"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.
"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."
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.