Food News

Katherine Clapner, the Woman Behind Dude, Sweet, On Life as a Chocolatier

Each week we meet a new local chef in our Three-Course Meal series. This week, Katherine Clapner, the woman responsible for making us crazy for Dude, Sweet Chocolate, explains how she paved her way to her little shop in Oak Cliff, which recently was named Best Devil's Advocate and Best Chocolate Experiment in our Best of Dallas issue.

Do you eat chocolate all day long? Yes, I eat it all the time.

How did you become a chocolate dealer? I was a pastry chef for 20 years prior to making chocolate.

What made you decide on pastry school? I'm not really sure how that happened. I was going to school at UTA for an advertising degree and I got a job as an intern at a PR firm that did music events. My best friend was in charge of the catering and I started helping her, then worked in a few kitchens. Eventually, I worked with Hank Coleman at the Deep Ellum Cafe and he told me I should go to cooking school and he wrote a letter -- back then you had to have reference letters.

Where did you go to pastry school? The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in New York City. I graduated in '88/'89 and at that time it was only the second year of their pastry school. It was really cool back then because it was all the old school German, Austrian, Belgian and French chefs. It was a completely different world back then.

How long were you in New York with the CIA? I was at the school for one year then did an externship. I mailed letters to the top 20 hotels in the world asking to work for room and board. I got 10 letters back and one was from the Savoy in London. So, I went there and was supposed to be there six months and I stayed three years. I saw no need to go back because at the time the CIA didn't really have a definitive second part of the program yet, so I didn't feel I would have learned as much going back.

Did you enjoy London? It was fantastic. Except that I worked all the time. I didn't get to really do anything else because I made $140 a week, but it was a great experience. I learned so much.

Where did you go after that? After three years they couldn't extend my visa anymore and so, through the Savoy, I got a job at Windsor Court in New Orleans. It was the shit back then. I had been reading about the chefs there and got hired on while I was actually still in London, sight unseen.

At that point, did you realize you were just born to cook? Once I started to actually cook, there was just never any other choice.

What's the hardest part being a chocolate dealer? If it were just cooking it would be easy, but it's not. For instance, I've already been to two meetings this morning, and I'm going to another one today and I have to help pack (chocolates into boxes). Tomorrow I get to cook. Bakers and chefs work very hard so with the advent of the celebrity chef it was nice to see hard working people in a profession that's been around so long get their due recognition.

How did Dude, Sweet Chocolate get started? My business partner, Redding May, used to work with Merrill Lynch and one day he asked me if I could come up with 150 boxes of chocolates for their top tier clients. And I did and that's how it started. I worked the farmer's market circuit for eight months, then sought Redding out, told I was looking for a partner and he said, "I'm in. " As simple as that. And we opened up the store six months later.

Why chocolate particularly? For me, the thing about chocolate is you can kind of throw anything at it.

What makes your chocolate so freaking amazing and addictive? I think it's just me. Three people can cook a steak and they're all going to be completely different. Everyone has a different approach like the amount of salt or the combination of really sweet or really dark. There are other undertones. I don't see what I do as particularly unique. It's just natural to me. I just come up with the flavor combinations.

Check back tomorrow for more from Clapner, including her thoughts on the Dallas food scene.

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.

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