When Karen Urbanek first heard about the travel ban against citizens of seven specific countries put in place by the newly elected president earlier this year, she expressed her outrage in her current artistic medium: chocolate.
The six-piece collection of bonbons by Flying Noir is called “Out of Country,” and among them includes one representing Syria with Aleppo chilies with caramel and clove; one representing Iran with pistachio, rose and saffron, and one representing Yemen, with its trademark spice mix hawaj.
The box itself is wrapped in a page from an old atlas, with stamps representing footprints across different territories. The collection just took top honors in “Truffle Artistry,” at a competition sponsored by the International Chocolate Salon.
Another “Chocolate Survival Kit” comes in a reusable metal container that looks like it could contain sardines, and has only bonbons with no dairy in them; so they’re guaranteed to have a much longer shelf life — up to a year.
While Flying Noir has garnered national awards, does a fair amount of online business and is sold at San Francisco’s high-end Bi-Rite Market, it has yet to register on most East Bay residents’ radars, even though Urbanek lives in Oakland, and her kitchen is in North Berkeley.
One reason for that, she thinks, is that she does everything herself — including designing the boxes, making the illustrated explanations that go inside, running her website, making the chocolates themselves and delivering them to customers — which leaves little time for marketing.
Then, there’s the price point. These chocolates are stunningly beautiful and obviously hand-crafted with artisanal, high-quality ingredients — she sources her chocolate from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, and sources as much of her ingredients locally as she can — but that means quite a high price tag. The six-piece survival kit is $22, a 16-piece box is $60.
As if to prove how these chocolates are a luxury item, Urbanek was just invited to appear in a leather-bound book given to Rolls Royce owners, with an invitation to attend a retreat where she could display them; but that invitation came with a $10,000 entrance fee. (She won’t be going.)
When Urbanek says she sets nearly impossibly high standards for herself, you believe her; it’s evident in the meticulously designed and hand-painted chocolates using natural dyes that glimmer with gold and other jewel-toned hues. She uses the tag line “art plus chocolate” because they’re both equally important in her mind.
“Of course, they can’t just be pretty, the quality has to be there, too,” she said. “I view each box as a composition, in terms like a painting. It has to have places for the eyes to rest. I don’t use cardboard dividers, and the boxes are dense and small.”
As for the name, Flying Noir, it has numerous meanings, many of them personal and referring to the time she lived in Mendocino, when she began making chocolate. “Being in the zone, whether you’re making chocolate or art, can be painful but exhilarating,” Urbanek said. “You get totally absorbed as if you are just flying.”
Noir also represents mystery, she said, and both with her art, and her chocolate, she likes to leave the viewer/taster with some uncertainty.
“I say I like to leave room for the conversation, for the eye of the soul to rest,” she said. “That carries over into the way I compose things in chocolate. I like that people taste different things and can’t quite identify something, or identify something that’s not there.”
For many years, before getting into chocolate, Urbanek was a visual artist. She made works that looked like large paintings, but were rather made from natural-dyed silk fibers. She became an expert in natural dyes, which led to her doing development work in such countries as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia and the Philippines, helping the locals make their businesses sustainable.
“Now I see how that environmental work translates right over to chocolate,” she said. “As there’s no way I could have used synthetic colors on it.”
Around 30 years ago, Urbanek started making truffles with a recipe she found in the original Chez Panisse cookbook. She was exhibiting her art at galleries, and thought if she walked around with a plate of truffles, she could eavesdrop on what people were saying about her work.
But she quickly learned that people were having conversations about anything but her art.
“You can’t look at work seriously during an opening at a gallery, and if you are, you’re standing there silently gazing at it,” she said.
By 2008 the economic recession hit, and the art market, of course, was deeply affected. She began to think about other ways to earn a living.
By this time, she had gotten better at her truffle-making, but she knew she could improve.
She enrolled in the online course at Vancouver’s Ecole Chocolat School of Chocolate Arts, in which “you are seriously teaching yourself with their guidance,” she said. “I was coming up with a lot of my own creations and techniques.”
Her career in chocolate began in earnest when she appeared at a few trade shows, which won her numerous awards. One got her an appearance on The Today Show, and several years ago, she was listed as making one of the top 10 truffles in the U.S. by Forbes. The trade magazine “Dessert Professional” has also named Urbanek one of the top 10 chocolatiers in America.
While Urbanek is grateful for recognition whenever and from wherever it comes, she is a bit disappointed that there’s never any mention of her working with natural dyes.
“I find that sad, as natural colors are harder to work with than chemicals,” she said.
Urbanek recently collaborated with Eight Tables (an upscale Chinese restaurant part of China Live in San Francisco that features a $225 tasting menu) to design chocolates for its guests with such unusual flavor profiles as smoked soy sauce with caramel and one with orange zest, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns.
Her flavor combinations are certainly the most unusual we’ve ever tried. For the most part, this works to her advantage. For example, one with smoked soy sauce was a revelation in taste; we had never tasted any chocolate like it before, and found it sublime. But another, with some sort of Chinese grass left us scratching our heads. With such unique flavor combinations, a few might be bound to miss, but each time we declared one our favorite, we’d taste one later that overrode that declaration. This was no normal chocolate experience; it was all about seeing how the combinations landed on our palates.
“I’m always playing with ingredients,” she said. “I just put something in my mouth and then put a piece a chocolate and then maybe some booze or coffee and chew it up and see how it tastes, or I let it linger and think my way through it. The thinking part is really important.”
Urbanek thinks about growing the company, and especially being able to hire and train people who need job skills.
But even with all of her awards, she says she loves working with chocolate because there’s always more to learn.
“Chocolate is amazing,” she said. “The science of analyzing it is still pretty new, and they’re just now realizing how complex it is now, as well as its health benefits.”