Some people approach places like Montana and the Dakotas hoping for an encounter with a grizzly bear, a 20-point buck, heck, even a long-haired mountain goat. I am scouting chocolate makers and chocolatiers. And snag them I did! I’d like to introduce you to a few who exhibit the western follow-your-own-path attitude: Burnt Fork Bend Chocolate Company, La Châtelaine Chocolat Co. and Chubby Chipmunk Hand-Dipped Chocolates.
I’m sitting at the dining room table with Jennifer Wicks, chocolate maker and creator of Burnt Fork Bend
Chocolate Company looking out over a bucolic landscape of cows, horses and fenced off homesteads in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley — Big Sky country. The closest big city is Missoula about 35 miles north. Stevensville is the oldest incorporated city in Montana with a population of 2,000.
Jennifer not only welcomed me in to see her chocolate making operation, she invited me to have dinner with her, husband Don and nine-year-old son Zach, stay the night and experience a lifestyle so foreign from my previous Los Angeles and now Las Vegas “homestead.”
After dinner, with a little coaxing, Zach let me read his short story about a boy (named Zach) on the hunt for a 20-point buck (that’s where I learned the term). I know nothing about hunting, but his detailed, step-by-step account pulled me in till I felt I was hiding behind a tree watching him experience the frustrations, the exhilaration, the defeat and final victory. You’ll see that storyline runs in the family.
We finally met at the Chocolate Makers Unconference in Seattle earlier in October and she invited me to stop in and see her chocolate making operation.
I’m fascinated by the disparate backgrounds of people who find their way to chocolate. Jennifer, originally from Delaware, came to Montana twenty-five years ago for college where she studied outdoor recreation management and eventually stayed to become a wilderness ranger. After getting a masters degree in geography and cartography, she worked for the local power company mapping the electric distribution route for the Bitterroot Valley.
Red, White & Chocolate (RW&C): So, chocolate? How did that happen?
Jennifer: I have honey bees and was wondering if it would be possible to use honey to make chocolate. I started researching online and in books and could find nothing about how to make chocolate. This was in 2007. And then, like so many others, I discovered John Nanci and his online site Chocolate Alchemy. That’s where I saw the how-to process for making chocolate and decided to give it a try. I ordered a Santha Spectra, a Champion Juicer and a five pound bag of Hispanola cacao beans from the Dominican Republic from John.
I roasted the beans in my oven and sat in front of the TV for weeks hand-cracking and winnowing (removing the shells from the beans, revealing the nibs) five pounds of beans. Then, I ran the nibs through the juicer to make the liquor and added cocoa butter and sugar. By the way, I quickly learned that honey won’t work because of the water content, which doesn’t mix with cocoa butter. But by then, I was intrigued and wanted to control the ingredients and play with the percentages to see the results. The first bar I made was a 71% with just the cocoa nibs, cocoa butter and sugar. I thought it tasted wonderful. I was so excited. I eventually purchased a winnower from John, so no more winnowing in front of the TV.
RW&C: And how about tempering? How did that go?
Jennifer: It was a disaster! I was tempering by hand. At first it worked only one out of ten
times. About a month later, I bought a Chocovision and I still use it. Of course, now I have the Selmi tempering machine (a big purchase of about $19,000).
RW&C: How did chocolate go from a hobby to a career?
Jennifer: When I had my son, it was important for me to be an involved parent and traveling back and forth to Missoula for my day job was getting in the way. Plus, we were building a new house on the land and the house we were living in provided the perfect work space for a chocolate business. So, in 2012, I quit my job and took my bars to local stores and went to community events like Bounty of the Bitterroot and local craft shows. I found that providing samples worked to get the word out. Since then, I’ve placed my chocolate throughout Montana in Missoula, Hamilton, Bozeman, Livingston and Whitefish. I just got a call from Billings. It is also sold sporadically in Maryland and Delaware, my hometown, when I can get back there and have some face-to-face with the shops.
RW&C: Where do you source your beans now?
