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Did You Know San Diego had a Booming Artisan Chocolate Scene?

Written and Photographed By: Bhadri Kubendran San Diego Chocolatiers

America’s Finest City, San Diego, immediately conjures up images of abundant sun and surf, tastes of Cali-Baja cuisine and award-winning craft beer. But who would have thought that this lovely city is a forerunner in cutting-edge artisan chocolate making on par with some of the best chocolate destinations in the world? San Diego chocolates exhibit their playful SoCal vibes while embracing global flavor influences. These chocolates bear the stamp of commitment to fair trade, sustainability and precision quality. Without further ado, let us embark on a fun chocolate trail across San Diego County from Carlsbad to Barrio Logan, Sorrento Valley to South Park, and culminating at Downtown San Diego, while sampling single-origin chocolate bars as well as creative truffles/bonbons, and conversing with the incredible talent behind these delightful confections.

 

Isabella Valencia, Dallmann Confections

Q: How did you get into chocolate creation/making? Any major inspirations?

Isabella Valencia: My family has been working with confections for generations, and it was a natural progression. When I was younger, I didn’t think I wanted to follow in their footsteps, but after I actually started working with chocolate, I found I really enjoyed it. There’s a lot of creative freedom in chocolate.

Q: How do you stand apart in a market flooded and saturated with big brand chocolates?

IV: Sourcing and ingredients: Many big brands of chocolate don’t ethically source the ingredients they use and add things to their chocolate that can interfere with the mouth feel and taste such as Palm oil, coconut oil, and wheat. Our chocolates don’t add things like that, and it shows in the end product. Once people taste the difference, they seek our chocolates out. We also have a wide range of unique flavors with real infusions of rose water, thyme, lavender and even bacon. When you use real ingredients, it just tastes better.

Q: Where do you source your beans or raw chocolate from, and why?

IV: We import all our cocoa from Switzerland. The reason for this is that they make sure everything is fair trade and that the quality standards are high. They’re one of the largest distributors of artisan cocoa in the world and allow us to choose the individual countries the beans come from. This allows us to have strong, unique flavor profiles without adding any flavors at all! Single origin chocolate is really becoming popular.

Q: What is your take on San Diego’s chocolate scene?

IV: It is certainly growing. I think people in San Diego are able to experience many different cuisines and cultures, which is wonderful! We are known as a town that knows artisan beer, but it is clear people are growing more refined in their chocolate choices as well.

Q: What did your first steps look like when starting your small business? What challenges did you face?

IV: My first steps looked like me making a few flavors of my truffles and going from hotel to hotel, trying to sell them. I was lucky to have a few people who really supported and wanted me to succeed, but it was still challenging. Thankfully, almost everyone likes chocolate! Building a client base was a big challenge, but well worth the effort.

Q: What are your favorite flavor infusions in chocolate and why?

IV: I love the sea salt caramel, mostly because it is the one everyone falls in love with. It is wonderful to see how much people enjoy my chocolates. I also really like the coconut curry, because it is so unique and surprises people! I love them all though. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t make them.

Q: Where do you think the artisan chocolate industry is headed towards? Are we going to witness any new cutting-edge techniques and new kinds of chocolate?

IV: I think chocolate is heading the same direction of wine, beer and coffee. People have access to better brews and ingredients. They’re learning what great chocolate is and will want more of that than the cheap bulk product they’ve had in the past. There already are some amazing innovations happening. Some chocolate makers are designing chocolate that won’t melt in the sun (which is at once amazing and maybe a little worrisome). New flavors are being discovered all the time, and there is even a heritage genome project to try to rediscover and cultivate previously rare and even extinct varieties of cacao. It is all very exciting.

 

Chef Michael Antonorsi of Chuao Chocolatier

Q: How did you get into chocolate creation/making? Any major inspirations?

Michael Antonorsi: After earning a degree in Bioengineering at UCSD and working in the technology field for 14 years in Venezuela, I decided to stop chasing my ego and start following my heart. In my mid 30’s I moved my wife and daughters to Paris so I could pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a chef. Between the fact that I am from Venezuela, a country known for its high-quality cacao, and that my great grandfather owned a cacao plantation, it’s no surprise that chocolate has always been close to my heart. So naturally, when I studied French culinary arts I chose to specialize in chocolate and pastry making. During my time in Europe, I became inspired by Spain’s culinary scene. Their focus on the sensory experience greatly influenced by the approach to chocolate and led to me co-found Chuao Chocolatier with my brother Richard here in San Diego, where we both had attended UCSD.

Q: How do you stand apart in a market flooded and saturated with big brand chocolates?

