The Rise of Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Making in L.A.

Nicole Trutanich, of Bar Au Chocolat in Manhattan Beach, imports cocoa directly from small equatorial farms, rather than melting down bulk chocolate

On a Wednesday morning in Manhattan Beach last September, Nicole Trutanich pulls the lock off a construction gate five blocks up from the pier just as a police officer stops to ask what’s going on.

“It’s a little retail space for chocolate,” she tells him. Trutanich, who recently turned 50, is tall and elegant, even in distressed jeans and a white cotton T-shirt, and she chooses her words deliberately: “I import cacao beans from all over the world and use only two ingredients in most of what I make. In the studio upstairs, I do the roasting and refining. Downstairs, I do what’s called tempering and molding.”

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Photography by Peter Bohler

You can tell the cop has gone blank after her first sentence. “Chocolate?” he says like a ten-year-old. “Here?” Trutanich’s new shop, which is called Bar au Chocolat Atelier and opens this month, is located across from police headquarters on 13th Street. “You’re kidding me, right?” The officer stares up at the second-story balcony, shaking his head. “This is seriously amazing.”

Reactions like that are not uncommon for Trutanich, who quit her job at Team One in 2011 after 17 years in advertising and marketing to pursue confection making full-time. Until now she operated out of a squat cinder-block unit on a side street in Torrance, producing bars of remarkable taste and complexity to enormous acclaim. Three years ago in London the Academy of Chocolate presented her with the Golden Bean Award, which is like winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Trutanich’s cacao ships directly from farms she knows in dreamy-sounding equatorial outposts like the Montserrat Hills of Trinidad and Marañón Canyon, Peru. She scoops straight from 150-pound jute bags, sorting and roasting and grinding for days—adding only organic cane sugar to offset any natural bitterness—until the liquid base is ready to be poured into molds for finishing. Later she wraps each precious tablette by hand, using invitation-stock paper imprinted with cop- perfoil lettering. The aphorism under her logo reads MEMENTO AUDERE SEMPER. Remember always to be daring.

This production method is commonly called “bean to bar,” though Trutanich likes to say “from flower bud to taste bud” in a tone that’s almost sensual. “Flavor is developed along the entire chain,” she says, “from how the bags are shipped and stored to how you bring out that energizing aroma, which is why I love doing as much as possible myself.”

With the patrolman off her scent, Trutanich shows me around the boutique and factory. Moorish archways open onto a cozy, uncluttered emporium designed to evoke the chocolaterie where Juliette Binoche fell in love with Johnny Depp in that Lasse Hallström film. Trutanich grew up in Palos Verdes and, in her early twenties, won a national magazine contest for a chocolate buttermilk ice cream recipe. “My infatuation runs deep,” she says. The store, with high bar stools and a counter up front for hot cocoa and cocoa nib granola, is immaculate in exactly the ways you would expect from a woman who discards one bean for every three she fondles and sniffs for quality. Shelf displays are pristine, and the exotic machines of her trade crunch and whir in plain view. Her hulking drum roaster arrived in a crate from Emilia-Romagna, Italy. The winnower, another Italian steampunk marvel, removes cacao husks. The stainless steel conche, from Aachen, Germany, turns coarse chocolate velvety smooth. Trutanich laughs as I keep asking about the function and provenance of her wares.

“My most important pieces of equipment are my hands, mouth, and nose,” she says. “They are of Croatian origin.”

It is an excellent time to be a cacao bean in Los Angeles. From the beaches to the desert and the hipster precincts downtown, a few devoted craftspeople are endeavoring to bring new focus to a pursuit that originated with the ancient Maya. Trading with jungle farmers and specialty importers to ensure fair pricing, ethical standards, and the boldest flavors, and fussing over each arcane stage of production, these obsessive tinkerers are doing for chocolate what others have attempted with fancy coffee and beer—to conscientiously and transparently create small batches of deliciousness in an industry dominated by a tiny cadre of money-grubbing multinational behemoths.

Aside from Bar au Chocolat (the t is silent, by the way), there is Parliament Chocolate in Redlands, where a former Le Cordon Bleu- taught chef named Ryan Berk makes full-bodied treats with cacao he buys on sourcing expeditions to Belize and Tanzania. Patricia Tsai is a Wharton-trained CPA who ditched finance to roast and refine nibs at Choco- Vivo in Culver City. The mystical Oompa-Loompas at ZenBunni on Abbot Kinney select and stone-grind Ecuadoran beans planted by moonlight to keep things “bio-dynamic.” Then there’s the 6,000-square-foot chocolate parlor-cum-playroom that the embattled Mast brothers opened in the DTLA Arts District this year, but more on that enterprise a little later.

These artisan chocolate makers are different from chocolatiers, the vast majority of those toiling elbow-deep in sweet brown goodness. Most chocolatiers—megabrands like See’s but also smaller-scale purveyors like Valerie Confections—buy bulk chocolate, known as couverture, and melt it down into bonbons and candies. There’s no shame in that.

