The Chocolatier - Alexandra Whisnant '01
jana F. brown | There is a distinct difference, for neophytes, between a chocolatier and a chocolate maker. Alexandra Whisnant ’01 is a chocolatier.
“A chocolatier makes confections by combining chocolate with other ingredients, such as cream, sugar, fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices,” Whisnant explains. “A chocolate maker takes whole raw cacao beans and makes chocolate by roasting and processing the cacao. I make chocolates with an ‘s,’ while a chocolate maker makes chocolate. The ‘s’ reflects the discrete nature of my products, whereas the lack of ‘s’ comes from chocolate being a fluid, non-discrete material, like water.”
To avoid the confusion, Whisnant says, the food world has come up with words such as bonbons (her favorite), truffles, filled chocolates, confections, or ganaches to describe the products of a chocolatier. Whatever the label, they are pretty tasty.
Being a chocolatier is not all that distinguishes Whisnant. It’s the use of fresh ingredients such as recently roasted Kenyan coffee beans, Meyer lemons plucked from a tree in her sister’s Bay Area backyard, South American Tonka beans, and herbs and spices from thyme to cardamom that set her apart from most in her field. Whisnant’s chocolates are infused with flavor via fresh cream that has been cold steeped overnight, then emulsified with chocolate. The resulting ganache is chilled, formed into shapes, then hand-dipped in tempered chocolate. The outcome is an explosion of the most unusual flavor combinations to challenge the consumer’s palate; Whisnant’s creations make the eater think.
“The freshness is the biggest differentiator; there are no preservatives, nothing generic,” Whisnant says. “Flavors have a peak moment. We make small batches of different flavors, meant to be eaten in the week they are made – there is an expiration date. It’s mostly about the celebration of those ingredients, the flavor, and the season. I want everyone to share in the experience of eating the same chocolates that week.”
Her rise to chocolatier extraordinaire followed Whisnant’s journey from artist at SPS to physics major at Duke to M.B.A at Cornell – all of which have contributed to her sense of aesthetics, mastery of the science behind chocolatiering, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Whisnant first discovered an affinity for working with chocolate during a semester away from Duke, highlighted by pastry school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She returned to the City of Lights after graduation for an internship at a patisserie called Ladurée. There, during a series of rotations in various treat departments, she discovered that she preferred chocolates to pastries.
“I asked that they please transfer me from croissants to the chocolate department,” Whisnant recalls. “I realized I was really excited about chocolate in a way that I only felt mildly about croissants.”
Ready for a return to America, in 2007, Whisnant became a pastry cook at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. The restaurant is known as the birthplace of California cuisine, focusing on ingredients over technique. The eatery’s freshness philosophy has provided inspiration for Whisnant ever since.
Valentine’s Day diners were enjoying Whisnant’s chocolates at Chez Panisse in 2008, when restaurant matriarch Alice Waters and others began encouraging her to make her knack for chocolatiering into a business. Waters went so far as to send a box of Whisnant’s original chocolates to a chef friend in Japan. It took an entire week to make that one box of chocolates, using the freshest ingredients and creating individual flavor profiles for each bonbon. However, it planted a seed in Whisnant’s brain.
Business school temporarily sidetracked Whisnant, who returned to Paris in 2012 for a management consulting internship with Bain Capital. Being back in Paris reignited the passion for chocolate, and soon Whisnant was crafting bonbons from locally sourced herbs and fruits out of her Paris apartment. She peddled her confections to cafés and bookstores, collaborating with a local coffee shop to open her first pop-up store. Late in 2012, she finally named her business, gâté comme des filles (www.gatecommedesfilles.fr), which means “spoiled like the girls.”
As her connections grew, Whisnant realized she wanted to return again to the U.S. She settled on her hometown of Boston and, in 2015, found a home for her business inside the Aeronaut Brewery, where she shares kitchen space with local chocolate maker Eric Parkes of Somerville Chocolate.
At her Somerville, Mass., chocolate pantry, Whisnant works happily alongside gâté comme des filles employees Molly Wallner and Anne Wright. As Whisnant hand rolls vanilla bean bonbons and places them on a baking sheet, Parkes squeezes a poof of blue edible glitter onto each one, giving them a distinct shimmer. These will later be shuttled to a pop-up store inside the hibernating Lizzy’s ice cream shop in Harvard Square, where chocolate connoisseurs can select individual bonbons and eat them off China tea plates. The Meyer lemon (sampled, of course, for
research purposes) features a burst of real lemon flavor (think about the way cherry flavor differs from the taste of an actual cherry). The white chocolate cardamom is a surprise, with its hint of creamy ginger. Kenyan coffee features a melty ganache, balanced against the bitterness of the fresh roast. In a guest book, one customer has scrawled, “Would like ‘thyme’ to send to friend in Italy.”
Whisnant is proud of the imperfections in her chocolates and goes out of her way to leave traces of the handmade process, including applying the temporary cocoa butter “tattoos” off-center on top of her thyme and Kenyan coffee bonbons. She cares about how varieties of chocolates are arranged in her hand-stamped, hand-folded boxes, her artistic side wanting them to be visually appealing to the consumer. She searches diligently to find the synergy between chocolate and her special ingredients. Despite receiving high praise for her originality, Whisnant doesn’t anticipate scaling gâté comme des filles much beyond her online business and local shops.