Alexandra Whisnant

"I feel like ganache is more decadent; it’s this new experience, and you have to eat it right after you buy it. That’s unique about my chocolates— their short shelf life of seven days. It’s supposed to be this celebration of ingredients and the occasion coming together."

Alexandra Whisnant, Owner and Founder of gâté comme des filles, possesses a resumé that can only be described as badass. Once a physics student at Duke University, she took off a semester to go to pastry school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, became a stagiaire at the well-known pâtisserie, Ladurée, moved to Berkeley, California to work as a Pastry Cook at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse, got an MBA and worked as a consultant, launched gâté comme des filles in 2012, and is now making some of the best chocolates in the country out of Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, MA.  I'm not usually one for bold statements like that, but these chocolates deserve to be eaten in exorbitant quantities.  

 gâté comme des filles translates to "spoiled like girls." "I wanted something that was lyrical and French. I like this drawing because it’s like Alice [of 'Alice in Wonderland'] is suddenly a queen. I want you to feel that way, for a moment, when you’re eating the chocolates."

"I didn't really discover [chocolate] until college, and it was because Whole Foods sold the big chunks of Madagascar Valrhona. Pastry school in Paris was very much about presentation and using chocolate as a medium to make pretty things. It wasn’t so much about taste. It wasn't until I returned to the U.S. for my senior year of college that I started eating more chocolate, and discovered these chunks of Valrhona and would just sort of gnaw on them as I was studying. So I think that was probably the intro to chocolate."

How did chocolate become such a big passion for you? Why the obsession? 

"Let’s get to the bottom of this together, because I have no idea! People ask me that all the time. I guess I didn’t realize chocolate could taste like other things, kind of like when you have good wine for the first time. And I felt like it was more focused than pastry. I could just forget about a lot of the ingredients. I think I’m a very focused person-- I liked not having to worry about flour, eggs, etc. Fewer variables. And then, there’s a lot of subtly. I like the detail and subtleties."

Alexandra's career in "detail and subtleties" began at the iconic French pâtisserie, Ladurée. "Ladurée was my favorite pastry shop in Paris. I started out doing laminated doughs, but dough wasn’t my thing. I loved the 11pm-7am shift because it was all about decorating cakes and tarts. I was doing gold leaf, and an assembly of macaron pastries."

After mastering the art of gold leaf and macaron and delicate pastries, Alexandra moved to Berkeley, California to work at the world famous restaurant, Chez Panisse, founded by Chef Alice Waters in 1971:

"It was magical. Alice Waters has a lot of visions, and then it was up to us to create the visions. To make them real. You just had to be ready to drop everything, and do something different. I loved it, because I loved her visions. When Obama won the election, for example, she wanted pomegranates everywhere. So I was putting pomegranates on display all over the restaurant. I wanted to create this festive environment that she had imagined."

"We did a lot of ice cream and sorbet, tarts and cakes. I was there for two years, starting as an intern, but once I began to learn more, and was able to fulfill my duties, they gave me a lot of creativity with chocolate. Because I was obsessed with chocolate, and they saw that I was the most obsessed with chocolate, they let me run with it and make chocolates for downstairs end of meal in whatever flavors I wanted."

Chez Panisse is all about touching food as little as possible. Everything is supposed to look like it fell off a tree; there’s a whole art to creating a natural look: "I started to do more of a natural thing with the chocolate. If I dipped a chocolate, I would leave a hand mark, so you could see where my hand was, and see the movement, making it less perfect. I think a lot of chocolates are very static. I try to create some movement. I could have a vision of what I want the chocolate to look like, and make it exactly that way, but I want it to express itself."

"Ladurée is the opposite. My first day trying out at Chez Panisse, I was given dates and tangerines, and asked to make a display in a fruit bowl. I made these concentric rings with the fruit, and all the stems were pointing in the same direction— very French-looking. Then one of the cooks picked it up and dumped the bowl out, and said it should look like they fell off the tree. That’s when I first saw the difference between the French and Californian aesthetic. And then I just fell for the California aesthetic so hard, because it’s breathtaking, and I don’t like this look of over-manipulated food. It was the next level. I feel I’m good at detail-- I could easily line everything up perfectly, but it’s a lot harder to make it look natural and also beautiful."

When asked how she decided to work specifically with ganache, Alexandra said, "I wanted to add value to the chocolate. I feel like ganache is more decadent, and because it’s fresh it’s this new experience, and you have to eat it right after you buy it. That’s unique about my chocolates— their short shelf life of seven days. It’s supposed to be this celebration of ingredients and the occasion coming together. I feel like I can express myself more and use more ingredients."

