Photographs by Chugrad McAndrews
Since the first cacao plant arose on the eastern slope of the Andes around 1,000 BC, chocolate has been one of the world’s most seductive pleasures—even addictions—as the word chocoholic or, as the French say, choco-dépendant implies. Today, chocoholism is spreading more rapidly than ever but is taking a new turn, back to its darker roots. After decades of gorging on overly sweetened, additive-laden, processed chocolate, people are rediscovering the deeper, darker flavor and richness of pure chocolate. The confection of the gods is evolving into something even more divine. Chocolate is becoming more intense and robust, and also far more subtle and varied. It has gone gourmet, taking the path of other Bay Area intoxicants—coffee and wine—evidenced by the search into origins, the exploration of different varieties, and the passion for local, organic, and exotic ingredients. The tasting vocabulary and concepts such as terroir that go along with the connoisseurship of wine have moved with little alteration into the world of chocolate.Much of the chocolate revolution has occurred right here in the East Bay, dating back several decades. And today that revolution is in full bloom, transforming the way the entire industry thinks about chocolate, and nudging even behemoths like Hershey’s and Mars to create extra dark bars and dark chocolate M&Ms.From Berkeley to San Ramon, a new generation of East Bay artisans is carrying on the quest for the ultimate chocolate bar and the most wondrous chocolate delicacies.
So what makes the East Bay such a fertile ground for creativity in making chocolate?
Historically, the cool marine climate and the presence of Oakland’s international port have played a role. The primary catalysts, however, have been our talented chocolate artisans. In the beginning there was Alice. Not that Alice, but Alice Medrich, another denizen of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Variously described as the “first lady of chocolate” or the “queen of chocolate,” Medrich started making French-inspired truffles when still a master’s student at UC Berkeley. In 1976, while Alice Waters was launching her revolution in American cuisine, Medrich opened a shop down the street from Chez Panisse called Cocolat, where she sold her own creations. She soon began filling orders from all over the country. In many ways, she is responsible for sparking today’s new wave of chocolate.
“The West Coast influences food taste in every single area,” says Medrich, sitting at the marble-topped island in her Berkeley kitchen. “Out here there’s such an abundance of exquisite experiences. We’re the ‘coast of dreams,’ the edge of the American universe. It’s an inspirational part of the country. Lots of people feel empowered to follow their passion, whether they’ve trained for it or not.”
Medrich learned her art not in culinary school but by constant experimentation. In 1990, she sold her share in what had become an all-devouring business and began publishing award-winning cookbooks—two have won James Beard Awards. In 2003, with Bittersweet, she created and modified recipes to suit the new dark chocolates, which include the designations “semisweet” and the more cacao-rich “bittersweet.” Medrich’s books helped kick-start the interest in dark chocolates. “John [Scharffenberger] and Robert [Steinberg] started this whole new wave,” Medrich says. “It may have happened anyway, but they speeded it up. Everybody looked and saw what they were doing. They raised the bar on price and quality.” Scharffenberger, tall, thin, and casual in a dark blue polo shirt, eats a ham and cheese sandwich in Scharffen Berger’s on-site Café Cacao as he tells his part of the story. “I’d been in food. I’d seen the same thing happen to beer, cheese, butter, bread, vegetables. It was chocolate’s turn.”
Scharffenberger’s career in the Bay Area food scene goes back to the early 1970s when he was studying agricultural geography at UC Berkeley. Later, in 1981, he started a successful winery in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley that made sparkling wines using French methods. He liked applying his knowledge of geography and climate, and exploring how they affect the flavor and characteristics of foods grown in a region. He also liked the challenge of perfecting his techniques to create a delicious product. After he sold Scharffenberger Cellars to French conglomerate Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1995, he looked for his next challenge.
