Monday, February 11, 2008

The Art of Chocolate: A Conversation with Christopher Elbow

This Thursday is Valentine’s Day so chocolate is probably on the minds of a lot of you out there. So I thought it’ll be fun to feature one of the newest premium artisanal chocolate makers in town, Christopher Elbow Chocolates, which opened just last week at the corner of Gough and Hayes in San Francisco’s emerging food destination/neighborhood.

Mixed in with the fine restaurants, Italian shoe stores and organic coffee in the adjacent alley, Christopher Elbow offers ultra-premium chocolates that are hand-made and decorated with designs that look like something hanging in a modern art gallery.

Christopher, a boyish-looking 34-year-old trained chef who worked at restaurants in Las Vegas before breaking out into his own chocolate business, is from Kansas City, Missouri, which he still calls home. He opened his flagship store in his hometown last year and then decided to branch out to San Francisco—already recognized nationally as a Mecca for fine chocolate makers with names like
Scharffen Berger, Michael Recchiuti and Chuck Siegel of Charles Chocolates.

Christopher was in town last week to open up the store, and after the dust settled a bit, I sat down with him at his new store to chat about the chocolate scene, the vibe of his elegantly designed space and the art of chocolate making.

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Chef Ben: You graduated from culinary school and worked at various restaurants before going into the chocolate business. Were you primarily a pastry chef or were you also working on the savory side?

Christopher Elbow: Yes, I started doing savory food and then got interested in the desserts and started gravitating towards the pastry side. For about five or six years I was doing just pastry. And during that time working with chocolate the interest just kept growing on the chocolate side. I just kept getting more excited about chocolate and that was like, all right, that’s what I want to do. So then I focused on it.

CB: What was it about chocolate that got you excited when you were a pastry chef? I mean, a lot of people expect to see chocolate on a restaurant’s menu but it’s mostly the obligatory chocolate cake. That doesn’t seem very creative.

CE: I did a lot of the chocolate desserts but at that time there was a lot of great chocolates that were becoming available to the public, from small producers from different parts of the world. So it was kind of an epiphany like wow, there was so much about chocolate that I needed to learn.

When I learned how to make the actual bonbons and the truffles and doing the paintings, I immediately realized this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to pursue this more full time.

CB: When you started making the bonbons, what were you trying to do to make it stand out and different from the others?

CE: The number one thing is the painting. We actually use color cocoa butter. We hand-decorate and paint all the chocolates that we have in here. After I kind of learned that, I felt that I needed to go back and learn the really traditional way a French bonbon would be made, or a Belgian-style bonbon. So I then kind of dropped that and went back and got as many books as I could, talked to as many people as I could, and just practiced a lot to try to make sure we were making—technically—a really good, well-made chocolate with the best ingredients we could find.

The chocolates, they look beautiful but I wanted them to taste better than they look. So when you take away the color, you’re still left with an exceptional piece of chocolate.

CB: Your designs really do look exceptional. Is that a reflection of an art background or a painter inside wanting to come out?

CE: Not really.

CB: So you never took any art classes or dreamed of being a painter?

CE: No, I’ve never really taken any art classes. I think I took maybe one in high school. That’s been the fun part, just developing some of the designs and the painting techniques, and the different ways to decorate them. That’s been really fun.

CB: Let’s talk about how this store came about. I know you opened your first store in Kansas City.

CE: Yes, that’s where I’m from. So that’s where we’re making everything. We opened kind of a store like this with the hot chocolate lounge. It’s been really well received by the city.

Note: We actually did the interview in the side area of the store that looks and feels like a lounge, with glowing, translucent white end tables lining a chocolate leather banquet with contrasting white armrests. The piped in music and magazine rack on the side made the area feel like the lobby of a boutique hotel.

CE: It’s been about two years since we started doing Web sales. It seemed like so many of our customers ordering up on the Web site were from the Bay Area and from California. And we would get emails about “Are you opening up a store here? When are you opening up a store here?”

So I actually took my first trip here two years ago. I’d never been here.

CB: So you’ve never actually experienced San Francisco before?

CE: Noooo, and I was like this is the greatest city I’ve ever been. The weather’s great for chocolate. You know, it’s not really hot, pretty temperate. And it’s a great food city and I said if—and I didn’t have any plans at that time to expand—but if we did, this is where we would be coming.

CB: So when you decided to come here, how did you end up in Hayes Valley?

CE: I kind of felt like this neighborhood was very similar to where we’re at in Kansas City. We’re in an area called the Crossroads Arts District—lots of art galleries and eclectic shops and independent stores. There’s not a whole lot of chains and corporate restaurants. And that’s really what I kind of really liked about this area. It kind of had a true neighborhood feel. We never sought a touristy area or touristy part of any city. We like to become part of the neighborhood and kind of blend in.

CB: What did you think about coming to San Francisco, which already has some pretty well known premium chocolatiers like Michael Recchiuti and Charles Chocolates? What do feel about going up against them?