Ganache is an emulsion of a liquid and chocolate— the liquid can be cream, water, alcohol, etc. There are different ways to go about making it, but Alexandra does a cream infusion: heats it in a double boiler, adds chocolate and mixes it all together. Then it’s emulsified. "Usually. Sometimes you have to use an immersion blender to really emulsify it. I like having some fluffiness, so I actually try to incorporate air bubbles to add a little fluff. Otherwise, it just kind of feels like toothpaste to me— like gel. After you have it all emulsified, you allow it to come to room temperature, chill it, and then you can cut it up, shape it, and dip it in tempered chocolate."

"The tempering part does a lot. It aligns all the fat crystals into really tight patterns so the melting point is higher. If you have untempered chocolate, it melts in your hand, but tempered chocolate will melt in your mouth. It’s really incredible— it’s designed to melt at your body temperature, which is this weird coincidence. Even butter melts at a higher temperature. If you’ve ever made a cake that has butter and chocolate, the chocolate will melt first, which is weird because butter’s so soft. So tempering helps with the melting point, makes the chocolate shinier, and it has a snap when you break it. It increases the shelf life because there’s less air getting through. It makes it more beautiful."

Alexandra's friends, family, experiences and places she has lived deeply impact the ingredients she uses today: "I’m focusing on the things I really like, for example, herbs: thyme, sage, peppermint... I was working with a tea & coffee shop in Oakland-- they sold my chocolates and supplied me with tea and coffee ingredients. Or, there is a mulberry tree in Oakland that a friend owns, and she would give me mulberries. My sister sends me lemons from her lemon tree in California. To make the connections, I usually try to bring the chocolates back to the people that gave me the ingredients to start a conversation. I get excited when I get to pick the herbs or fruit myself, and then make it into something. I wouldn’t want to pick out generic ingredients and use them. I like to be connected to the growers."

What would be your biggest piece of advice for someone who wanted to start their own food business? 

"I think you need to create something different than what everyone else is doing; try to find your niche. Don’t listen to other people because everyone tries to tell you what to do. Everyone tries to give you advice on how to sell your product, what your packaging looks like, what you should make. You have to have tunnel vision, and not listen to other people. I wouldn’t enjoy myself if I was doing what everyone else was doing. The point of this is to enjoy your work. Although I guess some food businesses are just there to make money, but nowadays, I feel like it’s more about following your passion. I’m just happy to be able to make pretty things that taste good."

Chocolate Tasting: 
I left this interview with thirteen whimsical little chocolates elegantly packed and taped into their colorful boxes. I ate three of them as soon as I got home, and it took all (all!) of my self control not to eat the other ten that afternoon. If you are concerned about the recommended shelf-life of seven days, you can stop worrying right now; I dare you to make these last more than two. 
The flavor that struck me the most that day was the meyer lemon chocolate. As someone who has always shied away from lemon Starbursts, lemon Skittles, lemon drops, lemon Jolly Ranchers (you get it: ALL the citrus candy), as well as citrus + chocolate combos in general, I can report that this one is a model specimen. It was airy, bright and light and layered with nuanced flavors like fresh lemon, fig and apricot. Something like this:

Read more about Alexandra's story here. Say hello in person at her location within Aeronaut Brewing Co. where she makes chocolates fresh each week and sells them every Thursday, Friday & Saturday from 7-10pm, or you can find them on the shelves at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge or Boston. Follow along on Instagram @gatecommedesfilles to find out about new seasonal flavors and the latest updates. 

Radius Pop Up Dinner Recap

I hate to say it, but I've had a hard time getting here lately. It’s not that I didn’t want to stop by and say hi, it’s just that it’s been way too beautiful outside lately to be sitting indoors at my computer. I'm also recently getting into the swing of things at a new job, so there have been a number of distractions, but I'm thrilled to be here today-- THE WEBSITE MUST GO ON! 

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of collaborating on the Radius Pop Up Dinner in downtown Boston, with Chef Jitti Chaithiraphant, of Spring Summer Fall Pop Up Restaurant Series, and Chef Matt Foley, of The Merchant, as well as Jeremy Ogusky, Potter Extraordinaire at Ogusky Ceramics

Matt and Jitti met while cooking at a restaurant called Radius in 2008, and for this collaboration dinner, they crafted a thoughtful menu consisting of all local ingredients: foraged wild plants and herbs, handmade seasonings (fermented vinegars, fermented vegetables, sea salt, etc.) all sourced from within a 200 mile radius of the restaurant. 

