Chocolate is a finicky confection that can vex even the most tenacious home chef — tempering tops the list of dreaded techniques, perhaps with perfectly poaching an egg. At an elite level, chocolate making is more art than cooking. When you get to the title of master chocolatier, it might as well be alchemy.
A Palace out of chocolate
Chef Christophe Toury has earned the distinction. On a dreary Saturday in December, I visited him at his bakery, Ebb & Flow, in the waterfront Brooklyn Bridge Park. He recounted one project he completed a few years ago, when an organization called the American Friends of Versailles commissioned him to make a scale replica of its eponymous palace, entirely out of chocolate.
They wanted him to make it by a nearly impossible deadline, and he had just a few days to think it over. He agreed and immediately got to work, diagramming how he would create it with cardboard and paper. The finished product ended up being six square feet, made entirely of Guittard milk and white chocolate, completely with cocoa-butter printed windows.
It took him 12 days working 16 to 18 hours at a time to build it. “I almost became a zombie,” he said. He wasn’t done yet, though—he still had to get it to the party. He loaded the palace, piece by piece, into the backseat of his car and delivered it unbroken.
“They called me back two hours later,” he told me. “Everybody was asking about the castle. It was no longer about the party.”
Being a master chocolatier is not about building elaborate edible arrangements under pressure, though, or navigating New York City traffic with precious cargo. For Toury, it is about practice, precision, and a healthy dose of artistry.
An art form
Toury is from a small city outside of Paris, and he trained in a French culinary school. He did not start with only chocolate, but learned baking, pastry, and all sorts of different disciplines.
After an apprenticeship at a small bakery, Toury spent time at the Ritz in Paris. Still, he wanted to travel, which brought him first to the Essex House Hotel in New York City, and then to the Four Seasons in Maui. Finally, the Four Seasons in New York invited him to be its executive pastry chef.
He loved the adventure, but working for the hotel industry striped some of the joy out of being a chef. For the guests, their stay is not just about the food, and they leave after a few days. At a restaurant, on the other hand, chefs can easily measure if a customer enjoyed their experience by whether they come back or not.
Toury also never really had the chance to develop his first love of chocolate. In 2010, though, the legendary chocolatier Jacques Torres approached him with a job. It was almost like another round of culinary school. “It allowed me to perfect myself,” Toury said.
I asked Toury what drew him to chocolate. “It’s almost like a live product,” he told me. “It requires so many kinds of knowledge and experience to really figure out what’s going on.” He said that many chefs are scared off by its intricacy. Part of this, of course, is the art of tempering: melting and cooling chocolate in such a way that it retains its crystal structure.
“Chocolate allows you to do a lot of things like an art form,” Toury said. “You’re going to push yourself.”
He told me about another project, for the Broadway show Hello, Dolly! They asked him to reproduce old-fashioned cash registers, but made of chocolate. Like the Versailles Palace, the request was on a fast timeline—and they wanted 200 of them. He didn’t even have time to make a mold. Instead, he built a prototype out of cardboard and made each register by hand. By the end of the project, he had hand-crafted more than 7,000 pieces of chocolate in just three weeks.
Like a sculptor, material plays a fundamental role in design. Unlike a sculptor, chocolatiers have to take into account not only the structural integrity of their building blocks, but how they taste. Dark chocolate has more cocoa content, so it is stronger and better for tall structures. White chocolate and milk chocolate have milk powder in them, so they won’t hold up in heavy structures. Still, their light colors are necessary to make the final product more appealing. On top of all of that, Toury tries to incorporate the preferences of the customers. Each detail is meticulously planned. “It’s almost like you have to be inside the chocolate to know how it’s going to react,” he told me.
Ebb & Flow’s chocolates and pastries
Although Toury has been focusing on chocolate for years now, Ebb & Flow was his first opportunity to combine all of his experience and helm a bakery. The kitchen may be the smallest he has ever worked in, but he has full freedom and independence to pursue his vision.
“If a chef isn’t happy, obviously the food is not that good,” he told me. Having sampled some of Ebb & Flow’s chocolates and pastries, I can attest that he must be very happy. The chocolate was crisp and delicate, whether molded into a Christmas tree or draped over ginger, and the perfect balance of sweet and bitter. The pastries—a glossy pecan pie, an impossibly light tarte tropézienne, a chocolate log filled with hazelnut dacquoise, and many others — made me think that I had perhaps never really visited a great bakery before.
Looking over all these creations, it was obvious why this level of chocolate-making is impossible in a home kitchen. Tempering may be conquerable with patience, but this type of ability requires years of training and all sorts of fancy gadgets (including, for Ebb & Flow, several fountains that keep chocolate at an ideal circulating temperature).
Toury said that he rarely bakes at home, but still thinks it’s a great place to practice. “If you want to succeed in your own kitchen, you will find space, you will find tools, you will push things around,” he told me.
For now, though, I’m happy to leave it to the masters.