For the Love of Chocolate: Chocolatiers Pursue Their Sweet Passions

American Icons, Featured Article, Food, Hometown Cooking, Made in America
on February 7, 2014
Ruthie Carliner is a certified public accountant with a master’s degree in taxation and a passion for gourmet chocolate.

Americans are expected to buy 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate for Valentine’s Day, according to the National Confectioners Association. But behind these sweet gifts for lovers lies an obsession of another kind. American Profile shares the stories of four independent chocolatiers who gave up conventional careers to pursue a sweeter passion.

Chocolate science

Working as an industrial engineer in Austin, Texas, Nicole Patel was climbing the corporate ladder at a technology and communication company when a truffle-making segment on a television cooking show caught her eye in 2008. “I said, ‘Well that looks easy enough,’” recalls Patel, 36, who’d been looking for holiday gift ideas.

An avid baker and cook, Patel adapted the TV recipe and whipped up three flavors of truffles: peanut butter, mint and hazelnut. “They were ugly little blobs,” she admits. But they apparently tasted heavenly. Friends, family members and co-workers begged for more.

To earn extra spending money, Patel launched a part-time, home-based business called Delysia Chocolatier—its name rooted in the Latin word for “delicious.” Her initiative turned out to be providential. Only months later, a corporate layoff thrust her into the chocolate-making business full time.

A trip to Texas wine country led to one of her signature products and a partnership with a local vintner, for whom she created wine-infused chocolates. Patel then teamed with a popular Austin barbecue eatery, adding tangy sauces and dry rubs to truffles. Other unique flavors followed, including jalapeno tequila, wasabi and curry.

Patel’s engineering knowledge has come in handy.

“There’s so much science in chocolate-making,” she says.

Having a ball

As a student at the University of California in Riverside, Jerry Swain was searching through his mom’s cookbook for a dish to make for a dormitory potluck, when he spotted a recipe for chocolate peanut butter balls.

Combining peanut butter and crunchy crisped rice, he hand-rolled a batch of 100 in his parents’ kitchen and took them to school after Thanksgiving break. “My friends fell in love with them,” says Swain, 48, of Solana Beach, California, who was 20 at the time.

He kept making the confections to please his collegiate culinary fans and thought he’d graduated from candy making after receiving his business degree in 1989 and starting a sales career at IBM. But when Swain threw a party for his former college buddies, for old time’s sake, he whipped up a batch of his sweet treats, which quickly were devoured. The reunion grew into an annual event and a decade-long fundraiser for the San Diego Food Bank, with Swain’s candy always key to the festivities.

When Swain caught “the entrepreneurial bug” and began looking for the right business idea, his dad asked, “Have you ever thought about making chocolates for a living?” Blending his passion for chocolate with his business acumen, Swain set out in 2001 to become “the pioneer of gourmet peanut butter and chocolate.” Three years later, he was a full-time chocolatier and owner of Jer’s Chocolates in Solana Beach.

Swain is grateful for his corporate sales experience, but it’s his passion for chocolate that makes his business work. “I never get tired of it,” he says.

Switching gears

Ruthie Carliner, of Stevenson, Maryland, had developed her family business into a successful automotive and commercial trucking company but, amid the U.S. economic recession, decided in 2007 to switch gears. Selling the business and enrolling in cooking school, she found her new calling while attending a seminar on chocolate.

“I was just fascinated by it,” recalls Carliner, now 53. “You can go to a bakery and look at something beautiful in the window and go home and pretty much re-create it. But people do not know how to make chocolate.”

In 2009, Carliner officially launched The Velvet Chocolatier and began creating chocolates using an induction burner and a toaster oven. Determined to keep her business simple, she started with a variety of chocolate barks that didn’t require molds—white chocolate, blueberry and pistachio; milk chocolate, cranberry and pumpkin seed; dark chocolate with almonds; and toffee, dark chocolate and pecan. She quickly found a market for her creative confections and in 2010 opened a store in Stevenson. A mention of her hand-painted, salted caramel cups in an Oprah Magazine gift guide in 2011 “really put us on the map,” she says.

Though chocolate making requires long hours, Carliner doesn’t miss her old job one bit. “It was such a hard sell in such a tough, competitive, stressful market,” she says of the auto business. “Everybody loves chocolate. It’s just a happy, pleasant product.”

Cowboy chocolatier

Tim Kellogg of Meeteetse, Wyoming, needed a new riding saddle for rodeo competitions, but he couldn’t afford one on a ranch hand’s salary. So at the suggestion of his mom and his rodeo coach, he tried using the chocolate-making skills he’d learned from his grandmother to sell truffles and brownies at the 2004 Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede, a rodeo and parade in nearby Cody. To his surprise, his chocolates started their own stampede, selling out for three straight days.

A business was born.

Kellogg rented a small space in downtown Meeteetse and began selling chocolates on Saturdays, his only day off from the ranch. “I would work through [Friday] night and fill the cases in the shop,” says Kellogg, owner of Meeteetse Chocolatier. Eventually, he opened the store six days a week and now makes and sells his candies in a larger store in a former saloon.

The creative cowboy-turned-chocolatier uses organic dairy products and makes natural extracts with huckleberry, sage and other herbs. “I get inspired by random things,” he says.

Take, for example, the fallen pine trees he helped clear from a road. “I threw a little piece of branch in my saddlebag and when I got back to the store, I made my own pine needle extract and blended it with a Belgian dark chocolate. And it was phenomenal,” he says. His conifer chocolates are among his most popular, along with focaccia truffles flavored with rosemary and olive oil.

Kellogg still herds cattle and mends fences one day a week. “It allows my brain to settle,” he explains. But chocolate stays in the back of his mind. “Sometimes inspiration will hit,” he says.

Chocolate on the Brain
Scientists link some chemicals found in chocolate with neurotransmitters in the brain that trigger feelings of happiness and sexual arousal. However, the aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate likely are more psychological than physiological, according to research.