I was lucky enough to join in on both the foraging, and photographing behind-the-scenes during this interactive and educational dinner. 

Foraging squad . Photo by Jitti Chaithiraphant

Stunning menus drawn by Laurel Greenfield

Pottery by Jeremy Ogusky

Pottery by Jeremy Ogusky


Bowls by Jeremy Ogusky


Bowls by Jeremy Ogusky

The Full Menu:
Salted Cod Brandade, Aioli, Fermented Greens
Pepperone Cured Pork Belly Smoked Over Pine
Our Bread & Butter
Chilled Pea, Calamint, Poached Oyster, Oyster Bottega
Into The Wild & Garden, Japanese Knotweed, Vinegar, Pineapple Weed
Grilled Shrimp, Nettle Veloute, Shrimp & Garlic Oil
Roasted Pork Shoulder, Stewed Bean, Rhubarb Marmalade, Pork Jus
Yogurt Sorbet, Strawberry Olive Oil Cake, Toasted Meringue, Strawberry Sauce

Local Sources:
Herbs/Vegetables- Eva Green- New Bedford, MA
Greens/Vegetables- Sparrow Arc Farm
Vinegars- Heritage Vinegar- Jitti Chaithiraphant
Dairy- Wholesome Farm
Wild Herbs/Wild Greens- Foraged by Chefs
Greens/Microgreens- Corner Stalk Farm- East Boston
Berries- Ward's Berry Farm
Shrimp- Sky 8 Farm- Stoughton, MA
Seafood- Georges Bank
Meat- Maine Family Farm

David Simon

"When I set out to start the business, about four years ago, I was determined to offer something that you couldn't find locally."

Each time I do a Brine Project interview, I bring with me a small digital voice recorder, similar to the one I used to use to record my voice lessons in college (I was a classical vocal performance major). I used to press Play and I would instantly hear piano chords, or a deep inhale, or flipping pages of a score. I would sit on a tiny piano bench in a tiny practice room with one tiny window in the door, and listen to my tiny recorder. That recorder was full of breakthrough learning moments and biting curse words of frustration, laughter and tears, noise and sometimes even music-- real music, that flowed with intention and breath and control. Despite all the haphazard, peripheral moments, there was the occasional moment of clarity. When I pressed Play on my new voice recorder recently to transcribe this interview with David Simon, the first sound I heard was the soft tssssss of a bottle of sparkling water being popped open. A sound that's simultaneously celebratory and calming. This sound, meaningless to probably anyone else, reminded me that there is clarity and intention and urgency in this project. It reminded me how grateful I am to be able to spend time with so many makers and thinkers in food and beverage. It reminded me that I get to train and engage my senses, just like in music, but in a slightly different way. Thank you to the first five interviewees who have taken a leap with me on this new endeavor!

On that note, I was honored to sit down with another incredible entrepreneur David Simon, the founder of a mobile coffee business called Black Magic Coffee Company, a few weeks ago: "I only started drinking coffee myself about seven or eight years ago. I haven't been drinking coffee for very long-- was never a 'caffeine person' at all. My wife bought me an espresso machine, and it just sort of took off from there. I quickly became obsessed with it, and experimented, mostly with espresso, ALL the time. I was working in the healthcare industry at the time, and it wasn’t until about four years ago that I left that field to work full time in coffee. During the couple years before that, I spent countless hours reading articles, watching videos, talking to people and experimenting with coffee at home."

"For me, it was more about the culture. I wasn’t so obsessed with how to make it at the time. I was more obsessed with the artistry. I actually started to work weekends at a coffee shop, which was my first real introduction to coffee. It was a bike and coffee shop, and because I've always been a big cyclist, that’s what really attracted me to the place. I went in and applied for a part-time job as a bike mechanic, and when they didn't need another mechanic, I said, sort of jokingly, 'What about a job as a barista?' And the owner said, 'Yeah, ok. We need help.' So I learned everything on the fly. But that’s how I was able to get more formal training, and how I was able to learn about the coffee roasters that we were serving through that cafe."

David kept his certification as a therapist all the while, but felt particularly drawn to coffee. For a while, he tossed around the idea of opening his own café. "I always wanted, and I still do to some extent, to own a café.... I think! I go back and forth… Once you open a café, you’re pretty much married to the place. And that’s not exactly what I want to be doing right now. So I set out to open a mobile business, because there wasn’t anything available like it at the time. Actually, one of the things that really did for me was the fact that when I was working in the healthcare world, I was going to conferences all the time, and I just couldn’t get an espresso, or a good cup of coffee."

