By Elissa Gilbert
Much of the best of NYC is brash and right out there, in your face. But some of the best of NYC is hidden, like a high-end chocolatier on the ninth floor of an unprepossessing building on a side street. You won’t be drawn into Chocolat Moderne by window displays. Maybe you’ll see a sandwich board outside the building, hang onto a flyer handed out on the street, or find them on Yelp.
They’re not trying to hide; they’re just very focused on production. Though they sell their award-winning chocolates to the public out of the factory and on their website, they mostly sell wholesale to stores like Saks. But owner Joan Coukos Todd says, “People come up every day. We love to see people up here. See, taste, smell—you get the full impact.”
The impact starts when you step out of the elevator and there’s a whiff of chocolate in the air. It’s the good stuff; they use Valhrona. Step through a bright red doorway, and the love of color continues onto the chocolates.
One of the things Chocolat Moderne is known for is its hand painted chocolates. “We just apply layers of colored cocoa butter inside the mold in various ways. Then we pour the chocolate into the mold and the cocoa butter and all the color contracts together with the chocolate as it cools, so all the color comes off on the bonbon. It looks like one totally smooth glasslike surface.”
They use other techniques, too. Sometimes they “splatter-paint,” so it looks like Jackson Pollack helped out in the chocolate kitchen. Sometimes they airbrush molds, so the whole bonbon comes out in color. “We like to do red for hearts and also red for Easter eggs, because I’m Greek and Greeks paint their eggs red, ” Todd says.
Her Greek heritage finds expression in the brand’s chocolate flavors, too. The Greek Revival collection includes chocolate with the flavor of halva, baklava, and kalamata olives. “We have a very culinary focus. We really do make a lot of different flavors, a lot of different types of fillings. A lot of our fillings really have pretty complicated recipes to them.
“We’re known for all the different flavors we make caramel fillings. We make probably 20 different caramel fillings with fruit and spices and herbs, and olives, tomatoes. We also make the nut fillings, praline style.”
Todd comes up with the chocolate recipes herself. “I’m the flavor person. A lot of it is just ingredients that I like and trying to figure out what would go with what. Sometimes just in my head it’s something I like to think about. I like to joke that’s what I think about when I can’t sleep at night.”
She’s been coming up with chocolate recipes now for more than 10 years, but although she was always a foodie, she started out as a banker, not a baker. After encountering fine chocolates in Brussels, she stumbled into an antiques market selling old kitchen equipment. Her first thought was, “Oh, that could be really cool decorative stuff.”
“I noticed these little metal molds, these molds that had really tiny little cavities in them, and it took me a while to realize they were chocolate molds, ’cause I’d never seen them before. I had never really thought about it before, I didn’t know how chocolate was made.” She didn’t know if they were jelly molds, muffin molds—maybe even ice cream molds, because Martha Stewart had recently shown that.
But the storeowner told her they were chocolate molds, and Todd decided, “I’m going to buy these molds, take them home, and teach myself how to make chocolate.”
She came back home and did what anyone would do: she googled. Luckily for her, she found a website, Ecole Chocolat, and started learning. “I literally just read the instructions and thank goodness I did, because I didn’t know that you had to temper chocolate.”
Chocolate became her hobby; she would make chocolates one or two weekends a month. “I started just coming up with some classic flavors but what I really wanted to do was create something that was my own. So I started kind of experimenting with classic ingredients and little twists on classic recipes and things like that.
“I also wanted to try to come up with a line of chocolates that looked different than every other chocolate so I started with different colors and decorating.” After two and a half years, her experiments were successful and she founded Chocolat Moderne.
“I started with more classic looking bonbons. I describe my line as kind of a combination of Belgian and French. Molded bonbons are more visually the Belgian style, versus the French style we call enrobed. But recipe-wise, ingredient-wise, it’s more in the French style.”
Her goal for the business is simple. “I just want to make chocolate that people will enjoy as much as possible.” Find your way to the red door of her factory and you can make her, and your, chocolate dreams come true.