Here's some hopeful news for all you C students out there: At the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris, Stephen Smith's "worst subject of everything was chocolate."
Apparently, he got better.
In fact, he got good enough to operate his own wholesale chocolate business, nib chocolates, in the Design District. In Smith's case, practice made perfect -- or at least some mighty fine chocolate. (And since chocolate is probably as close to perfection as anything obtainable in this life, mighty fine is pretty damn good.)
"In school you learn the basics and have only a few weeks to work on [each skill]," Smith explains. "You either get it or you don't. But when you do it in business, you keep doing it until you get it right. Like most jobs, you learn on the job. That's what happened with the different pastry shops where I worked."
Smith's dad was in the Navy, so his family moved around a lot. He spent his last year of high school in Corpus Christi and soon after came to Dallas to go to college and work for the Dallas Stars. "It was the first time I lived in a big city, so I really started going to restaurants," Smith says.
That restaurant hopping, combined with his experience as a kid cooking in the kitchen with his mom, led Smith to culinary school. "I wanted to go to culinary school to do the savory side, but I only had enough money for the pastry side," he says. Paris "was actually cheaper than school here [in Dallas]," Smith says. He ended up falling in love with pastry. (The savory side refers to the part of the menu that isn't sweet.)
Smith went on to work at Michelin-starred restaurants Taillevent in Paris and at the molecular gastronomy restaurant Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain. After Europe, Smith moved to Kansas City to work with chocolatier Christopher Elbow at his chocolate shop by the same name.
That's when Smith finally was home -- working with chocolate. After spending some time in San Francisco, Smith decided that returning to Dallas to start his own business rather than in San Francisco made the most sense. "There was too much competition and it was too expensive," he says. "So I came here."
It's been two years now since Smith opened his nib. "I decided to do wholesale first to start a base. That way, I just need a kitchen and not a storefront or employees. Hopefully, in the next year or so, I can open a storefront." Smith's chocolate is available at the The Cultured Cup. Since he's their exclusive chocolatier, it's almost like having his own storefront, he says.
Smith chocolates are preservative free, and he uses the freshest ingredients he can get his hands on. He says that can make all the difference when it comes to taste. After testing out a few different flavors, I can't say I disagree. All of his work is smooth and rich and the accompanying flavors are remarkably subtle and not a bit overpowering.
Currently at the Cultured Cup, you can find Madagasgar Vanilla Bean, Blend 43 Tea and Blend 43 Coffee (which I'm told are favorites of George and Laura Bush), Red Raspberry, 72% Dark Chocolate, Fruits Noir Tea (which is the first flavor Smith ever made for Cultured Cup), Orangettes, Oaxacan Spice, Persian Lime, Rosemary Caramel, Stasuma Mandarin Orange, Single Malt Scotch and his Texas Pecan Tortuga, which they could not keep in stock this Christmas. The Tortugas, Red Raspberry and Orangettes are my favorites, though it's next to impossible to decide.
When it comes to exclusive chocolatiers, Smith explains, "the market in Dallas is somewhat new, although a bigger trend seems to be beginning. But right now, there are more chocolatiers in Austin than in Dallas." Smith says if you want to learn more about chocolate, the best way is to "visit these shops and sample stuff, like the wine bar thing. That's how people have really started learning and enjoying wine. We have all of these cake ball places and cupcake places. So [Dallasites] understand they can get better quality goods [at those places] then they can at supermarket. The same thing just needs to happen to chocolates."
There are three primary styles of chocolate, Smith explains. The original truffle (small and rolled); the French enrobed (small square, kind of thin, maybe an inch); and molded (made with a mold and then filled). "I don't have an enrober. And I don't like to dip them one by one. So I make the shell, fill it, and then cap it. I prefer the enrober [which costs upwards of $40,000] but I can't afford one right now."
The fun part, Smith says is that "everyone has a different take [on making chocolate] and it all evens out. That's why people in the industry shouldn't have secrets. I don't do molded rabbits or bright artistics so I can send people to folks who do."
Smith definitely has his own style. His chocolate designs are simple and sensuous. "Christopher Elbow does a lot of airbrushing. Very cool and artistic, but after awhile I realized it wasn't my style. I like the earth tones. If I make something with lavender, I put a little lavender in the corner. Same with spice. I don't really like the bright colors. My style is really simple, sleek, modern." Smith uses a variety of different molds, but then puts a burgundy luster on the majority of his pieces, giving them a consistent and elegant appeal.
Smith couldn't be any happier to have landed on the pastry side, which turned out to be a much better fit for him. "If you go into a restaurant, you have the savory the side and the pastry side," he says. "They're two different worlds and two different types of people. It's a lot colder in those rooms [on the pastry side], which I like. On the line it's like go, go, go all night. There's a lot of yelling. It takes a certain personality. Pastry is more of an exact science. Savory is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Pastry is more laid back. My last time on the line was in Paris and in Spain."
Lucky for Dallas, Smith prefers the cool, quiet, exacting side of all things culinary and has found a home for himself in the world of chocolate. Life is sweet.