Jennifer: I still buy from John Nanci. But I also get beans from other sources like Barbara and Jose at Mindo Chocolate. At the conference in Seattle, I got a bag from Ingemann. I think I’m a bit different than other bean-to-bar makers in that I like to change countries quite a bit. And, I like to have about three different countries at any one time so when people taste the difference, they can understand the difference is the bean, since I make them all with just cocoa butter and sugar. I do a 72% dark (Blue Heron Bar), a dark milk chocolate (Dexter Bar) and a 60% dark (Bob Bar).
RW&C: So, what’s next in the evolution of Burnt Fork Bend Chocolate?
Jennifer: I feel like I’m just beginning. After so many years of making maps on computers, I find it invigorating and exciting working one-on-one with people. The best part for me is when my chocolate brings a smile to their faces because I didn’t get that satisfaction from any of my other jobs. So, I’d like to create a work space for the public to come and learn about chocolate making. I have to figure out if I can do that in my work space or if maybe going into town would be more effective. And, I plan to develop an online store.
Jennifer let me watch a bit of her chocolate making process:
You’ll hear more from Jennifer in my “Going Deeper” pieces on quality and branding/packaging.
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La Châtelaine Chocolat Co. — French Quality and Tradition with an American Flair, Bozeman Montana
The NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle revealed more gems. The La Châtelaine Chocolat Co. booth, with
delicate and artful bonbons and truffles, was a busy hub. I was intrigued when I learned they are from Bozeman, Montana. How did a French chocolatier end up there? I decided to put La Châtelaine on my itinerary.
Bozeman has such a different vibe than Stevensville. It’s western chic. Still, not the setting one would expect to find a French chocolate shop. Turns out, it’s a great pairing and so is husband and wife team Jean-Pierre Wlady Grochowski and Shannon Hughes Grochowski. Although France is a central theme for both, they didn’t meet there.
Shannon, previously a teacher, followed her culinary passions by studying in Paris, which she still does every summer, working with renowned pastry chefs such as Gerard Taurin, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Pierre Prevost and Sebastien Guadard.
Jean-Pierre Wlady learned cooking and pastry at the knee of his mother and grandmother and at ten years old, he received Livre de Cuisine, a challenging cookbook for a child that spurred him to experiment. His formal studies in management at the Sorbonne, however, led him in a different direction. But when he came to the States to work for an engineering company, his frustration in finding good chocolate and pastry led him to pursue his true love and he started selling French cakes through word-of-mouth.
Some years later Shannon and Wlady met through their children, fell in love and discovered their shared commitment to traditional classic French chocolate and pastry. But with five children between them, they couldn’t run off to live in Paris. For them, that meant starting a business that fit the nature of Bozeman while making a commitment to ongoing training – in France.
And that combination has paid off for the pair. As you approach the miniature chateau-styled shop, you get a flash of the Champs-Élysées. But the flavors and designs have an American flare. “The French approach is all about quality, tradition and balance,” says Wlady. “But a 100% French approach would not work in Bozeman. We incorporate American trends like chili, but we don’t let it overpower the flavor.”
This combination reveals itself in the Desire bonbon, a traditional dark chocolate ganache with raspberry, vanilla, cinnamon and a dash of Amarillo chili that they discovered at their local Mexican restaurant. And they put a spin on the traditional French macaron with huckleberries locally grown.
Shannon offered, “The strength that we have together, the combination of the American and French backgrounds, the blending of two cultures, is what makes our chocolates and pastries unique.”
We’ll be hearing more from Wlady and Shannon in the “Going Deeper” piece about quality.
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When one person recommends a chocolatier, I take note. When a second person offers the same recommendation, I start checking my map to see if I can make it work. When the name comes up again, I set my GPS to go. And go I did to Deadwood, South Dakota to meet Mary “Chip” Tautkis and experience Chubby Chipmunk. So glad I did because it is an experience.
The first thing one notices is, well, it’s in South Dakota! I don’t mean to be geographically biased, but how did a world- class chocolatier find her way there? The second thing that jumps out at you as you turn the bend on a steep hill is that the shop looks like a vintage gas station. And it is!
I thought the motorcycles parked outside were props, but it turns out that Mary’s husband bought it as a motorcycle repair shop and gave Mary a little corner to start her chocolate business. Guess who fits into that little corner now. Hint – it’s not Chubby Chipmunk.
