Saturday, February 11, 2017

Art to Eat

My dad was a buyer for department stores, and among other things, was responsible for candy. Once he took my sister and me with him to the Philadelphia Candy Show, where the latest products and equipment were showcased. For me, the most magical thing was an enrobing machine. A slowly moving conveyor belt carried whatever you put on it through a chocolate waterfall. I stood there making chocolate-covered soda crackers for as long as Dad let me. If there was a heaven on earth, this was it. We were literally kids in a candy store.

That came back to me as I stood in Joan Coukos' workshop and facility. The owner of Chocolat Moderne, her 9th floor production space in New York is a place where dreams are made. A self-professed foodie, she grew up in a Greek household eating unusual foods: "Calf brains and caviar at six!" But she was more eater than cook: her mother and grandmother wouldn't let her into the kitchen because she made such a mess.

Dual degrees in in Russian and French from Duke, and an MBA from UNC led her into international finance and a lot of travel, and she eventually became a banker in Moscow for three years. Enroute to Belgium for a vacation, she read an article about chocolatier Pierre Marcolini, a top pastry chef in Europe who treated his chocolate creations like fine pastries. Once in Brussels, while taking a stroll through the market at La Place du Grand Sablon, she stumbled upon some antique chocolate molds, and was stricken. She saw it as a sign, pointing her in a new direction.

She returned to New York, and starting learning all she could about making chocolates. In her tiny apartment she made batch after batch, her co-workers being the beneficiary of her experiments. "I knew this was it. I had a million ideas, I trusted my palate and I had a lot of confidence." She did research, took classes and sought advice from food luminaries like Danny Meyer of Union Square Café. Each step brought her a little closer to her goal. Eventually a reorganization at the bank led to layoffs. Deciding it was now or never, she took her severance and savings, and in 2003 started Chocolat Moderne.

Her goal was to combine her loves of food and art, making chocolates that were delicious, unusual and beautiful. Working in small handmade batches, she uses premium Valrhona chocolate as the base, adding flavors and fillings she creates. For the eyes, she and her staff hand-paint the chocolates with colored cocoa butter, some with Jackson Pollack drippings, others with Peter Max swirls. Then there're the tastes. Her original assortment, now in its twelfth year, includes her signature flavors of grapefruit, single-malt scotch and raspberry. But she has gone far beyond those with her Kimono Collection, featuring chocolates with Shiso Lime, Matcha Green Tea and Soy Miso flavors, and her Greek Revival assortment, showcasing caramels with Kalamata Olive flavoring, others infused with Pomegranate and Rose Water. Her originality and quality have won her numerous awards, features on TV and distribution in high end stores like Barneys, Saks, and Dean and Deluca, whose Japanese catalog this month features Chocolat Moderne on the cover. She's also moving into new channels, including being featured in Amazon Prime's Surprise Sweets program, a special chocolate offering at Starbucks and premium chocolate distributer Chococurb.

I asked Joan what she wants people to get from her chocolates. "I want it to be memorable," she says. "It should start when you see it: first you eat with your eyes. And the taste has to be unique, like no other." She wants to keep growing, but only as long as she can maintain the quality. And she has ideas. The next big thing? She smiles: "I don't like to say ahead of time. But I have my eye on an ingredient that's always been popular, but in a new way."

Joan proudly points to a high shelf in the front of her space. There, nestled next to a display of trophies she's won, are the two antique molds that started it all. And I realized that the feeling I got as a kid sending crackers through that chocolate waterfall is the same she gets when she makes her creations. The difference? I was a kid in a candy store. Joan's still a kid at heart, and she owns the store.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves sweets. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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