Appetizers

National Chocolate Day and Sacramento’s Puur Chocolat

Ramon and his wife Nicole Perez recently returned to Sacramento from Los Angeles to start their online boutique chocolate business Puur Chocolate on Thursday March 27, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif.
Ramon and his wife Nicole Perez recently returned to Sacramento from Los Angeles to start their online boutique chocolate business Puur Chocolate on Thursday March 27, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif. rbyer@sacbee.com

Editor’s Note: Today is National Chocolate Day. In celebration, here’s a story originally published May 4, 2014 in the Sacramento Bee by Sammy Caiola.

Los Angeles’ swanky new hotel, The Line on Wilshire Boulevard, is home to Pot, a buzzy Korean restaurant from native-son Roy Choi, the ace chef with swagger and star wattage to spare.

But the high-end chocolates served at The Line? Those come from Sacramento chef Ramon Perez.

Perez, 32, founded online boutique Puur Chocolat in October, adding another Sacramento name to a burgeoning artisanal chocolate scene that demands a rare blend of technical skills and creative handiwork.

On a typical day in the kitchen, Perez is wielding a heat gun or a whisk to create one of the 12 chocolates in his signature line, which includes flavor pairings that the chef describes as “earthy, “ “citrusy” and “extreme.” Think grapefruit and peppercorn, matcha and nori, fennel and licorice, vanilla and pine.

“Nothing’s off-limits for me, as far as flavors, “ said Perez. “It’s exploration - really diving in and trying to manipulate chocolate into different forms.”

Perez was born to restaurateur parents and spent much of his childhood in Folsom and Granite Bay before moving to Napa to work at Auberge du Soleil as a pre-teen. A few years later, his folks launched Citronée in Nevada City, where he had his hands in all the pots before settling into pastry.

He took his piping-bag dreams to the New England Culinary Institute and landed a job at chef David Myers’ Sona in Los Angeles immediately after, eventually becoming executive pastry chef of the David Myers Group (which runs Comme Ça in West Hollywood and Sola in Toyko, among others).

Perez’s playful curiosity has prompted many chocolate experiments, from steeping sweet cream with padrón peppers a la Basque tapas to repurposing a miso butterscotch mochi from Myers’ L.A. restaurant Hinoki & the Bird.

But more often the light bulbs go off when the young chef is around inspiring ingredients, something he said happens frequently in the farm-to-fork capital.

Perez regularly visits the farmers market under the freeway and the midtown farmers market with wife and business partner Nicole Perez to source everything from olive oil to mandarins, and calls upon Rancho Cordova’s Soil Born Farms for most of its herbs. Ramon said he’s especially excited to feature tomatoes from West Sacramento’s Watanabe Farms this summer in addition to the region’s berries.

“The product grown in the Sacramento region is far better than anywhere else in the country, and we felt this was a perfect time to come home, help further develop the growing food scene, and help showcase the incredible farms and products from the Sacramento area, “ he wrote in an email.

As for the chocolate, Perez uses French manufacturer Cacao Barry, whose beans come from all over South America and Africa and whose practices comply with Perez’s responsible-sourcing philosophy. For him, this means fair treatment and payment for farmers and a high level of care in picking and cracking the bean.

Perez is in step with long-standing Sacramento chocolatier Ginger Elizabeth Hahn, who purchases couverture chocolate from fair trade producers to create bite-sized treats filled with intriguing ingredients ranging from buttermilk and lime to elderflower liquor.

Perez refers to Hahn as one of the best chocolatiers in the country and compliments her “Tiffany-esque” style, as well as her success in getting Sacramento, a city that’s been through its fair share of dessert crazes, hooked on fine chocolates.

Though crafted with a similar degree of sophistication, Perez’s product would be more at place in a museum of modern art than at a tea party. Swirled lines of airbrushed cocoa butter in chartreuse and bold orange give some of his candies a glassy texture. Others have a rougher feel, which Perez gets by freezing the molded chocolate briefly before spraying it with tempered cocoa butter, causing the topping to congeal and settle into a layer of hard frost.

“I used to do everything as far as pastry goes, but I really wanted to hone in and focus on chocolates, “ Perez said. “It is such a science and it is so precise. ... You really have to master it in order for it to actually become special.”

In addition to exquisite ganaches, which can be purchased in six-piece, 12-piece and 24-piece sets for $15-$45, Perez also sells bags of soft, rectangular caramels in sea salt and kimchi. The Puur candy bar, filled with coconut praline and caramel and dubbed the “entry level” confection by Perez, sells for $6.50.

As remarkable as the artistry from the likes of Hahn and Perez may be, it’s still just a step behind the “bean-to-bar” chocolate movement that’s gaining traction nationwide.

Places such as Dandelion in San Francisco, which Perez hails as an inspiration, and Twenty-four Blackbirds in Santa Barbara, whose products are sold at Sacramento’s Temple Coffee locations, pride themselves on turning raw cacao into chocolate on-site - an endeavor that Twenty-four Blackbirds founder Mike Orlando described as “a learning curve all the way.”

“Right now there’s a boom for bean-to-bar chocolate makers, “ said Orlando, who recently returned from a bean search in Belize. “Every month I hear about five or so more. But they’re already dropping out because they don’t realize how hard it is.”

While Perez aspires to work directly with farmers and churn out his own chocolate, he said it will be awhile until he’s prepared to go bean-to-bar.

In the meantime, he’s focused on getting into a commercial space where he can make his products more accessible to Sacramento. Puur Chocolat currently operates out of an industrial kitchen in Village Green and receives orders online at puurchocolat.com, mostly from restaurants and corporate-event organizers.

Stephen Durfee, pastry chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, said Sacramento is well situated for artisan chocolate, considering its wine culture and knowledgeable consumer base.

“In the same way we’ve seen so many niche-market items become specialty items, like olive oil and high quality wine, people are aware that there’s a difference in high-quality chocolate, “ he said. “We’ve already seen this movement in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and now it’s spreading to newer markets.”

For Perez, who crafts around 800 chocolate pieces a day, it’s all about bringing an air of sophistication to something nostalgic.

“I want them to be surprised, “ he said. “I want them to look at it and think they can’t get it anywhere else. And I want people to be happy when they have the chocolates. That’s what chocolate is. It’s happiness.”

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