An enthusiastic cook and baker all my life, I was drawn to the kitchen early. I remember
sitting on a small stool watching my mother braiding her Sunday bread. She always
included me by giving me a piece of dough to experiment with, and I loved to shape it
into dogs, cats, rabbits and rolls. I learned from her that during proofing and shaping,
the dough has to be treated with care, and that only the best ingredients and techniques
yield excellent results. When the bread was in the oven and the house started to smell
like a bakery, I knew that my little world was intact.
My mom was not the only family member who instilled a passion for food in me. There
was great aunt Bertha Schnyder, a nonconformist, who in the 1930s had founded a
home economics school for women - mostly farmer’s daughters - in Switzerland. I still
own a copy of the booklet she authored about baking bread in the farmhouse kitchen.
There are photos inside the publication with smiling children proudly carrying freshly
baked tarts from the small community oven house in the village to their farm. The
picture above was taken during World War II when food was rationed. After the war, my
mother’s parents enrolled her at Bertha’s school, so she would learn the “tricks of
the trade” that a good housewife and mother was expected to master. Not only did she
graduate from the school, destiny had her meeting my dad who happened to live in the
same hamlet where the school was located. After they married, cooking and baking
became my mom’s favorite activities. Without ever considering herself a pioneer, she
practiced the virtues of preparing unprocessed food, aka “intelligent eating”, three times
a day until a few weeks before she passed away in her 84th year. To this day, her
neighbors talk about her beloved and acclaimed Sunday bread called Zopf, and my
siblings and I will never forget her Swiss pastry specialties Brätzeli, Tirggeli and
The apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree, so when I turned fifteen, I decided to
become a chef. Even though my parents felt that there was nothing wrong with me being a
passionate baker at home, they felt differently about me choosing it as my career. To them, it
was a man’s world and therefore unsuitable for me. Instead, I entered college to study teaching,
and later matriculated at the University of Bern. It was through my discovery of Maria
Montessori’s philosophy that I found a way to integrate culinary arts back into my life.
Montessori was a gifted medical scientist and teacher who realized
that very young children seek independence early on. Her guiding principle for
learning was; “Help children do it themselves”. I was so fascinated by this approach
that I founded a day preschool in Bern - the first of its kind in the country - based on
Montessori’s philosophy. Besides multiple creative ways of working with specific learning
materials, our students had the opportunity to engage in many practical activities,
amongst them cooking and baking. At the age of six, most kids had acquired decent knife
skills and knew how to prepare simple dishes. Baking rolls and small fruit tarts became
part of their weekly schedule, and students and teachers equally loved it.
Fast forward to 2008, when I was working as a Swiss foreign correspondent in
California. It must have been meant to be that I wrote a series of articles about the so-called
Food Revolution in the Western United States. Visits to countless restaurants, bakeries
and chocolate shops brought back memories of my old, unfulfilled dream. Every
single time I entered a kitchen, I knew that this was the place I really wanted to be.
Yes, there was a lot of enthusiasm - but there were also lingering doubts and questions.
Would it be possible for me to pursue a culinary career after all these years? What if I failed?
I had opened Pandora’s Box and had no idea how to deal with it - until I
realized that it wasn’t Pandora’s Box. It was more like a lucky jar. As it said on a
card that a friend gave me after I graduated from baking school: “Dreams
don’t happen because we dream them...they happen because we do something about
them. Nothing marvelous was ever accomplished without a little marvelous risk.” Eight years
later and as the proud owner of a chocolate business, I must say that I could not agree more.
Lofty dreams can be a beautiful promise of what lies ahead. The fact that they don’t hold us accountable makes them particularly attractive. Years ago before I signed up for culinary school, I envisioned my future self floating through a shiny kitchen that resembled an ad out of Architectural Digest. The thought of spending hours on end producing chocolates and candies evoked in me the kind of bliss that most people experience when they fall in love and don’t wan’t to face the laws of reason. While I was passionate about my craft, I never seriously contemplated the nitty-gritty details of life as a food entrepreneur.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I decided to start my own chocolate and dessert business: SWEET55. My previous careers in teaching and journalism had certainly strengthened my resilience, attention to detail and focus - all handy attributes for a chocolatier. But there was one challenge that I was not at all prepared for, and it had nothing to do with making ganache or whether my cookies should be baked at 325 or 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It was finding my own commercial kitchen.
