Behind the Scenes: Chocolate masters

Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes

Whenever I see an e-mail from a pastry chef, I know it’s going to be good. The one I received a week ago from the Sebastian Hotel’s pastry chef, Dale Desimone, exceeded expectations. Valrhona Chocolate was conducting a two-day intensive workshop for clients in the hotel’s pastry kitchen, affectionately known as the “dungeon.” They had the sense not to invite me to cook, but were gracious to offer lunch and an afternoon of observing and tasting. Chocolate? Valrhona? No brain cells were required to consider that invitation!

Six pastry chefs from Denver, Vail and Aspen attended the workshop. It’s part of Valrhona’s partnership philosophy that brings together clients and Valrhona chefs for an inspirational learning experience. Corporate pastry chef Derek Poirier spent two days introducing the chefs to recent additions to Valrhona’s family of gastronomic chocolates, Dulcey and Opalys. The piece-de-resistance was a truly heavenly buffet of confectionary alchemy, pleasing to all the senses.

Caviar of chocolate

Chocolate is a luxury. Valrhona is a French company that makes luxury chocolate. So, do two luxuries make a necessity? Once you’ve tasted Valrhona’s near magical combination of cocoa, sugar and dairy, you will certainly think so! I now crave this caviar of chocolate after my afternoon transcendental chocolate experience with Poirier.

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Valrhona’s origins are rooted in the rich terrain of the Tain l’Heritage region of southern France. In 1922, artisan pastry chef Alberic Guironnet created his own chocolate rather than use the poor-quality product available to him. The pastry chef’s creation of superior quality chocolate for pastry chefs was initially sold under the label “La Chocolatier de Vivarais.” In 1947, the brand “Valrhona” was born. The name created from the amalgamation of “Vallee” and “Rhone” from the region’s name, Vallee du Rhone, is now synonymous with chocolate perfection. Ninety-one years later, the company’s philosophy remains grounded in Giuronnet’s fervent dedication to quality.

Valrhona’s global reach includes three pastry and chocolate schools, known as L’Ecole du Grand Chocolat, two cocoa plantations and over 60 global distributors. As part of Valrhona’s philosophy of partnership with clients, they often conduct these intensive by-invitation-only courses. The course at the Sebastian was a well-timed opportunity for clients to learn some creative, inspirational tips on using the company’s two new chocolates — Dulcey (world’s first blond chocolate) and Opalys (a white chocolate with 10 percent more milk and 10 percent less sugar than the company’s other white, Ivoire). Poirier was the perfect chocolate maestro for sharing knowledge.

The feminine touch

When I walked into the boardroom for lunch, the gender composition of the chefs surprised me. All six participants were young women. As I quickly discovered they were young, incredibly talented women.

A room full of women pastry chefs shouldn’t surprise me. Although chefs on the savory side of restaurants are still predominately male, the feminine touch increasingly governs pastry kitchens where attention to detail and precision are keys to success. I can feel the ire of my male pastry chef-friends building, but statistics do support that theory.

In the last 10 years, women won a decisive majority of James Beard pastry chef awards. The Harvard of culinary schools, Culinary Institute of America, reported women comprise approximately 85 percent of its Baking and Pastry Arts programs, while only 35 percent of the Culinary Arts students are women, albeit that number is growing each year. Obviously, the hard work of lugging 50-pound bags of sugar and flour doesn’t deter women from taking on the grueling work of a pastry chef. In fact, the women chefs said it’s the best way for them to stay fit despite hours of exposure to abundant sugary confections.

Given I am not adept at pastry much less working with temperamental chocolate, I was quite satisfied to observe the six pastry chefs work with Poirier and Desimone. However, I must admit a little disappointment in not attending the entire course simply because chocolate is so fascinating.

My first opportunity to taste came during lunch. We were presented with beautiful pots-de-crème of Valrhona Opalys white chocolate panna cotta speckled with flavor-packed vanilla bean seeds. Desimone’s assistant pasty chef Laura Kretzing, one of the six participants, prepared the streusel topping that provided an opposing crunchy texture against the silkiness of the panna cotta. The tart raspberries rounded out the flavor combination. Raspberries and white chocolate are epicurean partners that never fail to please.

One lesson I learned is that “altitude” is a four-letter word for pastry chefs and makes a great excuse for less-than-perfect results. However, Poirier said not many changes in their recipes were necessary. Desimone and Kretzing tested each recipe before the course. Poirier only “tweaked” the recipes, particularly those with high sugar content, such as the souffle. Dairy products, not altitude, prove to be a bigger challenge for Poirier since each region’s milk tastes different and has different qualities. The cream used for this program proved to be challenging.

After a few fascinating videos of four of America’s most successful pastry chefs and chocolatiers, we moved to the kitchen. Here’s where the real fun began.

A mistake becomes gold

My first introduction to my new best friend — Dulcey — came in the form of a handmade chocolate truffle. A crisp, milk chocolate shell cocooned the creamy chocolate filling that had hints of caramel, salt and shortbread. That was Dulcey, Valrhona’s contribution to the world — the first blond chocolate.

I’m sure there are reams of recipes derived from kitchen mistakes that turned into classic flavors. Dulcey is now on that list. Chef Frederic Bau of Valrhona’s L’Ecole du Grand Chocolat is to thank for his curiosity after forgetting some white chocolate in a bain-marie for 10 hours. The aroma of Breton shortbread and the blond color of the formerly white chocolate intrigued him thereby sparing the chocolate a premature toss down the disposal. Thank you chef, because his curiosity and talent gave us this delicious, unusual cousin of white chocolate.

Eight years of research followed before Valrhona developed the perfect recipe to commercially produce blond chocolate. Although pastry chefs like Desimone had used the technique of roasting white chocolate, Valrhona’s Dulcey now provides them with a consistently high-quality blond chocolate. Perhaps now that Dulcey is spreading across the U.S. thanks to these short, intense courses, we will see more ganache, creameaux and molded showpieces made from this unusual chocolate. I look forward to the next “mistake” a Valrhona chef makes!

The final assembly of the buffet was an exciting moment. The chefs shuttled their nine desserts to the foyer outside the hotel’s ballrooms. Poirier artfully arranged the desserts to give perfect visual “tastes.” Remember, eyes are the first sense engaged in the process of tasting.

When all was done, pictures snapped and tasting begun, I asked Poirier to give me one word to describe why he loves chocolate, as evidenced by his seven years with Valrhona. He couldn’t. I guess it’s difficult to express in one word something that evokes so much emotion as chocolate. He did say, however, that he loves working with it because each time is challenge. Different temperatures, dairy products and techniques all affect it. Needless to say, he loves the day-to-day opportunity to share experiences, “the building blocks of knowledge,” with his colleagues and clients. Judging by the results, Valrhona and their clients will continue to delight chocolate lovers across the globe.

Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blog is Email comments about this story to

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