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Voila Chocolat – LOST GEM

Voila Chocolat – LOST GEM

221 West 79th Street
New York, NY 10024
Established: 2015

I have always enjoyed taking my children to painting centers where we could walk in off the street, select a piece of pottery, paint it, and have it fired up. It was a great idea to have a store where visitors of all ages can participate in a craft on any level, and without having to make a reservation. Peter Moustakerski, the owner of Voila Chocolat, had the same thought when he accompanied his daughter to a party at a pottery shop. He began to contemplate how to use this concept and apply it to the making of chocolate confections. It eventually led him to create the business that now sits on 79th Street where passersby can stop in and be taught how to make truffles, chocolate lollipops, peppermint bark, and more. Some two decades after having sat with my children while they designed ceramic pieces, I discovered Voila Chocolat, where my husband and I had the pleasure of taking our then four-year-old granddaughter to indulge in a chocolate workshop. It truly is a place that everyone can enjoy. Each time I have visited, I have seen a different demographic, from a high school field trip to a group of special needs adults.

At the front of the shop, Voila Chocolat has a small retail and cafe portion. They serve five kinds of hot chocolate, including spicy, matcha, and white chocolate. Beer and wine are also available. Anyone is welcome to enjoy the cafe: visitors do not have to participate in a chocolate workshop to sit and grab a drink.

Elaine Boxer, a member of Voila Chocolat’s team, met Manhattan Sideways one morning to educate us in the world of chocolate. Not a bad “class” to attend. She led Olivia, Tom and myself past mason jars full of dried fruit and nuts and test tubes filled with every topping imaginable, into the back room.

As an introduction to Peter’s history, Elaine said, “I’m waiting for someone to do a movie of his life.” Born in communist Bulgaria, Peter managed to escape by getting accepted to a language immersion program in China. There he met an American entrepreneur and began working for the “Cowboy Candy Company.” Elaine was sure to let us know that Cowboy Candy Company was not a way of getting cheap labor for exports to the United States, but that it was created for the rising middle class of China. Before Cowboy Candy Company, “the candy in China was terrible,” she informed us. Peter met his wife, an American, in China, and decided to move to the United States and raise a family. He went to Columbia Business School and worked in finance for a decade before finding a different path in 2010. He had become fascinated with chocolate and, in Elaine’s words, “got into the nerdiness of what goes into chocolate.” He took classes at different cooking institutes and made trips to Costa Rica to visit cacao farms. He became an amateur chocolatier, which Elaine informed us is different from a chocolate maker, who is responsible for turning cacao into chocolate rather than chocolate into confections. In December of 2014, Peter opened Voila Chocolat.

When Peter was developing the idea for Voila Chocolat, he very carefully selected his team. He began amassing an enormous chocolate network. He met Tina Wright, who is one of the leading food event producers in the country. Tina then introduced Peter to Voila Chocolat’s secret weapon: Christophe Toury, who was the executive pastry chef at Jacques Torres. At first, Christophe thought Peter was absolutely crazy, but then he was attracted to the challenge of the endeavor. Elaine called Christophe a “rare bird.” Though he is one of the top ten pastry chefs in America, he does not have a strong interest in having the focus be on himself. “You would think a big ego would go with that,” Elaine said, referring to Christophe’s many accolades, “But no.” He is all about teaching others. “People don’t realize how much of this is his artistry.” Elaine went on to tell us that Christophe comes from an old French carpentry family, thus it was he who designed and made the test tubes filled with chocolate toppings. He is also responsible for a number of the tools used in making the chocolate confections.

“No one has ever combined the amateur walk-off-the-street public with fine chocolate,” Elaine said, elaborating on the specific techniques necessary to be a chocolatier. She showed us the patented workstations that do not exist outside Voila Chocolat. Dennis Teets, the business’s “Chocolate Scientist” and one of the world’s foremost experts in the properties of cocoa butter, had a big hand in building them. The silver bowls set into the tables keep the chocolate at the right temperature, one of the largest problems that they had to overcome. Now, Elaine casually offered, “Whenever someone walks in, we’re ready.”

Fascinated, we encouraged Elaine to educate us a bit more. Chocolate begins to turn light and dusty when it is not properly tempered. The crumbly, light layer is referred to as sugar bloom or fat bloom. Tempering coaxes the cocoa butter to make a specific kind of crystal that locks the structure of the substance in place, avoiding different “blooms.” Elaine showed us an example of powdery, unappetizing, untempered chocolate next to tempered chocolate – “It’s like the picture of Dorian Grey,” Elaine pointed out. Education is a huge part of Voila Chocolat’s mission: they offer free chocolate knowledge classes for kids after school. “We want everyone who loves chocolate to understand why they love it.” Learning more about chocolate will hopefully also lead people to make better decisions with regards to what chocolate to buy. Elaine quipped, “An informed consumer is the best catalyst for change.” Voila Chocolat is very interested in the ecological and social sustainability of chocolate. Peter specifically chose the Guittard Chocolate Company as his chocolate provider for this reason. His goal is to one day have more biodiversity among chocolate.

Voila Chocolat have big plans for expansion. They hope to open shops nation-wide, including several more locations in New York. While speaking with Peter, he expressed his excitement at the growth of the business. He is proud of “the kind of culture we are building – how we approach the business and our people.” He then went on to say, “What are in the nucleus of it all are the energy and passion and values.”