Ex-Chez Panisse pastry chef is back as chocolatier

Chocolates

Chocolates with bacon, created by gâté comme des filles in collaboration with The Local Butcher shop, and made of house-cured bacon, organic cream, organic sugar, organic maple syrup, and a blend of dark chocolate from Valrhona. Photo: gâté comme des filles

When the buyer at San Francisco’s artisanal mecca Bi-Rite Market proclaims a certain brand of chocolates to be “exquisite– quite simply, the best I’ve ever tasted,” it would be wise to pay attention.

The chocolates in question are made by Alexandra Whisnant, under the name gâté comme des filles chocolats (a French line that loosely translates as Spoiled Like the Girls Chocolates). So far, they are sold at The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley (made with their own signature bacon) and through online food delivery service Good Eggs.

Whisnant, a chocolatier by trade, has just relocated gâté comme des filles from Paris to the Bay Area.

Alexandra Whisnant

Alexandra Whisnant: has just relocated her chocolate company from Paris to the Bay Area. Photo: gâté comme des filles

Originally from Boston, Whisnant, 30, went to France while learning French and majoring in physics at Duke University. She had no desire to do the traditional study abroad program and wanted to immerse herself in French culture, so she took a semester off and enrolled in the basic pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu. She enjoyed it so much, she says, that she extended her stay through the summer, to take the intermediate class.

After graduating from Duke, she headed back to Paris to do the final part of the program, and did a two-month internship at Ladurée. The famed macaron maker was her first choice.

She says she especially loved working the night shift there, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., when they did all the cake decorating, such as applying gold leaf.

When she returned to California, she landed an internship and then became a pastry cook at Chez Panisse, where she stayed for two years. It was there that she began making truffles for the restaurant, and decided to specialize in chocolate.

“It’s definitely my favorite food, but besides liking to eat it, it appeals to my scientific and artistic side,” she said. With pastry, you must be really precise. I also wanted to really hone in on something, and felt chocolate had fewer variables (no flour or eggs are used, as with most pastry) but had so much opportunity for expression.”

Noisette: ganache with notes of freshly roasted oregon hazelnut, plated with pure gold

Noisette: ganache with notes of freshly roasted oregon hazelnut, plated with pure gold. Photo: gâté comme des filles

While Whisnant says she liked chocolate as a child, she remembers tasting Valrhona for the first time almost 10 years ago. That led her on a journey, buying the book The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloe Doutre-Roussel, a French author and teacher who later became her mentor in Paris.

While at Chez Panisse, Whisnant started making chocolates on her own time as well as for pop-up events, and led tastings for the staff. This led her to begin thinking about starting her own business. She headed to Cornell to get an M.B.A., after which she returned to Paris and began selling her own chocolates from a shop there.

It was on a visit back to the Bay Area where she ran into The Local Butcher Shop’s Aaron Rocchino, whom she knew from Chez Panisse. He convinced her that the Bay Area was the perfect place to start her chocolate business.

As it turns out, he didn’t have to twist her arm very hard.

“It’s so inspiring, seeing all the businesses and entrepreneurship that’s really exploded in the past few years,” she said. “It’s so vibrant and I just wanted to be part of it. People are really into the pop-up stuff, and they’re open and adventurous and the ingredients here are amazing.”

Her seasonal collection, available from Good Eggs, now features Meyer lemon, vanilla bean, coffee, and toasted almond. The offering changes according to what’s available – the Meyer lemons currently being used are from her sister’s tree.

Whisnant’s ganache is made from Straus organic cream, and each piece is hand-dipped, which is why these bonbons don’t come cheap – a nine-piece box  costs $35.

Citron Meyer: citrus ganache made with freshly juiced Meyer lemons from Whisnant's sister's garden

Citron Meyer: citrus ganache made with freshly juiced Meyer lemons from Whisnant’s sister’s garden. Photo: gâté comme des filles

The Local Butcher Shop turned out to be her first collaboration, too, with her bacon-flavored chocolates, made so delicious she said, because “their bacon is sustainably raised, local, organic with their own in-house spice rub, and it’s just the best bacon in the universe.” She continued, “It’s a really nice balance of smoky, fruity and a little spicy.”

Clearly a mutual love fest is going on between the collaborators. “Her chocolates are amazing,” said Monica Rocchino, co-owner of The Local Butcher Shop. “Silky smooth with just the right hint of smokiness and saltiness. They are gorgeous to boot. All of her chocolates are incredible, so when she agreed to try making a bacon chocolate with our bacon we were elated.”

This writer would have to agree. The chocolates glistened upon first opening the box, with some of them having an iridescent sheen. A Meyer lemon one was adorned with a sliver of candied lemon peel, another was crown-shaped and had gold leaf.

The ganache in these chocolates is what makes them so special, truly “like buttah” at room temperature. And, with no preservatives of any kind, they should be eaten within 5 days.

While at Chez Panisse, Whisnant learned that after a few days, the flavors can dissipate. “A delicate raspberry ganache is amazing the first day or two, but then the flavor fades.” Because of that, Whisnant’s goal is to get her chocolates into consumer’s hands as soon as possible.

With high-end chocolates such as hers, she said, people tend to hide them away in a drawer to avoid sharing them, to be savored on a special occasion, slowly, sometimes, months later.

Don’t even try that with hers, she warned. “Open them right away and share them right away,” she said. “They are meant to be a celebration of the season and the moment because all of the ingredients are fresh.”

Alexandra Whisnant will be at Highwire Coffee Roasters in Rockridge’s Market Hall on Dec. 24 selling her assorted chocolates, including a coffee one made with Highwire’s Kenya coffee.

