With proprietress Marie-Hélène Gantois
at Mococha in Paris, 2012
Bonjour, I'm Alexandra!
I first became obsessed with chocolate and wine in Paris, where I studied French pastry and wine at Le Cordon Bleu during a semester off from my physics undergrad at Duke. (I felt very strongly compelled to become fluent in French. Such a beautiful language!) After Duke graduation, I returned to Paris to finish my pastry chef degree, and pursued a two-month internship at my favorite pâtisserie, Ladurée (in 2006 - back when there were only 4 shops and we made everything in the basement). My favorite part of the internship was the chocolate room, even though the A/C was broken and we spent most of our time tasting chocolate and having water fights.
My fixation on fine desserts was solidified by this time. It led me to all the way to Berkeley, where I intended to continue working at French bakeries. All of them had just closed, so I ended up landing a competitive internship and then a job as a pastry cook at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant. I had grown up hearing all about "Chez" from my big sister who had worked there in the 90's!
At Chez I learned all about the importance of ingredients and freshness. And I realized how in Paris, the taste of the dessert was secondary to the presentation. And the presentation was not natural. Even though at the time I "didn't eat sugar", I was made to taste the Chez desserts many times a day, and to give my opinion on the exact flavor balance, intensity, sugar and salt levels, bitterness, caramelization, texture, fragrance, you name it. My chefs Mia and Stacie whipped me into shape as a critical dessert taster. And I saw how everyone had a unique style, like how Carrie was an expert at swirling sauce into divine circles, and how Siew-Chinn could make everything look like it "fell off the tree." And how Alice liked the desserts "really boozy" because, you must remember, the patrons have already had a lot of Domaine Tempier Bandol rosé by this point. I was made to fondle every peach and plum that came through that kitchen. To learn how to peel an apple on a perfect curve, and in record time. How to steep each herb into heavy cream to obtain the perfect flavor of ice cream. Bref, I developed a whole new array of sensibilities.
But, you might wonder, Alexandra, when did you develop your own style? My chocolate ganache breakthrough occured when I was given free rein over the chocolate bonbon menu and whipped up a batch of local raspberry bonbons. The savory chef pronouced them to be the best she had ever tasted! I was so excited for the reaction of my pastry chef, who was out of town at the time. When she got back a couple of days later, she assessed them honestly as being "just okay". We all tasted again and realized that in just a few days, the vibrant raspberry flavor had faded and they had lost most of their special-ness.
I realized then that I wanted to share the experience of ultra-fresh chocolate ganache fillings with everyone! I had to make them in tiny batches and overnight ship them or bring them right to stores to be taken home that day. I started library-date-stamping the tops of my letterpressed boxes with "made-on" and "eat-by" dates that were just 7 days apart, something that was unheard of in the chocolate industry. Many people had doubts, but a few key people believed in my product and vision, including, of course, Alice Waters, who ordered a special batch to send to her friends in Japan. Another key person was Raph Mogannam, co-owner of Bi-Rite in San Francisco, who pronounced my chocolates to be the best he had ever tasted, and prominently featured them on his shelves. All I had to do was keep making them and bring a new batch in every week!
Now in between Chez Panisse and my great entry onto the Bi-Rite shelves, there was a quick side story about getting an MBA at snowy Cornell. I chose Cornell for three reasons: Nabokov had taught there, there was a wine school, and the Moosewood restaurant was there. In Ithaca I became a fixture at a swanky café/bar called Stella's, where the beautiful people hung out sipping espressos and drinking great wine. They even let me make bonbons for them to serve for my graduation weekend. I took the wine semester at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, where I discovered my desires for Meursault and Sherry. Of course, it's hard to leave business school without some sort of crazed mission to climb to the top of some corporate structure, so I ended up interning and then working as a management consultant at Bain & Company in Paris, just down the avenue from where I had intered at Ladurée four years before (seriously!). See, learning French did come in handy!
So all the while that I was working at Bain, I was secretly working on my own chocolate brand, and in 2012 I officially launched gâté comme des filles, making chocolates in my old-school 7th arrondissement apartment and selling them at events around the city, including a winter long stint as the "chocolatière éphémère" at Mococha on rue Mouffetard. I also became friends with the chocolate goddess Chloé Doutre-Roussel, who had written "The Chocolate Connoisseur" and was such a purist that she announced that she hated chocolate and coffee together, except for my coffee bonbons. I had magical chocolate adventures in France, including making a batch of impromptu thyme bonbons for a small restaurant in Cassis, where just hours before I had been but an impassioned diner.
Eventually, my visa ran out in France and that's when I returned to SF and met Raph and my wholesale adventure really took off. For a sustained time, my bonbons were received fresh in overnight USPS boxes each week at some of the most exclusive retailers in the country, including Bi-Rite, Olivia's in Chicago, Farmshop in LA, Formaggio in New York, The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, and others. It was a bit crazy, but fun. People looked forward to the new flavors each week, and they really got the concept of the freshness. I developed my cult following around the country, and personal relationships with many customers!
I've been back in the Boston area since 2015 (originally a Cantabrigian) and have worked with many wonderful food people here. Notably, my collaborations with Formaggio Kitchen and Sofra, and my pop-ups at Neiman Marcus, have been dreams come true. Also, I met a cute boy (Bobby) at Aeronaut, and now we have a daughter, and we opened our own Cambridge wine and desserts bar, Zuzu's Petals. It's like Stella's meets Chez Panisse meets a Zurich fondue restaurant.
And oh yes, I have taught some epic chocolate classes! At Tante Marie's Cooking School, 18 Reasons, the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, Milk Street Cooking School, Harvard University, and lots of other cool places!
Hope to see you soon! À bientôt !
In Japan's PEN magazine, 2014
Making Valentine's Day chocolates while at business school, Ithaca, 2011
With chef Nicolas Bernardé, graduating
from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris 2006
Dining with Asiya, co-worker and urban fruit forager extraordinaire, at Chez Panisse. Sometimes we were the patrons.
So excited about wine that comes in a carafe, Paris 2004
Making an early large-scale batch of bonbons with my friend and fellow chocolatière, Ariana, Oakland 2007
Foraging lemon verbena and tasting honeysuckle,
Back in Paris, 2011
Making fresh chocolates to bring to retail stores, Oakland, 2013
With Eric Parkes of Somerville Chocolate, during our winter-long takeover of Lizzy's Ice Cream, Cambridge 2016
"Point-blank the most astonishingly delicious chocolates I've ever tasted."
-Bruce Cole, editor, Edible San Francisco
"Très avant garde.... You cannot find chocolates like these in Paris."
-Jean-Pierre Moullé, chef, Chez Panisse Restaurant
"Alexandra is the Parisian fairy of chocolate, working days and often nights making beautiful and delightful bonbons chocolat."
-Chloé Doutre-Roussel, author, The Chocolate Connoisseur
"I was blown away.... Quite simply, the best chocolates I've ever tasted."
-Raph Mogannam, chocolate buyer, Bi-Rite Market