Gail Ambrosius seems to have it all figured out. She turned a tough situation (getting laid off after ten years at the same job) into a glorious opportunity by doing what so many of us chocolate geeks long to do: head to Paris and study under the masters. With technique and experience under her belt, she launched Gail Ambrosius Chocolates in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2004 and has since been garnering praise for her wide range of offerings and unusual bonbon flavors—shiitake mushroom truffle, anyone? The SE'rs got to try a bunch when she visited last year. Her salted caramels are also pretty outstanding.
I asked her a few questions about being in the biz. And yes, Ambrosius is her real last name.
How long have you been working with chocolate? Since I was able to pull a chair up to the stove and stir chocolate pudding till it was thick. I grew up on a dairy farm with nine brothers and sisters. My favorite thing was helping out my mother with the cooking. Her chocolate pudding was the best.
What's your favorite part about your job?Seeing customers' reactions when they eat my chocolate! It's the joy that spreads across their faces, or the "oohs" and "aahs" coming out of their mouths.
How about the most challenging aspect? The business side of things. Managing staffing, making sure there are enough people helping to meet demand, and trying to predict what that demand may be. I'd rather just make the chocolates and be out front to help the retail people assist customers!
How involved are you in sourcing your chocolate? I'm always trying new chocolates to see if they would complement the range of chocolates we already use. I love to travel, so if I am in a tropical area I will seek out cacao farms or make connections with people who have cacao contacts. Mostly, my chocolates come from distributors, but my ideal model is that the chocolate is processed in country of origin and then shipped to the U.S. and then to me; or the beans go directly to someone in the U.S. who does the processing, and then to me. Making chocolate already has a big enough carbon footprint. I don't want to add to it by purchasing chocolate that goes from the Americas to Europe for processing, and then back across the ocean to me.
I use Central and South American chocolates. I think they taste amazing. I just booked a trip to Peru today for May and will visit cacao farmers there. I use some Peruvian chocolate already, but this will be my first visit!
Any favorites out of your collection (to make or to eat)? Whatever is in my mouth at the time; although I am partial to the Rica Organica, a Costa Rican truffle I make, and Lucille's Vanilla, which tastes like my Mom's chocolate pudding.
Tell us a little bit about the food scene in Madison. We have a strong food scene in Madison. The local food movement is growing, as well as local community gardening projects. We're lucky because we have the Midwest's largest farmers' market on our Capital Square from spring through fall. This inspires many of us to try new flavors and local ingredients in our cooking.
We also owe a lot to Odessa Piper, who was an early advocate of local food. She was the Alice Waters of the Midwest, and the founder and chef of L'Etoile restaurant. She has since sold the business to Tory Miller and his sister Traci Miller, who are also devoted to serving local food. We also have so many artisan bakers, cheese makers, brewers and food entrepreneurs in the area, which makes our food scene rich and exciting. There are so many wonderful, creative local restaurants as well, with new ones opening all the time. Madison is a very fun place to cook and eat.
And what's your favorite sweet thing to snack on? A nice high-percentage chocolate bar, candied cacao nibs or thin wafers of chocolate topped with nuts. I never get tired of chocolate!
(Amen, Gail. Amen.)