Meanwhile, his future business partner, Robert Steinberg, a retired doctor and another oft-described perfectionist, had became fascinated by fine chocolate while traveling around Europe. Steinberg returned home with the idea of making chocolate in the same way that the famed Bernachons in Lyon produced it in their small thousand-square-foot factory. He renewed an old friendship with Scharffenberger and sold him on the idea of creating what they envisioned could be the chocolate-making equivalent of a garage winery.
Photographs by Chugrad McAndrews
After much experimentation in Steinberg’s kitchen, the two neophyte chocolate-makers imported a shipping container of beans from Venezuela, which they’d agreed would be the basis of their blend. In 1997, they introduced their first bars at the San Francisco farmers market—selling out in two hours. Soon, their Scharffen Berger company was recognized as having created a uniquely pure chocolate.
That same year, across the Bay in San Francisco, a pastry chef from Philadelphia named Michael Recchiuti founded a company with his wife, Jacky, that pushed the chocolate business into new territory. Through his innovations, Recchiuti transformed chocolate confections from overly sweet bonbons into intense taste experiences. He is a master at creating chocolates with sumptuous flavor and texture, sometimes in striking combinations—tarragon-infused ganache topped with a sliver of candied grapefruit, for instance—but his signature flavor is a deep, voluptuous burnt caramel.
Recchiuti Confections shares the second floor of a warehouse in SoMa with the studios of the San Francisco Art Institute. On a recent afternoon, the hall smelled of apples, which Recchiuti was marinating in key lime juice before coating them with extra-bittersweet chocolate. A drum kit sat next to a small leather couch. “My interest in music developed alongside my interest in cooking,” he says. First inspired by his grandmother’s baking, Recchiuti ascended through the ranks of pastry chefs in Philadelphia’s finest restaurants while jamming in area jazz spots and for a period attending the Curtis School of Music. “I have a tremendous tolerance for repetition,” Recchiuti says, a quality that serves him well in the unending refinement of his chocolate techniques and recipes. “I try to call out a certain flavor or flavor combination—custardy, fruit, molten chocolate cake.”
Admittedly, Recchiuti brought new, exquisite, and often exotic flavors to the Bay Area’s confectioners’ scene, yet the visual appeal of his confections was novel as well. Joseph Schmidt had become famous a generation earlier for creating amazingly large, intricate sculptures in chocolate, some of which are exhibited in the American Crafts Museum in New York City. If Schmidt is the Rodin of chocolate making, Recchiuti’s contemporary designs make him the Picasso.
These days, a new generation of East Bay chocolate masters is helping to change how chocolate is made and retailed. At her Cosmic Chocolate company in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, Walnut Creek resident Carly Baumann airbrushes her trademark chocolate bombs, each flavored with a different liqueur or spirit, with hot pink and metallic-tinted sugars. Over on Grand Avenue, Michael Mischer, a Swiss-trained pastry chef from northern Germany, has opened Michael Mischer Chocolates, which sells his exquisite filled chocolate confections made in a classic vein, using high-quality chocolate from Venezeula and Ecuador, and exotic ingredients like tamarind and Australian river salt. Mischer is known for his love of sculptural shapes. He does his chocolate molding, enrobing, and panning in the room behind his shop, where tall racks hold trays upon trays of molds. His innovative “chocolate barks” load dark and milk chocolate bars with novel combinations of fruits and nuts, including one pairing almonds and sun-dried tomatoes.
Penelope Finnie, a former chief creative officer at the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves, wanted to take the idea of boutique chocolates one step further. “I thought, what if you created something like a wine store but for chocolate?” she says, sitting at one of the rustic tables at Bittersweet, the Rockridge café she opened in January 2004 with three partners, including resident chocolate-maker Seneca Klassen.
Today, the shop sells chocolate bars made by more than 20 chocolatiers from around the world, as well as its own drink mixes and baked goods. The shop was an immediate success. Just 10 months after it opened, another Bittersweet was started in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. In September, Klassen set up a chocolate lab in the back room of the café and began making small batches of chocolate bars each week from 10 kilos of personally selected beans.