But bean-to-bar prac
titioners see themselves
as engineers and human
rights activists as much
as confectioners. They
don’t just want the choic
est Theobroma pods from
Liberia, say. They also care
about which pesticides are
being used and whether
any child or slave labor is
involved, a real and vexing
issue. The American craft
chocolate movement,
a source of so many of those seductively packaged bars you see at Whole Foods and Intelligentsia, is a wafer-thin slice of the nation’s $19.7 billion chocolate market, and independent bean-to-bar makers like Trutanich represent an even smaller subset. The work is time-consuming and exacting, and few turn a profit.

RELATED: Where to Find the Five Best Chocolate Pies in Los Angeles

On a barren stretch of Robertson Boulevard near the 10 freeway in Palms, David Menkes is standing at a steel table, carefully counting silver-foil wrappers when I arrive at the shared kitchen where he runs LetterPress Chocolate. At 37, Menkes is stocky, wears a bandanna on his head, and can come across as both brusque and idealistic.

“A guy walks up to me at a chocolate tasting at Monsieur Marcel,” Menkes says, referring to the gourmet French goods shop at the Original Farmers Market, “and sneers when he sees my prices.” LetterPress single-origin and single-estate bars run be- tween $10 and $18 each. “I go, ‘Well, there’s a $400 wine on the shelf behind you, and that’s only grape juice.’ The amount of attention I pay to detail, the money spent on raw materials—if you’re fine with Hershey’s, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t consider that chocolate.”

Menkes was a computer graphics artist in Hollywood in 2011 when he serendipitously toured a cacao plantation while
on vacation in St. Lucia with his wife. Six
months later he was the office connois
seur, bringing in exquisite bars from his personal collection to share at gatherings of what became known as the DreamWorks Chocolate Society. In 2012, Menkes launched a review Web site called Little Brown Squares that drew thousands of aficionados. By 2014, he was not only making chocolate of his own at his apartment in Beverlywood, he went and invested in a cacao farm in Guatemala. So far he hasn’t recouped a dime, he says, even while turning out 2,500 LetterPress bars a month. Last summer he took a gig at Sony but ended up leaving and began collecting unemployment.

“When you’re making your own chocolate, there’s no end to the problems and to what you stress and obsess over,” he tells me. “But late one night you’ll do an aggressive roast on a bean that tasted like Play-Doh, and it flavors out as toasted almond and you go, ‘Shit, I completely love what I do.’”

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Photography by Peter Bohler

I never had much of a sweet tooth. When I was growing up, my family rarely saved room for dessert, and the Halloween treats I enjoyed most were the weird ones: Fund Dip, Wax Lips, Ring Pops, Zotz. Only after meeting my wife did I come to recognize chocolate as its own food group.

Ruth’s first job was selling fudge to tourists at Faneuil Hall in Boston. After a decade in TV production, she worked her way back to sugar. When her friend Clémence Gossett opened the Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories in Santa Monica five years ago, she asked Ruth to become her “chocolate diva.” She flew back and forth for training at the French Pastry School in Chicago and enrolled in online courses taught by a Canadian chocolating guru named Pam Williams. Soon the slab of surplus marble atop our Ikea kitchen island became a testing lab for fabulous truffles, barks, and (Ruth’s signature move—an effort to win me over, I suspect) mini chocolate typewriters.

It turned out I wasn’t ambivalent about chocolate. I just hadn’t tasted the really good stuff. I shared the common misconception that dark chocolate—unlike milk chocolate, which is enriched with milk powder and has more sugar than cocoa mass—is too bitter to enjoy. Once I sampled two-ingredient bars free of artificial syrups and cheap fats, I discovered a richness of flavor you simply cannot get from a KitKat.

In 2012, Ruth persuaded me to write a travel story on the Paris chocolate scene. Our tour guide was Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a former chocolate buyer for the London department store Fortnum & Mason, who advises chocolate companies and judges tastings around the world. So revered is her palate that chocolatier Pierre Hermé, the only pastry chef to have been decorated for contributions to French culture as a Chevalier of Arts and Letters, named a chocolate bar after her.

Doutre-Roussel opened our eyes to a chocolate révolution. The masters we met used wine terminology like “cru” and “terroir” and had us calling out notes of blueberry, cassis, and wet grass. They reminded us, too, that chocolate does not “come from” places like Switzerland or Belgium but rather from poor countries in a narrow belt running 20 degrees on either side of the equator. Remarkably just three corporate giants—Cargill, Barry Callebaut, and Olam International—control nearly 60 percent of the global cocoa processing market in an industry rife with child labor and trafficking. But small-batch upstarts have been making the break from “Big Chocolate,” as Doutre-Roussel calls it. Nine years ago, for instance, there were nearly a dozen bean-to- bar makers in North America. Today there are about 200.

Carla Martin is a lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard and last year founded the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. She became a friend of Ruth’s and mine as we began traveling “to origin” in places like Mexico, Ecuador, and Jamaica to touch the rippled, football-shaped pod ourselves and savor its fresh fleshy pulp.