MA: One word–joy. It’s the intention behind everything we do. In fact, we consider ourselves a joy company that just happens to craft deliciously engaging chocolate experiences. Our hope is that each of our creations is a joy ride, a fun flavor concept with culinary twists and texture turns along the way. The beautifully mouth-watering packaging catches your eye and the joy that comes as the flavors develop on your palate…well, they keep you coming back for more.

Q: Where do you source your cacao/cocoa beans or raw chocolate from, and why?

MA: Our proprietary, a premium chocolate blend is formulated to my specifications using only ethically sourced cacao. The taste profile of our blend is part of the secret to our award-winning culinary creations.  

Q: What is your take on San Diego’s chocolate scene?

MA: San Diego’s culinary offerings are continuing to grow in complexity and variety. Fortunately, chocolate is also part of this trend. (And even more fortunately, chocolate is an amazing match with our city’s exploding local craft beer scene!) As more and more chocolatiers pop up locally, we are cheering them on and celebrating their successes.

Q: What did your first steps look like when starting Chuao as a small business? What challenges did you face?

MA: Starting Chuao was an exciting challenge. Not only were we starting a business in a new country, but we had no experience in the food industry, packaged goods industry, or in retail for that matter. All we had was passion and drive. We had to ask the 16-year-old attendant at the surf shop next door to teach us how to use a cash register. It was also very hard to forecast for high-volume chocolate seasons like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. We’d be working very long hours preparing boxes before we would open the next day. We learned a lot about communicating with our consumers during this period of initial growth, and we learned that chocolate is one of the most universal ways to share joy. We also learned that chocolate can get you through anything. (Don’t ask how many bonbons and truffles I ate daily.)

Q: What are your favorite flavor infusions in a chocolate and why?

MA: That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! One of my favorite things about working with chocolate is the challenge of creating a meal inside a chocolate shell; there are endless possibilities as chocolate can carry a great variety of aromas and textures. I have a different ‘favorite’ every day, whether it’s the tropical notes of passionfruit caramel in our Sweet Passion bonbon, the crunch of caramelized organic honey in Honeycomb or the fun of chipotle, popping candy and sea salt in our Firecracker bar. Having said that, I do think that spices work wonderfully with chocolate, providing a very rich taste experience with a multi-layered delivery.

Q: Where do you think the artisan chocolate industry is headed towards? Are we going to witness any new cutting-edge techniques and new kinds of chocolate?

MA: I like to think of chocolate as the ancient food of the future. It originated whole and complete. That is why the cacao tree is called Theobroma Cacao, or ‘food of the gods.’ I can’t imagine any cutting-edge techniques that could transform its true essence. Maybe through technology like 3D printing, you will see some innovation in shapes and structures, but it’s always chocolate in the end. On the other hand, in regards to the flavor combinations, inclusions and infusions, I think these will continuously evolve as our eating habits evolve. But in the end, regardless of what you add to it, chocolate is always both King and Queen.

 

Sandra Bedoya of Nibble Chocolate

Q: How did you get into chocolate creation/making? Any major inspirations?

Sandra Bedoya: Our inspiration developed from our passion for real and natural foods. As a result of a drastic diet change a few years back we struggled in finding high-quality foods in every category, including chocolate. We also are passionate about business, so we wanted our business to be something we were passionate about, a business that promoted a healthy lifestyle, and that contributed to the well-being of everyone—sustainable and ethical.

Q: How do you stand apart in a market flooded and saturated with big brand chocolates?

SB: We stand apart by keeping it simple. Basically, going back to basics similar to previous times when food was real, before we started worrying too much about low prices and started adding so many cheap and unhealthy additives to our foods. We also source our cocoa beans ethically making sure no one is being taken advantage of in the process, this ensures high-quality materials that bring high-quality results in the taste of our chocolate. Our chocolate is vegan and organic.

Q: Where do you source your cacao/cocoa beans or raw chocolate from, and why?

SB: We source our cacao beans from Brazil, Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Peru. We source from these places because they are sustainable, ethical, high quality, certified organic and because we liked the flavor profiles.

Q: What is your take on San Diego’s chocolate scene?

SB: San Diegans are learning more about the intricate process of chocolate and the importance of maintaining a healthy diet. Even little kids are enjoying a darker chocolate flavor and we see this at the farmers markets.

Q: What did your first steps look like when starting your small business? What challenges did you face?

SB: We started making our chocolate in our own home, which was definitely inconvenient and challenging. Learning to make the chocolate took a lot of effort and several trial and error runs. With a lot of patience, we had to overcome challenges in each step of the process: the roasting, the winnowing, the tempering. We even had to create our own equipment since chocolate making equipment is very expensive. It has been a process but totally worthwhile.

Q: What are your favorite flavor infusions in a chocolate and why?

