I remember the first time I read Roald Dahl’s story “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I was a young middle schooler enamored with the idea of some mystical building where confectionary creations are brought into existence by some wildly strange man in a top hat. I’m not going to lie to you – I was jealous of Charlie.
Excuse me, Mr. Wonka? Yes, I would like a golden ticket please. And if I can’t have that, then I’ll just have a few Scrum-diddly-upmtious Wonka bars, thank you.
Yes, I am well aware that there is no actual place where small orange men are monitoring a chocolate waterfall (although I do wish there was). However, the experience that I had was most definitely just as good.
I was lucky enough to get the inside scoop of chocolate-making from a chocolatier herself, Stephanie Vazquez (pictured above) of 2 Chicks with Chocolate in Middletown, New Jersey. 2 Chicks was opened in 2009 by owner Elyssia Wassung. They now have four stores around the Garden State (their Middletown branch having been open for about a year and a half) and a blossoming online sales branch.
Walking into the heavenly-smelling store, Stephanie allowed me into the kitchen for an interview and a bon bon tasting session as I watched her mix and pour chocolate with enviable finesse. It was an incredible experience, and one that I am happy to share with all of you.
2 Chicks’ Middletown store has a quaint, tidy front. Painted bon bons sit proudly on slate slabs behind glass on the counter as if saying, “Hey, I’m the sexiest chocolate you’ll ever see.” To the side, an array of delicious confections are on display. 2 Chicks has everything from house-made Jameson Whiskey Caramel Sauce to chocolate-dipped bacon. Stephanie greets me with a warm smile and inviting wave, leading me into the place where all the magic takes place.
We passed by shelves of empty chocolate cravats in geometric shapes, waiting to fulfill their purpose of cradling Stephanie’s chocolate recipes. They rested across from the strangest pantry shelves I have ever seen. At the top was a fully stocked, wide range mini bar – I’m talking everything from Everclear to Merlot. Below that are Tupperware containers of clearly labeled spices and salts, siracha potato chips, gluten-free pretzel sticks, peanut butter Poptarts and bags of Domino sugar big enough to put Costco to shame. All the way in the back is Stephanie’s large wooden work table and a Selmi machine (which I will explain later).
She immediately encourages me to dip plastic spoons into some of her ganache flavors and I comply without hesitation. Her Spice Ganache is laden with nutmeg and cinnamon, the Cranberry is surprisingly tart, and the Guinness flavor has an enticing depth that tingles the tastebuds.
I place myself far away from the ganaches, knowing that I would certainly eat every spoonful available if left to it, and watch as Stephanie begins taking filled trays of chocolate molds out of the freezer.
Christina: So, Steph, what sort of education did you have before working at 2 Chicks?
Stephanie: I’m born and raised right here in Monmouth County, New Jersey. So, I attended The Culinary Education Center of Brookdale Community College in Asbury Park, NJ [A/N: Where Bruce Springsteen hails from] where I got my degree in culinary arts and minored and got my certificate in Pastry making.
C: Nice to see you’re keeping things local. Is that how you joined up with 2 Chicks?
S: To be honest, I sort of fell into it and never wanted to leave (laughs). I never knew that being a chocolatier was a real job, so I never had any intentions of being one. I was working at a bakery and wasn’t getting the experience that I wanted. A friend of mine worked here at 2 Chicks and said they were looking to hire. I got here and just loved it. I started working with Master Chocolatier Patrick Coston [A/N: of Food Network Challenge fame] and just loved working with chocolate.
C: What was it about working with chocolate that was different?
S: For me, it’s the fact that chocolate can be such a canvas – in terms of flavor, yes, but even more in terms of artistry. I can be a true artist and design the most beautiful colors for my chocolates. I find the painting aspect to be so much fun.
C: So, take me through a typical day for you. What’s the 9-5 life of a chocolatier really like?
S: Well, it all depends on what we need at the time. Right now, it’s ALL about bon bons.
C: I always hear about “bon bons,” but what exactly are they?
S: Simply put, a bon bon is a filled candy or chocolate. For us, it’s a filled chocolate and by far what we’re most known for. Our best flavors always fluctuate as well. We’ve got everything from Peanut Butter to Pumpkin to Siracha. The Siracha is probably my favorite thing. I love the balance of heat. People are really on this salty-sweet kick, so Salted Caramel is always huge.
C: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t on that kick as well…
S: (Laughs) At least you’re honest…let’s see. We start the bon bons by coloring our molds (she holds up one of the empty plastic trays). We use edible paints and try to keep the designs and colors consistent. But, since they’re done entirely by hand, every chocolate is unique. Then the molds get shelled.
C: And shelling is…?
S: It’s when you take a layer of chocolate and fill a mold just enough to coat it and set, making a pocket for the filling. What’s key here at 2 Chicks is having a very thin shell so you can appreciate the flavor of what’s within. Chocolate is a vessel and the flavor is its cargo. No one really shells anymore the way we do, especially by hand. Everyone’s about shell-less truffles or enrobed chocolates, which is when you just sort of pour the chocolate over the confection. Not to mention, we make everything in house from shell to filling. If it’s in the chocolate, I’ve touched it (laughs).
C: That’s incredible, so much work for one little chocolate. So what follows the shelling?
S: After the molds are shelled, they’re filled with whatever the recipe calls for (ganache, caramel, etc.) and put back in the freezer to set so it’s not entirely liquid. After that, we take them out of the freezer and run the whole tray under the Selmi stream of chocolate to keep everything tempered properly and warmed to just the right temperature, which varies depending on the chocolate you’re using. Then the chocolate finishes setting and we bang them out of the molds onto the trays and voila! You have bon bons.
C: I hear about tempering anytime someone brings up chocolate-making. Can you explain what it is and why it’s so important?
S: Tempering is vital to making good chocolate. (A/N: She walks to the tray-holding room and pulls out what looks like tie-dyed brown chocolate). The process is what gives it proper shine and texture. Without it you have this big old mess, which is not what you want to see on the shelf. The Selmi here is our tempering machine. It heats the chocolate to 115°F to neutralize the sugar crystals and then brings it back to whatever temperature you need. It also keeps it constantly spinning and moving. I could do it by hand….but that would take a lot of bowls, a lot of space and a whole lot of time (laughs).
C: So are bon bons your favorite thing to make?
S: Honestly, my favorite things to make are caramels. In the summer, we do this Strawberry Caramel that is to die for. We also have a delicious Lemongrass Flavor. It’s something not everyone can do. It really is an art. We don’s use a thermometer for our caramels and that’s tough to do right, so it’s really something I take pride in knowing how to do.
C: Alright Steph, you’ve been so fantastic. I just have one more question. What surprised you about chocolate-making and what advice would you give aspiring chocolatiers?
S: (Pauses) I’d want them to know….that making chocolate takes patience. It took me a long time to understand and appreciate that and, though it surprised me, I’m a better chocolatier because of it. The more you try and rush what you create, the more work you need to put into it and the less you appreciate what you’re doing. And, ultimately find the right person you want to learn from and work. It’s hard, but determination will get you to the place you want, and should, be.
C: Thank you so much Stephanie, this has been incredible.
S: Of course! Now, let’s go try some of that Salted-Caramel…
C: If you insist…