CE: We do such a different product, I feel. … I think as far as the competition, it seems to me to be a fairly big city where there’s lots of room for several different styles of chocolate. The great thing to me about chocolate is I can make the same piece, you know, a raspberry chocolate and it’s going to taste totally different at the next chocolate shop. … I’ve got great respect for all of them. Actually, Michael Recchiuti, he kind of started this whole chocolate revolution a long time ago so he’s always been a huge idol to me.

CB: Given the environment for premium chocolates in San Francisco and the customer-base here, do you feel there are higher expectations for you being the new kid coming in?

CE: Yeah, but I feel really, really good about the product that we have. We’ve gotten several accolades on a national level so I knew we had a product that we could come into a high-level city and establish ourselves and be accepted. We’ve had lots of success in New York and Chicago and some of the other hot chocolate places in the world. We thought we had a premium brand that matches well with what Charles (Siegel) and Michael Recchiuti are doing.

CB: Tell me more about your chocolates. Most people in the Bay Area are sensitive to sourcing and the sustainability of a product. I’m curious how you’re emphasizing hand-made chocolates but you’re still based in Kansas City?

CE: Our mantra is small-batch production. That’s when you can control quality the best. We use very little machinery, basically just machines to melt the chocolate. We mold everything by hand, paint everything by hand. We source out of Kansas City as many local ingredients there as possible. We use local dairy providers for our cream and butter. We don’t use any artificial flavorings, any artificial extracts or artificial preservatives. So it’s (for example) fresh mint leaves. And if we can’t get fresh mint leaves, then we just don’t do that flavor. We don’t buy them from somewhere else. So it almost follows a seasonality to some of our flavor lines.

The only difference is now we have to make them every week and ship them out here (via FedEx).

CB: So you don’t have any production at your San Francisco store?

CE: No. I started to look and think that’s the route I was going to go, to do production out here. But after several months of doing research and due diligence, it really needs to be where I am at—where the chocolate’s being made. I’d feel better if I’m in the production facility all the time, making sure the quality stays where it needs to be.

CB: So you’re still really involved in the actual chocolate making?

CE: Yeah, I still make it every day.

CB: How much time can you spend in the kitchen making chocolate?

CE: We work, especially during the holidays, we work seven days a week; 12-to-15 hour days are common. Also during the slower times of the year and not the holidays we’re still doing productions six days a week.

Our goal is to send chocolates out twice a week here. Nothing will be in here that will be 3- or 4-days-old. Since we don’t use preservatives, the shelf life is pretty short. So we’re going to watch that really well.

CB: In terms of the cocoa that you use, your Web site mentions Venezuelan cocoa a lot. What are your primary sources?

CE: Venezuela is the primary region. They grow most of the world’s best variety of the cocoa bean. So they’ve got a good tradition of having really great, high-quality chocolate. But we also use other small producers. There’s smaller companies that are coming out now—artisan chocolate makers, and they’re called bean-to-bar—that are working directly with the farmers in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador. And they’re working directly with the farmers on better ways to grow, to ferment, to dry the beans, and they’re taking those and working on the optimal way to roast the chocolate and pulling that really unbelievable flavor.

A kind of a side benefit of that as well, since they’re working directly with the farmers, the farmers are benefiting a lot from this because they’re getting premium quality prices for the beans and they’re growing better products. Their own practices are getting better. So I think it’s becoming a better industry all around because of that.

CB: What would you say is your signature chocolate?

CE: We have about 30 flavors of chocolate out on the counter, and the things that I think are great for us, we have four or five right now that are single-origin dark chocolates. They come from various parts of the world, and they all have completely different taste profiles. They’re all dark chocolates but one taste so different from the other. So far in just the last couple of days that seems to have piqued the most interests for people here. They’ve been really interested in trying the different ones and learning about the different flavor profiles.

CB: Do you still spend a lot of time designing the artwork that goes on the chocolates or is it like a template?

CE: No, we create new flavors every two to three months. … Most of the time the flavor comes first, the design comes second. So we’ll create the flavor or the concept of the flavor and then decide what form it will be best in, whether it be a square or rolled piece or molded piece. And then we’ll decide how we want to decorate it. So the decoration, it doesn’t always indicate really what the flavoring is, but a lot of times it does. Like the spicy one has a lava design around it; the raspberry one is painted red. Sometimes the design is dictated by the flavor, sometimes it’s totally abstract. Really, it’s just kind of our freedom. We can decorate and come up with any design we can.

CB: Do you hand paint each one?

CE: Some of them we hand paint, a lot of them we use an air brush and we spray them. The other flat pieces we actually create a silk screen with cocoa butter that’s sort of a transfer sheet. So when the chocolate’s wet we put the transfer sheet down. After that sets, we pull it up and it leaves the design behind.

This is my favorite part of the interview. Chris goes to get some samples of his chocolates to better explain the design process. He brings out a tray with a mix of bonbons and truffles, all beautifully decorated. The square patterned pieces were made with the silk-screen appliqué he talked about, and one molded chocolate piece had splashes of white, very much in the unstructured form of Jackson Pollack.