SB: Nuts and peppermint. They compliment the chocolate very well, are delicious and also healthy.

Q: Where do you think the artisan chocolate industry is headed towards? Are we going to witness any new cutting-edge techniques and new kinds of chocolate?

SB: The artisan chocolate industry seems to be headed towards a trend to reconnect with a more traditional chocolate making approach, a more conscious buying process and an appreciation towards high-quality cocoa beans and flavor profiles.

Will Gustwiller of Eclipse Chocolate

Q: How did you get into chocolate creation/making? Any major inspirations?  

Will Gustwiller: Having spent my background exploring the visual arts, I’ve always enjoyed seeing how my creative endeavors are perceived. It’s very rewarding to see our guests savor a feast for all the senses.

Q: How do you stand apart in a market flooded and saturated with big brand chocolates?

WG: We make everything by hand, without the aid of a mechanized production line. As such, we can create flavor profiles and textures that a machine could never master.

Q: Where do you source your cacao/cocoa beans or raw chocolate from, and why?

WG: We work with Guittard Chocolate of San Francisco—they are the only family owned historic chocolate company that hasn’t sold to a parent corporation. For 150 years, they have ethically sourced premium cacao from around the world. We are proud to exclusively use their Fair Trade-certified couverture chocolate for our confections.

Q: What is your take on San Diego’s chocolate scene?

WG: San Diego’s chocolate scene is peppered with a diverse group confectioners making a number of unique treats—it’s an exciting region to explore.

Q: What did your first steps look like when starting your small business? What challenges did you face?

WG: I am a small business to the core, even after 12 years of growth and evolution. A lot has changed over the years, but I am still a Sole Proprietor who is 100 percent invested in our hyper-local company identity—I live just down the street from EC in the heart of South Park, & the majority of our team lives within walking distance. Maintaining an intimate relationship with your local community can be a challenge as a company grows. I am proud to be among the ‘good faith’ food brands of SD.

Q: What are your favorite flavor infusions in a chocolate and why?

WG: Personally, I love dark and smoky flavors—they pair so well with the bitter notes in cacao. We applewood smoke ingredients in-house, like our smoked muscovado brown sugar.

Q: Where do you think the artisan chocolate industry is headed towards? Are we going to witness any new cutting-edge techniques and new kinds of chocolate?

WG: With global demand sharply on the rise, I think we’ll see cheaper (palm oil fortified) chocolate dominate the mass market, pushing fine couverture (cocoa butter enriched chocolate) confections further into the periphery of the artisanal landscape.

 

Chef Andrea Davis of Andrea’s Truffles

Q: How did you get into chocolate creation/making? Any major inspirations?  

Andrea Davis: I just kinda started as a hobby, and it evolved from there.

Q: How do you stand apart in a market flooded and saturated with big brand chocolates?

AD: We do everything by hand, from the cutting to the dipping to tempering. Also, we cook a lot of our infusions down, and custom make flavors for our clients.

Q: Where do you source your cacao/cocoa beans or raw chocolate from, and why?

AD: I mostly use Cacao Barry and Callebaut Chocolate. Since we make truffles, I leave the chocolate and sourcing up to the experts. I find Callebaut and Cacao Barry to be consistent and reliable.

Q: What is your take on San Diego’s chocolate scene?

AD: I think San Diego has some amazing and tasty chocolate, I am finding from the research I do that it is less commercial than in bigger cities.

Q: What did your first steps look like when starting your small business? What challenges did you face?

AD: My first step was leaving my full-time job so I could give it 100 percent. Actually, when I first started, the city was my oyster, and I am very lucky for that. So many other small businesses helped me out. As I grew the business more challenges came in. Going from grass roots and trying to appeal to a larger crowd while staying true to the craft I would say is a bit of a challenge.

Q: What are your favorite flavor infusions in a chocolate and why?

AD: I really love the craft beer infusions. It showcases San Diego for all of the great craft breweries and talents we have here. I love working and collaborating with the brewers. We all work so hard at our craft and at the end of the day to see the end product with another crafter is rewarding.

Q: Where do you think the artisan chocolate industry is headed towards? Are we going to witness any new cutting-edge techniques and new kinds of chocolate?

AD: I believe that sky is the limit as far as where it is all headed. Depends on the level, there are so many food shows and competitions these days that my head is full of new techniques.  As a chef, all food, confections and desserts are always evolving. Cutting edge and the way I see it is always built off of a foundation that’s been around for centuries. The world is so diverse, and there are so many expressions. We all have our own creative, unique cutting edge. As long as we all keep expressing we will continue to see cool things. I believe that cutting edge is in the eye of who is creating the product and there are so many different styles and imaginations.

Discover What Makes San Diego a Global Chocolate Hot Spot