Veteran chocolatier Richard Donnelly has been making chocolates by hand in his Santa Cruz shop since 1988. He studied confectionery in Switzerland and in France, including a stint with Robert Linxe, founder of La Maison du Chocolat. "Back when I started out, you could find good European chocolate. There was good stuff going to hotels and restaurants in San Francisco," Donnelly says. "And there were the Cocolat stores. Otherwise, there wasn't all that much when I opened."
Michael Recchiuti and his wife, Jacky, started Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco in 1997. A box of Recchiuti's confections might include a small, hand-cut square of thick, extra-bitter ganache, infused with tarragon, topped with a sliver of candied grapefruit peel, and enrobed in a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate.
These aren't the kinds of chocolates that many Californians grew up with. See's Candies started in Los Angeles in 1921, and their sticky fondants and sweet butter creams have long had their place in the hearts of many, but they're the confections of a different era.
Bay Area chocolatiers have come a long way even since Joseph Schmidt set up shop in 1983 in San Francisco and popularized the "American truffle," big, egg-shaped chocolates differentiated from more traditional confections by their bold, bright designs. (Hershey also has bought Joseph Schmidt.)
Jean-Marc and Casimira Gorce started XOX Truffles, also in San Francisco, in 1998. They were "scared that people wouldn't like them. We thought people would expect them to be perfectly round," Casimira Gorce says. Their truffles, unlike Schmidt's perfectly formed chocolates, look like the actual truffles that come from the earth. They're lumpy, and dusty with cocoa powder.
Other chocolatiers have emerged recently. Chuck Siegel launched Bay Area-based Charles Chocolates 16 months ago. Michael Mischer opened Michael Mischer Chocolates in Oakland in 2004.
Chocolatier Tracy Wood Anderson, and her husband, John Anderson, retired from the wine business and decided to make chocolates, opening Woodhouse Chocolate in St. Helena, Calif., in 2004. "People are just as fascinated with chocolate as they are about wine," John Anderson says. "People in Napa know their wine, and now they're getting into chocolate."
Woodhouse is distinctive for its molded Belgian-style chocolates with lighter, fresh-cream fillings when many other chocolatiers prefer using ganache. Molded chocolates, recognizable by their intricate shapes and the patterns impressed in them, generally are more technically demanding to make than enrobed bonbons, which are dipped in melted chocolate. Woodhouse may be reintroducing an appreciation for molded chocolates with creamy whipped centers (you can't enrobe a "fresh cream" because it would just disintegrate). As tastes shifted toward darker chocolates, these bonbons had fallen out of favor because their softer texture often demands use of lighter chocolates. It makes sense that ganache has been the filling of choice because it often requires a darker chocolate, with more cocoa content, and many connoisseurs still scoff at milk chocolate.
"As you get into higher-end chocolate, people make this assumption that because dark has the strongest flavor, it's therefore the best," Anderson says. "We don't think that."
But ganache is still the standard by which many chocolatiers are measured — and L.A. chocolatiers are measuring up.
Smoothing the way
MICHAEL BROCK stands at a work table over a bowl of melted chocolate at Boule in West Hollywood. Brock, who worked for Daniel Boulud and for Payard in New York, is the sous pastry chef currently overseeing patisserie and chocolates at owner Michelle Myers' 1-year-old shop. He tempers the heated chocolate, cooling it with chunks of "seed chocolate." When hardened, the chocolate should be smooth and without streaks.
A lump of ganache is rolled into a ball and dipped by hand into the tempered chocolate. Then it's rolled in cocoa, allowed to set, and the excess cocoa powder sifted from the truffle. "Nobody wants to inhale a huge puff of cocoa," Brock says.
Brock and chocolatier Katy Monti estimate that they produce from 200 or 250 chocolates a day to as many as 800 a day in a busy season. That's a tiny amount compared with an operation like See's Candies, now based in South San Francisco, which makes as much as 175,000 pounds in a day. But making chocolates by hand — even the enrobed chocolates and truffles favored by L.A. chocolatiers — is extremely labor intensive.
When Kristy Choo opened Jin Patisserie in 2003, she says she cut all the ganache for her square chocolates with a knife, instead of a guitar, a device with stainless steel wires used to cut slabs of ganache into uniform pieces. "We were just starting, and I didn't want to spend a lot on equipment. I did it that way for almost a year."
At Jin, squares of ganache are dipped by hand. Decorations made from cocoa butter might be hand-painted or acetate transfers carefully affixed. Choo, from Singapore, uses Asian flavors in her ganaches: chrysanthemum, lemongrass, kalamansi sour lime, pandan — a leaf from the screw pine tree.
Other Southern Californians are pushing boundaries with their flavors, more so than their northern counterparts, for better or worse.