Why did you make such a drastic change to create Valenza Chocolatier?
I worked in commercial real estate for 13 years. Some life-changing events made me re-evaluate what I was doing. After a lot of soul searching, it clicked with me that I should pursue this passion for sweets and enroll in culinary school. I searched online and Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver popped up. It seemed like a perfect fit since I could intern up there, but take courses online from home.
And then more study in Italy?
Yes, through Ecole Chocolat. They offer a Master Certificate, which focuses on perfecting the art. Programs are offered in various places in Europe, but I chose Italy.
It must have been important for you to study there.
Being an Italian chocolatier, I’m often asked: Have you been to Italy? I wanted to learn what makes Italian chocolates different. They mostly have nut- and fruit-based fillings—you’re not going to see much of the decorative cocoa butter artwork such as piping, or additional chocolate pieces adorning their bonbons. And they typically use regional ingredients. Just as locally grown foods are important to chefs, the same applies with chocolate-making there.
Are there bakers in your family?
My mom and grandma. Their Italian cookies, turtles, and chocolate-covered cherries helped inspire my business. My grandma on my dad’s side has given me recipes passed down from the 1800s.
What method or technique is most important?
Tempering chocolate [heating and cooling it so it has a glossy finish and crisp bite], the foundation of chocolate-making ... also knowing the fundamentals of ganache-making. I even learned how to make a water-based ganache; it’s usually made with chocolate and cream. Creating any sort of chocolate confection is a science, and you have to understand the chemistry behind it.
Has this simplicity of Italian flavors influenced you in other ways?
Absolutely. The packaging of Italian chocolates is clean and simple. The U.S. is all about presentation, so it was a challenge to marry the concepts of simple chocolates with packaging that appeals to an American audience. In Italy, the chocolates speak for themselves.
What else did Italy do for your palate?
It helped me solidify my selection of flavors like espresso, fig, spumoni, and limoncello, and opened my eyes to other ingredients. And the amount of dried fruits and nuts in Italian chocolates reaffirmed that I didn’t have to come up with crazy bonbon flavors with multiple ingredients.
How important was it to form your own chocolate identity?
The uniqueness I bring is staying true to my heritage, which is reflected in my branding. My large portion sizes, which amazed Italians, are American. This combination makes me stand out in the marketplace.
Tell me about those portion sizes.
I met the Willy Wonka of Italy in Turin. His name is Guido Gobino, and his father started the business. He was fascinated with my turtles because of their size, and because caramel and pecans are so expensive in Italy.
Favorite pastry chef/chocolatier?
Michael Recchiuti from Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco. His chocolates are simple but memorable. You want a customer to have that one-minute sense of escape through eating your chocolate. He does this for me.
I’m from Wisconsin, so I have to say frozen custard! Keeping with my love of ice cream, I had my first affogato al cioccolato at Guido Gobino’s. It’s ice cream with full-fat hot chocolate poured over it versus traditional espresso. Beyond delicious.
Any new holiday flavors?
A clove ganache bonbon, inspired by a classic Italian clove cookie recipe.
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.