With its broad chocolate inventory, Bittersweet is on the cutting edge of new cacao trends. Among them is the Scharffen Berger–inspired shift to darker chocolate. “Even milk chocolate is getting darker and darker,” says Finnie. “Another trend is the single-origin chocolate, such as Valrhona’s Ampamakia from one plantation in Madagascar and Michel Cluizel’s Maralumi from New Guinea.” There’s also the “rustic” trend, manifested in such bars as the classic Sicilian Modicana chocolate made in the same way for 100 years by Casa Don Puglisi. (Other makers recognize the rustic trend only in their rumpled-looking, recycled packaging of a modern-day product in an attempt to link it to its agricultural origins.) Finnie also feeds the craze for unusual or exotic flavors with the Vosges Mo’ Bacon bar, made with applewood- smoked bacon in milk chocolate—although the best-seller at Bittersweet is a pure chocolate bar from Amano.
Emeryville is home to the East Bay’s newest chocolate factory—Charles Chocolates, operated by Chuck Siegel. After studying art history and photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Siegel moved to San Francisco in 1986 and taught himself candy making. In the late 1980s, at his first chocolate company, Attivo Confections in San Francisco, he produced gourmet versions of childhood confections like s’mores and caramel apples. He sold that business in 1995 and took a career detour into the financial and technology industries during the dot-com boom. But he missed making sweets and returned to the chocolate scene in 2004 with Charles Chocolates. His distinguishing contribution is the use of fresh, pure, simple ingredients like butter and cream, which can’t go into chocolates intended to have a 90-day shelf life.
The aroma inside his factory is rich and deep, without cloying sweetness or chemical odors. Patrons sip hot cocoa while viewing the chocolate-making process through a long window that looks into the factory. “We buy everything raw—all our nuts and fruits—and roast or cook them ourselves,” said Siegel at the opening of the factory’s café viewing area this past July. In addition to producing classic chocolates, Siegel has introduced edible chocolate boxes—dark chocolate for the base, white chocolate on top—and a collection of chocolates infused with black and green teas.
Working on a much smaller scale, Rob Smith, an Alamo resident who retired from a 22-year career with Nestle, bought longstanding chocolate company Grand Avenue Chocolates in Concord last July. He is reinvigorating its classic American confections—candy apples, chocolate popcorn, and pecan “chewies”—and going more cutting-edge with such delicacies as fleur de sel caramels.
Where will the craze for exploring chocolate’s infinite taste and aesthetic possibilities end? It shows no signs of slowing down in the East Bay, as companies expand their operations, more and more innovators get into the act, and the area’s most creative chocolate artisans scour the globe for new and unique cacao beans with which to work their artistry (so many that the Port of Oakland maintains a vast refrigerated chocolate storage facility).
At the same time, the East Bay is sharing with the rest of the world its culinary emphasis on care, precision, and innovation with chocolate making. “We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” says Bittersweet’s Finnie. Charles Chocolates’ Siegel proclaims, “Right now, I think we’re really at the beginning of a great chocolate renaissance.”
Bittersweet: the Chocolate Cafe, 5427 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 654-7159; 2123 Fillmore St., San Francisco, (415) 346-8715; www.bittersweetcafe.com.
Cosmic Chocolate, 5002-B Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (877) 612-2639,
Grand Avenue Chocolates, 1021 Detroit Ave., Concord, (925) 682-1900,
Joseph Schmidt Confections retail store, 3489 16th St., San Francisco, (800) 861-8682, www.josephschmidtconfections.com.
Michael Mischer Chocolates, 3352 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 986-1822,
Recchiuti Confections retail store, 1 Ferry Building, Shop 30, San Francisco, (415) 834-9494, www.recchiuticonfections.com.
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker,
914 Heinz Ave., Berkeley, (510) 981-4066,
Charles Chocolates, 6529 Hollis Street (between 65th and 66th Streets), Emeryville, (510) 652-4412, www.charleschocolates.com
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