"Being a mobile espresso bar, however, you’re faced with everything being mobile. A lot of times that’s weather. When you’re outside you’re dealing with wind, heat, humidity, etc. There’s always something that’s a challenge. It makes me appreciate being inside on occasion— vastly different."

"When I set out to start the business about four years ago, I was determined to offer something that you wouldn’t find locally. I have what’s called a multi-roaster coffee program-- I don't roast myself. At the time, I was the only mobile espresso bar in the country that was multi-roaster. So that bar you see out there? That’s my business."

Through the first coffee/bike shop where David worked, he was able to meet a number of roasters, and make connections. Because of that shop, he decided he wanted run a similar program that offered different coffees from multiple roasters. The four roasters David currently works with are Tandem Coffee Roasters (Maine), Passenger Coffee (Pennsylvania), Case Coffee Roasters (Oregon), and he recently added Novel Coffee Roasters (Texas).

David chose these four roasters through a good amount of trial and error. "What I like most about these coffee roasters is that they’re only roasting what’s in season. When you look at some of the bigger coffee roasters, you’re going to see 10-12 (or more) coffees that they're roasting at any given time. And they can all be good— I don’t doubt that— but I would rather see someone with fewer coffees, with more concentration on those particular coffees. All the coffee roasters I work with now roast maybe four to five coffees at a time. They always have one espresso option and a couple options for drip. In fact, Passenger Coffee roasters even has a cold brew blend that I use. So that really fit with my business model to keep it small."

For David, the same amount of research and care goes into the bottled water he offers, as well as the milk that goes into the espresso drinks. "You won’t find this water anywhere in the Northeast. Topo Chico Mineral Water has been around for 120 years, and I discovered it while visiting family in San Antonio, and thought, 'Wow! This is amazing water!' What sets this water apart from other sparkling waters, is that it’s naturally carbonated. It just comes out of the spring this way; it’s the only water like it. I spent 9-10 months trying to get it here, and I finally got it. For milk, I currently use milk from Thatcher Farm in Milton, Massachusetts. I’ve used many different local milks, but Thatcher is the only one that uses a low-temperature pasteurization. They pasteurize their milk at a lower temperature over a longer period of time, which helps retain the sweetness. Though milk is sometimes overlooked, I think the same emphasis should be put on the milk as the coffee. It does make a big difference as far as the way the drink should taste. Milk is kind of a big deal."

David and I discussed the difference between light, medium and dark roast coffee. Light roast best preserves the flavor of the actual coffee bean, while the heavy roasting of a dark roast more or less covers up the flavor of the bean. As it turns out, light roast often has higher caffeine content than a dark roast! "I tend to stay away from anything dark or 'dark roast.' With a dark roast, you don’t really get a sense of what that coffee tastes like— it’s roasted beyond taste. But the same could be true for extremely light-roasted coffees. You don’t want them to taste too 'green.' There are many schools of thought. For espresso, I tend to go with blends to get the right balance."

"Typically, espresso has, as its backbone, a Central American coffee that gives it a body, and then they may add an Ethiopian to give it a little sweetness, or a Guatemalan coffee… Sometimes they’ll throw in a Kenyan coffee. I personally enjoy Kenyan coffees the most because they’re the fruitiest and the most acidic. I try to find espresso that is suited for espresso on its own, or with milk. And that can be tough to find. Most people are going to order a cappuccino or a latte, and I want to have something that will cut through the milk-- I want them to be able to taste the coffee."

Lastly, I wanted to find out what kind of coffee David drinks at home. What's he doing that I could do to step up my morning coffee routine? "I mostly make Chem-X. It’s probably better that I don’t make espresso at home.... With Chem-X, you add the water over a 4-5 minute period. It’s a bit time-consuming, though the end result is worth it. But you can’t walk away from it; you have to really want that cup of coffee. With this particular method, it’s all about the process of making it."

Coffee Tasting
Using the Chem-X to make drip coffee, David prepared the Condado Peaberry coffee (Brazil) from Tandem Roasters, and it was bursting with aromas of dark chocolate, raspberries, fresh flowers and vanilla:

Black Magic Coffee Company is a mobile espresso business that provides premium coffee catering services for all kinds of occasions including open markets, weddings, private parties and corporate events throughout the Boston area. You can follow along on Instagram @blackmagiccoffeeco to keep up with the latest happenings, or to find David at one of many farmers markets this summer.