Chris explains that he follows a traditional French style in making a ganache that’s enclosed in a really thin layer of chocolate. The molded chocolates have a thicker casing, which allows him to fill it with softer ganaches or caramels. The chocolates are light and creamy, and the tastes range from very subtle blends to rich, intense dark chocolate ganache. One particular chocolate was complex with a Persian-inspired mix of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and a bit of saffron and orange-blossom water. Another style of chocolates had layered flavors, like a thin layer of raspberry pate de fruit topped by a raspberry-infused ganache. The layering technique made the fruit flavor even more intense.

CB: Do you find that you’re still learning about chocolate making?

CE: I learn something every day. That’s one aspect of this business I love. I don’t think I’ll stop learning up until I’m retired from the business. It’s really fun.

CB: I notice your chocolate is light in body. Is that what you intended, to have a light, almost mousse-like texture to your chocolates?

CE: Not really. We kind of make them … not real dense. We like the real soft ganache. Part of that too is that they’re fresh. They’ll get more firm and dense over time. The fresher they are you should see a nice creaminess to them. I’m not a big fan of the dense, dry ganaches, so we use a lot of fresh cream, a lot of fresh butter to help make them really soft. That shortens the shelf life so we get a trade-off that way.

CB: I’m curious about the store. I remember this used to be a huge home accessories store, but it looks like you’ve taken up some of the space for the back.

CE: We took a lot of room in the back because we have a big climate-controlled storage room. As soon as we get the chocolates in, we keep them stored at 60 degrees. But then all of the packaging and all of that stuff takes up so much room. I looked at some smaller places but then I would have had to get a storage facility to store all of that in. This is probably a little bigger than what we were looking for, but it’s actually been really nice to have everything we need to work here and making the process as easiest as possible.

CB: What was it like getting the store ready to open?

CE: It was tough.

CB: Yeah, I remember seeing the signs awhile back.

CE: The ones that said “opening in fall”? (laughs)

CB: So you initially were trying to open before the holidays?

CE: We were trying to open initially maybe the 1st of December, that was the first date we had in mind. We had a couple of design issues during construction that needed to be resolved so that took some time.

… Architecture and design is like a really close second hobby of mind so having a nice esthetic to enjoy the product in is really important.

CB: So what’s the vibe you want for your store?

CE: You know, loungey, modern feel. Very clean lines, not very cluttered. We think it fits our product, kind of a modern chocolate. A place where people can relax and sit, enjoy the music, read the paper and enjoy drinking chocolate.

Christopher Elbow offers 14 different drinking chocolates. He doesn’t call them hot chocolates or hot cocoa because he feels his drinks are more chocolate drinks, made not from powder but from chocolate ground into a mix. They’re sent from his Kansas City headquarters and fresh, local ingredients are added to them. Flavors include raspberry, five-spice, coconut curry, ginger and espresso.

CB: Do you have plans for more stores?

CE: This is probably it. (laughs)

CB: This took a lot out of you, huh?

CE: Yeah. I love the design and I wish I could open up more stores. But we’re not looking to be a huge chocolate company. Due to the nature of what we do, the time it takes to hand-decorate and paint, our production definitely has a ceiling. Since the shelf life is so short, we can’t stock up. We have to make them as soon as we get them out the door. So we’ll never really be a big company, and I’m totally cool with that. We never had plans to do that. I guess we’ll settle into what our production level is and as soon as we reach the point to where we would have to alter recipes or incorporate large equipment, we’ll stop and not go there.

Maybe we’ll do one more store like in New York and we can handle that. And if that’s as far as we can go, then I’m totally happy with that.

CB: Your store definitely has a very finished look to it, even though I know you said you were scrambling at the last-minute to get everything done for the opening. But is that a part of your personality, looking at every detail?

CE: This is all about the details. Even the little things to me are all about the details. You know, like the correct angle of the lighting. I notice things like that when I go into other places. I guess I’m a little anal retentive or obsessive-compulsive over details like that. Those are the nice things that have been said about me. (laughs)

CB: That’s probably good for the type of product you’re working with.

CE: A lot of what we do is about aesthetics. And I think having a great store and having pride in what it looks like is really important.

Chris returned to Kansas City on Saturday and planned to be in his production facility every day pumping out more hand-made chocolates for Valentine’s day. He plans to travel to San Francisco about twice a month in the beginning to make sure everything remains on track, checking every detail and every piece of chocolate featured at his store. Down the road he hopes to hosts tastings at his store.

Along with the truffles and bonbons, Christopher Elbow also offers a line of candy bars, chocolate-covered nuts and drinking chocolate in the can. The price tag may shock some people, but I found it on par with other premium chocolates.

Many thanks to Chris for taking the time from his hectic week in the midst of opening a store to sit down and chat with me. This Midwesterner with his quiet charm and casual appearance has brought a new level of sophistication to the Bay Area’s chocolate scene.

Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates, 401 Hayes St. (at Gough), San Francisco. PH: 415.355.1105. Open Mon.–Thu., 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; and Sun., noon–6 p.m. Web site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love your interviews. I've put this place on my "must try" list and sent the url to several friends who live in SF to check the place out. Anyplace with good drinking chocolate has to be high on my list.