“When you look more closely at where our chocolate comes from, as these craft makers are doing, it pushes you to examine the supply line for a product everyone loves and craves but doesn’t think too much about,” Martin says. An artisan like Trutanich, she says, “who’s seeking out the finest raw materials, sourcing them in a way that’s open and honest, and shepherding them with human hands until the results of her efforts reach the consumer—that’s quite different from the mystery candy so many of us chomp down out of vending machines.”

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Photography by Peter Bohler

If greater transparency is a goal at Mast Los Angeles, someone has taken that mission quite literally. Five large windowed modules in the Scandinavian-chic downtown warehouse that opened last May showcase each step of the chocolate-making process. On a Friday morning in September, chief grinder Michael Lowe, resplendent with sleeve tattoos and a druid beard, is poised over a tray of nibs behind protective glass, as lonely as an endangered bonobo. While he works in grim silence, a perky young do- cent in an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse speed-talks us through the story of how chocolate gets made. No matter that almost all of Mast’s goodies are still coming out of Brooklyn; there are products to taste alongside tiny samples of the company’s new in- house, organic, nonalcoholic, craft hibiscus cocoa brew.

After starting out in their kitchen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2007, brothers Rick and Michael Mast emerged as the embodiment of a culinary maker craze that had the borough (and soon the world) pickling, cold-brewing, and mason-jarring all manner of foodstuffs. The Masts, with facial hair as cultivated as topiary pandas, fetishized old-timey methods of chocolate production, down to transporting cacao under power of wind into New York harbor aboard a three-masted wood sailing vessel from the Dominican Republic. It wasn’t long before they needed a bigger boat.

Late last year the Masts took a huge hit after a Dallas food blogger named Scott Craig revealed that the company used couverture (bulk Valrhona, to be precise) in its early days while passing it off, at $7 a bar and up, as scratch-made bean-to-bar. Craig noted that the chocolate tasted better when it wasn’t Mast-made and that once the Masts actually started manufacturing their own, sometime after their Brooklyn factory opened in 2009, it never tasted as good again. The exposé drew outrage from every critic and shopper who had ever felt duped by hipster craftiness and inflation. It did not help that the Masts issued a rather milquetoast response: “We sincerely apologize if you or any of our other loyal customers feel they were misled.”

Today Mast clearly wants to move past the debacle. When I ask about the controversy, L.A. manager Richard Fell motions toward the glass cubes and tells us “what you see is what we’re doing.” Still, the latest Mast packaging, with paper lush and elegant enough to wrap Japanese wedding presents, offers fewer specifics in the way of ingredients and countries of origin than before.

That’s not to say Mast isn’t staging some worthy theatrics downtown. At a pivotal moment on the tour, our guide disappears and returns with something I thought was impossible to touch and taste as far north as Los Angeles—a crimson cacao pod fresh from the tropics, sliced lengthwise, its translucent lychee-like seeds available forMast guests to suck and slurp. My wife, who now teaches bean-to-bar making at the Gourmandise School, looks like she might faint when she beholds the raw fruit of her desire. “Nobody has these, and you can’t really order them. How did you get it here?” she asks. The docent smiles casually and says, “Oh, we get a shipment every week.”

Back in Manhattan Beach, Trutanich proves she can top even that. She and her boyfriend of 15 years, Tony Choueke, live a few blocks from the new boutique in a multistory house with unobstructed views of the Pacific. Choueke ran a successful cosmetics-bag company for 37 years before selling it to Conair. He now works in real estate and is a partner in Bar au Chocolat. “He’s the entrepreneur, and I’m the perfectionist,” Trutanich says.

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The support goes beyond the financial. Trutanich takes me around the side of her home to a small white wood nursery she calls “my little cocoa house.” Choueke had it built for her a couple of years ago to safeguard the extraordinary gift he bought that’s inside. Trutanich opens the door with a satisfied smile to reveal four Theobroma cacao trees, each roughly ten feet tall and all thriving. Delicate yellow and green flow- ers are growing out of the trunks, and Trutanich brings her hand close to one without touching it, almost as a blessing.

Importing a cacao pod on ice as a splashy show-and-tell piece is a feat, for sure. But keeping four actual trees alive thousands of miles from optimal conditions—that’s nearly a miracle. The Huntington Library’s botanical gardens have just two samples in their tropical collection, and they’re both doing “as well as could be expected, considering the fussiness of the plant,” says Dylan Hannon, who curates that conservatory. “It’s a little like raising avocados in Minnesota.”

Trutanich cannot yet grow her own cacao pods at home, though she would love to try. She has space heaters and an automatic cooling system to nurture and maintain the trees, but they require swarms of gnatlike midges, or at least an industrious fruit bat, to be fertilized properly. Then again, if Trutanich can make some of the planet’s finest chocolate by hand, and with an entire police force now at her back, she will no doubt figure something out.

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