This post is brought to you by Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate.
I first met Christopher Michael at the 2008 Chocolate Show. His chocolates were gorgeous, of course; and his parents were there helping run the booth, which I loved—but what really caught my eye was the fact that he was based in Newport Beach. "Newport Beach?" I thought. "But...there are no chocolatiers in Orange County...?"
Well, Chris changed that. Bringing a finely tuned chef's palate, artistic sensibility, and a touch of humor to his bonbons, he now has a storefront in Costa Mesa, California (my hometown), and is starting to change the tide. I chatted with him about his chocolate experimentation—rendered duck fat caramel, anyone?
How long have you been working with chocolate? I've been working with chocolate full time for about six years, every day. Before I discovered my passion for chocolate, I really didn't work with it or pay attention to it at all.
What made you gravitate towards chocolate as opposed to other specializations? Honestly, I didn't gravitate to chocolate originally in my culinary career—I was actually in New York about six years ago looking for a savory job when I stumbled upon the best chocolates in NYC (Kee's, of course). Once I tried hers, it honestly changed my mind about chocolate and what you can pair it with. You have to remember I'm from Southern California; we're not known for our food scene, which is why it took me my whole life to find good chocolate.
What's the flavor profile of the chocolate you use as a base? I like to use a chocolate that isn't in-your-face—I leave that to my flavors. When I'm making bonbons, I like to work with something that has a nice chocolate taste, but doesn't dominate in flavor characteristic, like a blank canvas that can make my flavors come alive, without the interruption of bitterness or complex flavor profiles.
How do you come up with flavor combinations for your sweets? Where does your inspiration come from? I draw my ideas from just about anywhere or any time in my life; things my mom made as a kid, like chocolate-covered corn flakes. I can be out and have a drink or meal that will make me think, "hey! this would probably work with chocolate." It's all I think about—ideas can come to me while I'm driving down the street. I keep a small notepad (now my phone) with me, and write things down when I think of new flavors. I have hundreds of ideas, most of which I have tried, and many of which have worked their way into my lineup.
So what's your favorite kind of chocolate to eat? This is a question I get every day—but every day, it may change. Some days I eat straight dark chocolate, other days I eat bonbons. What's great about owning a chocolate company is that my tastes can change from day to day and I'll have what I'm craving in front of me. If it's not sitting in front of me, I'll make it!
Favorite food/drink to pair with chocolate? Let me start by saying I'm a chocolate snob, but not a purist. I don't think of chocolate as a sweet treat or a snack; it's a food, and something I eat every day, at any hour of the day. I drink it with water, coffee, wine, beer and just about anything that's sitting in front of me at the time. When I'm playing with new flavors for bonbons, I usually have a bottle of water and a jar of pepperoncini. Very weird, right? But it works for me. It cuts the sugar and helps my taste buds come alive. So, let's be honest, I'll eat or drink anything with chocolate. Why not?
Any predictions for future trends? I'm really not in tune with trends, so I don't pay much attention. I do have a few new things coming out soon, like a rendered duck fat caramel and a new bar with figs and prosciutto. So who knows, those might become trendy. But if they don't, no big deal to me—if no ones buys them, it's more for me to eat.
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