Mary and I sat in a “parlor” of the revamped gas station surrounded by antiques and I learned the circuitous journey to becoming a chocolatier. As a little girl, she was a weekend Betty Croker fan preparing breakfast for her parents. Later, as nurse, mother and supportive wife in Southern California, she loved experimenting with chocolate. When her husband wanted to move the family to Deadwood, where he had been stationed, she said, “Well, OK.” Her husband suggested she take her chocolate passion and turn it into a business. That was around 2007.
Long story short – with almost no marketing, they serve a steady stream of tourists, locals and customers all over the world in two stores and online. Her timing was right and her husband’s selection of the gas station was spot on – they’re located on the road out of Deadwood heading to Mt. Rushmore. And luck played a role – a Hollywood rep accidentally found his way to Chubby Chipmunk shortly after they opened and he was blown away by Mary’s truffles. He arranged for a story to be published which brought in national attention resulting in product placement in swag bags for the Grammy, Country Music Awards and Hollywood Celebrity Wives. With word of mouth, Chubby Chipmunk now has a worldwide customer base.
“Now, I have two shops and 15 employees. I train everyone. I start with people I think can fit into our little family and put them in the front so they learn the chocolate. If they show an interest, I give them more and more training. ” says Mary. “We have a wonderful little family and I’m not sure how big I want to get.”
I asked her about the name, Chubby Chipmunk. “My sister and I were nicknamed Chip and Dale. When I started this business, my mother came up with the name. It’s fun. A marketing professional advised us against it. I didn’t hire him,” says Mary. “We have serious chocolate, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I want to bring good chocolate to the masses. You can come in and buy one truffle and be just so satisfied with it. I grew up with See’s and Hershey’s. I want people to experience a wider range of flavors focused on the chocolate not the sugar.”
I asked her about the ingredients and chocolate she uses and was surprised to learn that she creates her own blend of chocolate from Guittard, Cargill and a variety of others. “I value companies like Guittard who are environmentally conscious and concerned about the farmers,” says Mary. “I use local ingredients as much as possible: huckleberries from St. Helena, local cream and other local ingredients.”
While we chatted, I watched Mary interact with customers and visitors, some known,
others not. All receiving loving attention. Later we were joined by a reporter from KEVN who wanted to know more about Red, White & Chocolate and why we were visiting Chubby Chipmunk. Check it out.
I told the reporter I was intrigued to learn that Chubby Chipmunk has the exclusive license in South Dakota to sell Marañón Chocolate’s Fortunato #4. As Mary explains, this was the #1 chocolate eaten in 1800’s until blight wiped out the cacao trees that produced the prized white cacao bean – or so they thought.
Some of the beans found their way to Peru resulting in rare cacao trees growing undiscovered for 100 years until Dan Pearson found them while working in the juggle supplying miners with gear and food. (You’ll get the whole story straight from Dan in an upcoming profile.)
How did Mary come to Fortunato #4? She met Dan through her membership to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association and knew she had to work with this rare chocolate. “She’s a force of nature,” says Dan.
Mary proudly displays the Fortunato #4 bars and the even rarer Black Bar made from the beans of the first crop, first harvest (she’s the only one who has these bars and she sells them as a fundraiser to support Marañón Chocolate’s environmentally friendly Rice Stove Project for the farmers who harvest cacao). She’s obviously deeply moved by all of the history behind this particular rare cacao. “I feel like there’s an Aztec God behind me when I’m working with this chocolate,” says Mary.
But Chubby Chipmunk is most known for its over-sized hand-dipped truffles with the most creative and delicious array of flavors. I tried huckleberry (picked from a patch in St. Helena), chocolate cheesecake and root beer float truffles. Spot-on wonderful flavors. But the big surprise for me was the cheddar beer truffle. I demurred, but Mary insisted. I was delightfully surprised by the delicate balance of cheddar, beer and white chocolate. That was my favorite!
What stood out most during our visit was the bounty of love infused into this chocolate business and the very ingredients Mary uses to create Chubby Chipmunk. Family, friends, customers, staff and the community are all beneficiaries.