Alix Wall is a personal chef and freelance writer in Oakland.

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  • Chris J

    Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph…$35 for 9 chocolate bon-bons? Organic milk, hand dipped…(gak)…well, no doubt with a pedigree like hers (and a fabulous name, too–‘Whisnant’) they are worth every penny.

    Still…I remain absolutely flummoxed at the costs and pricing associated with small, artisanal food makers, be it gluten-free chips, bon bons, pastured eggs, or whatever. Yes, yes, I realize that supporting organic and natural products rather than commercial makers and an alternative food system like that (the way food used to be made before industrialization denuded it of taste, quality, and safety) using better ingredients isn’t cheap…

    But. Here’s the thing. Its a bon bon for $3.88. And yes, I want to support the alternative food supply movement such as Good Eggs and their fine, fine products, but…but…wow. It’s too…precious. Is that the word they use now?

    I’m planning a family dinner soon for 11 people which will be serving a variety of French dishes…duck confit, cheese soufflés, a nice salad, a mushroom terrine…and I can’t go organic. I will go sorta-natural from Berkeley Bowl, I’ll use commercially gathered or grown produce, and will shop mostly at Berkeley Bowl West. It will be the best quality commercially grown produce I can pick. I will bake my own bread. I will candy my own pecans. I will make my own duck confit. I will roll my own tart dough, caramelize my own sugar, and work like an immigrant with three jobs for three days to do it all, but SERIously… The process won’t include heirloom flour, duck rillettes at $16/4oz, or organic butter and milk or pastured eggs at 85c a pop.

    I am frustrated beyond measure at the prices the artisans feel they need to charge. And yes, I GET it. With an alternative food supply system each embraces food of better quality and safety, better working conditions for the food workers around the world and embracing social and financial justice, well… I feel guilty just saying it and by not buying a bon bon for $3.88 I am reminded that I’m not doing my part to support some chocolate-picker in a tropical in her struggle against an oppressive landowner taking advantage of her, but…

    I have to do what I can to feed 11 people next week. All I can do is be my own artisan which is as fair as I can make it, and buy the meat and produce that I can afford, wish the artisans a merry Christmas, and wish the best for social justice here and abroad.

    Am I helping by not eating at fast food restaurants, voting with my wallet? I hope so. By buying staples and making things on my own from scratch, am I doing the planet some good? I hope so. Hey, I ride my bike to work a lot, avoid excessive fats, but I simply can’t swing bon bons for $3.88…not to pick on Elizabeth Whisnant in particular (I’m sure she’s a lovely and competent chocolatier and pastry chef).

    The irony of this all is that I’m quite interested in pursuing some sort of artisanal food career myself and I wrestle with having to charge what the artisans charge, and consider eschewing organic and ‘prescious’, so to speak, for local commercial…just to keep the prices more ‘real’. It may be impossible…I don’t know. Are there people out there in Berkeley who would like a good loaf of bread or a wheel of cheese that ISN’T organic but just locally sourced? I’d like to know that there is some sort of intermediate market for good quality foodstuffs that are local, commercial, and reasonably priced.

    Ok, end of rant. Thanks for reading…and my apologies to Ms Whisnant. I didn’t mean to pick her out of the barrel and heap scorn, but frustration? Yah huh…

  • BerkeleyCitizen

    All of that needed to be said, I think. I like chocolate well enough, but it seems everyone and his mother is into making it these days. One more person doing it and raising the bar at the high end, with real gold-leaf to boot, isn’t going to be an issue for me, any more than are the hundreds of other chi-chi artisinal creations of which the Roman Emperors among us partake. Bread and circuses!

  • ChocolateFiend

    I know her chocolates are pricey, but have you tried them? I have and it was a culinary experience that I still think about…months later. I tried a few delectable Earl Grey flavored truffles and somehow it took me down a path into an English Garden: misty fog, damp cold, roasted wood, roses, lavender, and the faintest air of bergamot. There are chocolates you eat because you have a craving and honestly it doesn’t matter what brand you stick in your mouth. But if you crave a chocolate experience, these are the ones for you.

  • Chris J

    No, I haven’t tried them myself and I certainly don’t question the pedigree of the maker nor her quality. By the same token, since she’s a Chez Panisse alumnus, she knows that most people who eat at that restaurant probably don’t do it on any regular or weekly basis, but more like a special occasion that might occur once a year–if.

    My wife and I like to eat out and found our Chez Panisse experience very delightful a couple of years ago–and we dropped somewhere in the vicinity of $250 plus for the two of us. We both determined that, as nice as the food and time was had, for that kind of money, we could have eaten at perhaps 2-3 other very fine establishments for an equally wonderful culinary experience–or nearly so.

    Translate to $3.88 bon bons. While I will gladly pass on a Hershey and almonds bar, on those rare occasions where I desire a fantastic chocolate drop into my mouth, just as substituting other great restaurants for Chez Pee, I would do the same for these chocolates…with all due respect to the experience of walking down an English lane in my mind after eating her early grey bonbon.

  • BerkeleyCitizen

    Just curious about how much “a few” of the Earl Grey truffles cost you. I can’t imagine craving a chocolate experience, but am highly anticipating the pleasure of another trip to England, where I’ll enjoy a whole-body experience of the gardens, mist… and much more :-)

  • Chris J

    All this simply inspires me to make my own bonbons, which, no doubt,won’t be as crazy good as these women’s might be, but regardless, I get a satisfaction from results reasonably well done.

  • guest

    Not on my budget, except,,,,, Valentine’s Day