TrufflesAcross the Bay Area, artisan chocolate-making companies are putting the finishing touches on their works of edible art, preparing to bring their confections to the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon at Fort Mason on Sunday.

Among the exhibitors are Nicole Lee of Nicole Lee Fine Chocolates in Pleasanton, who sells handmade traditional French/Belgian-style chocolates from her e-boutique.

Lee formerly worked in corporate finance, but when her second son finished college, she embarked on her dream of learning French cooking and pastry-making.

Raised in Vietnam, she had received a French education. “I went to Paris at 25, and sampled chocolates from the shops on every corner. I was fascinated by the way they were made — they were so beautiful, and both the art and the craft interested me,” she said.

Decades later, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, then studied pastry at the Ecole Lenotre, and went to Belgium to study with Barry Callebaut and other Chocolate Academy craftsmen.

Lee brought her learning and passion for fine handmade chocolates back to Pleasanton. She also brought gourmet macarons, the small round filled cookies, to the East Bay. (She notes that we are currently in a macaron food trend.)

“It is one of the most challenging cookies — it has only five ingredients, but it involves a great deal of technique. If you overmix the batter, it’s gone. If you undermix, it doesn’t come out right,” she said.

Lee says the fashion in fine chocolates these days is combined flavors that are interesting and exotic. “We are now more into spices, hot peppers and herbs. Customers are also looking for chocolates that are vegan, organic, or nondairy.”

Her own current favorite is basil, because the mixture of sweet and savory flavors is not too strong, but provides a wonderful lingering aftertaste to the chocolate. Another recent hit is Crème Brulee.

“I try not to make them too complex, i.e., blending two flavors, not more. It can be too confusing to the palate. The French make chocolate very simply, very straightforwardly.”

Lee’s orders keep her and her tiny staff, often including husband Robert, constantly busy in their commercial kitchen in Oakland. They ship around the globe despite no advertising. She proudly notes that French customers order macarons from her in Pleasanton.

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Clarine Hardesty, of Lafayette, owner and pastry chef of Clarine’s Florentines, that has its commercial kitchen on Gilman Street in Berkeley, will also exhibit at the Salon.

Her elegant European-style cookies are made of sliced almonds — held together with a mixture of butter, sugar, honey and cream — with a bittersweet Guittard chocolate base. The small business was inspired by her love of food, and warm memories of baking for holidays with her Indonesian mother and her grandmother, who had owned a bakery. “For us, holiday gatherings of family and friends could be 80 people.”

Everyone loves the Florentines, made from a family recipe. “When guests tasted them, they often asked where they could buy them.” And that idea stayed with Hardesty.

After graduating from UC Davis and getting her master’s at Dominican University, Hardesty was a second-grade teacher in San Francisco for several years. She later moved to Lafayette with her husband.

Her dream of opening a bakery came true in 2007, when she learned that she could rent the kitchen of the former Toot Sweets bakery in Lafayette after hours. She got help from family and friends to create her Florentines, paying some with cookies.

With advice from her dad, a manufacturer, she learned more about running a small business. Her products got a start on the market at Diablo Foods in Lafayette. Demonstrating her product directly with customers, she got great feedback. She kept growth small and manageable, staying focused on the product.

Now, Hardesty runs a commercial kitchen in Berkeley that she also rents out to other bakers, who make everything from wedding cakes to butterhorns.

Clarine’s Florentines are available at gourmet shops around the Bay Area.

Source and Photo: Mercury News

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