Specifically, it was the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. Months of surgical searching did not yield any results. Kitchens were either not available or way beyond my budget. It finally made me realize that I was searching for a needle in a haystack. Luckily, I found a large shared pastry kitchen that I was able to rent on an hourly basis, but it required countless hours of loading and unloading my car and shuffling equipment back and forth between the new space and the small test kitchen in my own backyard. While the search for my own certified kitchen continued, the shared kitchen was a compromise I had to live with for almost three years.
Remember Rémy from the Disney movie Ratatouille? He wants to become a great chef, but there is one big hurdle: He is a rat. How will he ever get a job in a restaurant kitchen? Searching for my culinary kingdom evoked a sort of kinship with Rémy. There were hundreds, even thousands of ads offering office spaces for tech companies in Silicon Valley, but less than a handful offering kitchens. Why? Having become more acquainted with the intricacies of building a commercial kitchen, it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t surprising. In culinary terms, stacking a room with office furniture and some computers is equitable to . a piece of coffee cake. Building a professional kitchen, on the other hand, is more like a five-tier wedding cake. Electrical wires, gas lines, pipes and floor drains, refrigerators, freezers, dish washers, ovens, vents, cooktops, three-compartment sinks, hand sinks, janitorial sinks, walls, floors, ceilings, restrooms and even lockers for the staff’s shoes…every single detail has to be approved by an authority called the Department of Environmental Health. It is a maze of regulations that few can really understand. If this sounds daunting to you, then that’s because it is.
Back to the future, in which resilience and determination almost always pay off. Just remember the end of Ratatouille, when Rémy becomes a chef at his own bistro. Last fall, on the same day a seemingly done deal of sharing a warehouse kitchen with a colleague fell through, I decided to continue my search on Loop Net, the most heavily trafficked commercial real estate marketplace online….and there, I finally found the jewel I’d spent 34 long months looking for. Soon after I signed the lease, which even came with a retail option.
After the fact, it all seemed fairly easy. While we are still months from moving in - the array of construction rules and regulations remains intimidating - the reality of starting in my own commercial space is much better than the lofty dream from years ago. The kitchen may not look like an ad from Architectural Digest - but perhaps our small chocolate store will.
SWEET55 is finally introducing the Rolls Royce of Chocolate Making.
The gadget that we lovingly refer to as the Rolls Royce of chocolate making has arrived in the New World. We can only be referring to our brand new chocolate enrobing machine, and our excitement over its arrival could not be bigger.
We always knew we would get here, but it took three years of perseverance. When we say perseverance, we mean something along the lines of dipping thousands of chocolate ganache pieces - by hand. Not only is it a time-intensive process, but it can be a lonely task. There were days when, just for fun, I found myself in a chocolate-dipping contest with my alter ego. Time and space disappeared, leaving me completely focused on dipping more quickly and creating more perfectly enrobed chocolates every time. If repetition has a meditative quality, dipping 900 chocolates per day might as well be the road to nirvana.
There is a rhythmic quality to the process: load ganache onto three-pronged fork, throw it head-first into couverture, load it back onto fork, dip it, remove it through series of quick upward motions, transport it to edge of chocolate warmer, tap it to eliminate excess chocolate, transfer it onto silicon paper to dry, and repeat. It takes about 20 to 30 seconds to enrobe a single piece before the cycle starts again.
Today, on October 21 of 2015, I am happy to announce that our new chocolate machine - by far the fanciest addition ever to grace our kitchen - will simplify, quicken, and perfect our enrobing process. Will we miss hand-dipping our chocolates? We're not sure about that, but we might miss our daily meditation.