Making Chocolate Right

Bob Piron trained as an architect but quickly “tired of drawing black lines on white paper.” When he started casting around for a new career in 1982, his dad suggested chocolate. When his parents emigrated from Belgium to the States after World War II, they learned to adapt traditional Belgian dishes to incorporate available ingredients. But they’d never found a match for the chocolate from home–arguably the best chocolate in the world. The early 80s saw a Godiva craze that made truffles and bonbons household words. Chocolate didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Family ties led to a one-year apprenticeship at Chocolatrie Goossens, an Antwerp store run by Rene Goossens, a culinary instructor and Belgium’s premier chocolatier. Another family connection turned up housing and in the fall of 1982, Piron (and his mom, playing translator) were off. Piron spent the year learning the fine art of crafting chocolate from a master.

Goossens was an invaluable resource but he also had one of the infamous attributes of many culinary artists–a terrible temper. “He was a pretty good instructor when he felt like it, but mostly I was a good student,” says Piron. He made the most of his internship by pulling long hours, keeping extensive notes, and trying to soak up every minute detail.

After a year he headed back home to put what he’d learned to work. He found a former denture lab in the basement of a Northbrook building that was equipped with ample electricity and good ventilation and set up shop as a maker of fine chocolates. He refined his skills there for three years, mostly working on wholesale accounts for local candy stores. He also picked up a few bigger corporate accounts like Nestle, Hormel, and Crate & Barrel that purchased chocolate gift boxes filled with homemade truffles. But the profits were nominal. “You learn quickly that when you hand make a product, you don’t wholesale it,” he says.

So in 1986 he moved his operation into a storefront on Evanston’s Main Street less than a block from where he grew up and went into retail. With the help of his father and brother, he turned the space (formerly an art gallery) into a large functional kitchen with a small retail area in front. After months hanging drywall, laminating countertops, and trimming the display cases with brass, he opened the shop just in time for Christmas.

His stark white kitchen is full of industrial equipment, with four 50-pound kettles melting huge 11-pound slabs of Callebaut Belgian chocolate–dark in some, milk in others. “Chocolate is one of the most difficult food products to work with because it requires so much attention,” says Piron. The melted chocolate is placed on a four-foot-long marble table where it gets tempered–a process that involves turning the chocolate over and over with a wide scraper (similar to a wallpaper smoother). This raises and lowers the temperature in a way that gives the finished product a unique smoothness and sheen and its characteristic snap when bitten.

Next, the satiny, tempered liquid goes into the chocolate depositor, a treasure Piron brought back from Belgium. A suspended heat lamp warms a 55-pound vat full of melted chocolate, keeping it in the proper tempered state, while a wheel slowly rotates through it, carrying the warm chocolate up from the pot to the spout atop the vat from which it pours out, ready for molding. Watching the steady flow of chocolate working its way through this contraption is enough to make a chocoholic weak in the knees.

He has several old-fashioned tin molds on display in the store window but wouldn’t consider using them. “It would be a nightmare working with these molds. It’s too difficult to release the chocolate from them, and the residue is a pain to clean.” Instead, he’s got hundreds of newfangled polycarbonate ones–many brought back from Belgium before they were available in the States. There are swans in three sizes, multiple hearts, shells, and stacks of panels that make 20 individual pieces each. He carefully runs one clean hollow mold after another under the depositor’s spout, pours the excess goo back into the vat, sets the mold on a vibrating belt to get rid of any drippings, then inverts it onto a cooling rack. Once cooled, the chocolates are carefully unmolded and ready to be filled.

The homemade fillings–luscious chocolate ganache, hazelnut paste, raspberry cream–are piped in from a pastry bag. During the busy winter months he goes through about 150 pounds of chocolate per day, making as many as 1800 pieces in a single morning.

It seems almost routine, if labor-intensive and time-consuming, until he explains the cheaper process most American chocolate makers use. “They take a hard, formed blob of filling, usually made mostly of sugar and flavoring, and simply run it through an enrober, a machine that dips and coats the lousy filling.” He has a small one–a conveyor belt that moves the filling under a flowing wall of melted chocolate–that’s used strictly to make truffles and sweets like chocolate-covered marzipan.

His chocolates have the ultrarich, deep flavor and satiny smooth mouth feel characteristic of the finest Belgian chocolates. When pressed for the secret, Piron stops in his tracks. “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” he says. The step he intentionally doesn’t show me is the one that transforms the raw melted chocolate into his trademark product. I know it’s some combination of cocoa butter, sugar, and frequently vanilla, but the proportion eludes me. He laughs as I try to guess.

Belgian Chocolatier Piron is at 509 Main, Evanston, 847-864-5504.

The Dish

Last week Mantuano Mediterranean Table in the NBC Tower became Nicolinas Cucina, an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant under new chef Jeffrey Begina.

Michael Taus’s Zealous finally opened Friday, March 10, at 419 W. Superior. The lush, sophisticated space and polished, expensive contemporary American menu should give Tru a run for its buck.

Okno, Terry Alexander’s ultrahip global-fusion restaurant in Wicker Park, has closed.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.