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.
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.”
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.
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.