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Inspired stories about artisan wine and taste makers.
by L.M. Archer FWS, Bourgogne ML
Culinary Artisan Series
Love in the Time of Chocolate | The Sweet Life of an Artisan Chocolatiers
There’s a thin line between love and obsession.
Chocolate, like wine, ensnares many a heart, soul and palate.
For one artisan chocolatier, that passion flames to full-blown obsession.
Meet Karen Neugebauer, world-class chocolatier and the force behind Pacific Northwest’s Forté Artisan Chocolates.
r/T ™: Why chocolate? What sparked your interest?
KN: I kind of fell into the profession by accident. After getting hurt bad enough for me to have severe difficulty walking, I looked at the year-long rehabilitation time as an opportunity to learn how to cook. I wound up entering a baking and pastry program instead because my husband is an avid chocoholic. It was there that I made my first ganache and I was hooked for life!
r/T ™: Tell readers a little about Forté Artisan Chocolates, and what makes them unique among the other artisan chocolate makers in the greater Seattle area?
KN: We are a European-style chocolatier that believes that beauty and taste are equally important. We make everything by hand, including hand-tempering of all our chocolate. Many think that this is crazy especially since we go through several tons of chocolate each year and work with chocolates of all degree of difficulty, including some craft chocolate that have no additional cocoa butter added. I insist on staying with hand craftsmanship even as we expand because I want to control every step of the processes and have every kitchen employee embody the true definition of artisan. I strongly believe that when machines take over all or even just some of the process, you can quickly lose touch with the individual working nuances of each chocolate, and pretty soon, with the craft itself. True hand craftsmanship (not quantity) is the hallmark Forté. Our motto: To Celebrate Chocolate is to Celebrate Life!
r/T ™: Forté produces both savory and sweet chocolate bars. How did you come up with the idea to offer both to consumers? Any flavors consumers tend to favor of each? Any plans to expand the Forte flavor ‘palate.’
KN: I am inspired by good food and the desire to celebrate life! When creating each one of my chocolates, I try to capture the simple pleasures surrounding me. Sometimes it is listening to music like when creating the Forté bar line.
The Orange Jazz bar was created while listening to jazz (hence the name) and the Aztec Soul was inspired by the Tango. The chocolate and chili fight for attention, coming together and then separating again before the final heated dip.
Other times I get inspired by tasting something remarkable. The popular Lemon Pepper truffle (and later the extremely popular Lemon Pepper in white Gusto bar) was inspired by eating a Greek potato; a baked potato cut in half then re-baked with the cut side face down in a pool of lemon juice.
I love adding lots of pepper and butter to my potatoes, but that night no butter was at the table so naturally, I reached into my purse and pulled out a white chocolate bar, substituting a piece of my white chocolate for the pat of butter because of the white chocolate’s creaminess. The combination was an exciting harmony of flavors. I knew right away that the lemon pepper in white chocolate was going to be my next truffle.
While eating good food and getting lost in a melody are fun ways to get inspired, my favorite inspirations come out of the blue like when I overhear a conversation where someone is reliving a fond memory with a friend. I try to capture the memory with a taste that has the power to transport you back to that special time. Seeing the wave of happiness that my chocolates can bring someone is what makes my work worth while.
As far as expanding the flavor palate, stay tuned as we are working on a new truffle line and possibly a few new bar flavors by year’s end…
r/T ™: Take readers through a typical day as a chocolatier. Any special prep for Valentine’s Day?
KN: I eat and sleep chocolate… A typical day for me includes making/updating production plans, doing office & admin paperwork, dipping Sea Salt caramel or making several runs of bars, and tasting small spoonfuls of chocolate at various stages for every product being made in the kitchen. I spend a lot of time every day teaching, which is one of my favorite parts of my job! We have a ton of fun, love to discuss what if scenarios, and thinking of simple solutions to make our lives easier & more efficient all while listening to anything from Disney songs, to 50’s, hard rock, modern hits, 80’s, Mozart, and TED Talks. We take ourselves and our work very seriously while having the most fun as possible. When people visit our kitchen, they most frequently comment on how clean our kitchen is and how much fun we are. Smiles are everywhere!
During holidays like Valentine’s Day, my kitchen producers work overtime and I can easily work 16 to 18 hours as people NEED their chocolate! We often joke that we have vanishing shelves!!! We fill them up before we go home, but by morning the shelves are empty again as they are shipped out to our stores and for orders. Every year we make more and more, but the demand for our chocolates has grown quicker then we can make it. We can easily turn to machines to make our product like most chocolate companies but I refuse too. We make EVERYTHING entirely by hand, including tempering over 7 tons of chocolate each year by hand. This will not change as we grow!
r/T ™: As a chocolatier, what’s your favorite holiday? Do you have a favorite chocolatier who inspires you?
KN: My favorite holiday is defiantly Christmas, both financially and personally as people are often using our chocolates to spread joy to strangers and loved ones.
My favorite Chocolatier is probably Edwald Notter. He is a true master of his craft, especially in sugar sculpting! I have am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to take a couple of classes from him and had the chance to have him critique my sculpture work.
r/T ™: Do you believe in a ‘terroir’ of chocolate – that sourcing regions impart unique flavor components? Any favorite sources?
KN: YES!!!! Chocolate, like wine, is very complicated. Where the trees are grown plays a large part on what the flavors are, but the skill of the farmer, quality of the bean, varietal type, fermentation, drying, roasting and tempering all have a major play in the flavor of the final product.
That is why ten chocolates from the same region can taste totally different. In general (with some experimentation) it is possible to identify the general region where the chocolate comes from. For example, chocolate from Madagascar have a distinctive red fruit and citrus notes where as chocolates from the Dominican Republic have distinctive spice and tobacco notes.
r/T ™: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a chocolatier?
KN: Being a teacher. No matter how high I climb in the industry or how many national & international awards I win, everything pales in comparison to inspiring someone to work/continue working with chocolate. All of my knowledge means nothing if I don’t have to opportunity to use it and to pass that experience along.
As a craftsman, there is no better way to perfect your craft then to do it a thousand times and then try to teach it to someone else. You may instinctively know what to do, but until you try to teach it to someone, you may not truly understand the why behind what you are doing.
r/T ™: Do you think being a woman chocolatier makes any difference, or it is a pretty level playing field for all? Any favorite mentors along the way?
KN: I am a big proponent of make your own way, regardless of your gender or situation in life. We all have our own challenges. Being a women chocolatier, I have had to structure my hours and way of doing business around being there for my family, which often means bring the kids to work with me.
As far as getting recognition and rising up through the ranks in this industry, I let my chocolate speak for itself. The quality of my work has led me to being ranked amongst the world’s best chocolatiers.
In my experience, people see women in this field as those who make yummy feel good treats that remind you of your childhood (think Mrs. Fields Cookies), whereas people see men as more professional, more creative (pushing the envelope), and more competitive. Because of this, they generally get more respect right out of the gate. Male chocolatiers are seen as career minded chefs whereas women Chocolatiers are often viewed as homemakers who make chocolates for a hobby.
r/T ™: Finally, if your experience as a chocolatier has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
KN: To celebrate mistakes (as they can teach you the most) and to let the chocolate take you where it wants to go.
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