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Is Chocolat Celeste the Best in the Twin Cities? A Chat With Mary Leonard

Mary Leonard explains the process that goes into her exquisite truffles. This is a chocolate enrober.

Mary Leonard explains the process that goes into her exquisite truffles. This is a chocolate enrober.

Like cheese, wine, and coffee, chocolate can be esoteric. There are plantations to consider and cocoa percentages and butterfat and additives and fillings and flavorings both artificial and natural. And alkaloids. And etymology, history, processing, tempering, and health effects. And in part due to this esoterica, just like cheese, wine and coffee, chocolate can be subject to sleights of hand via clever marketing.

And all the layperson knows is that he wants it, and he wants it bad. Fat, sugar, cocoa? More, please. But Mary Leonard isn't having any of it. Don't let all the hot pink fool you. She's got a background in food science, business, and IT. Chocolate is her second act, and she's very serious about it.

See also: Chocolat Celeste: The Tour

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The Chocolate Celeste kitchen and showroom is off the industrial strip of Transfer Road in St. Paul. It's a bit of a strange location and it can almost feel a little covert getting your chocolates here, like you're getting a fix in a clandestine locale.

"There's a reason we're here. I really like it here. I have this facility so that I can do what I do right. I always have an eye on temperature and humidity here. And my customer base are not tire kickers."

It's important that her customer base not be just interested in browsing. Her stuff is all natural and all fresh, all of the time, and has a shelf life of no more than two weeks. She uses only Hope Butter from Hope, Minnesota and Pride of Main Street Cream from Sauk Centre, Minnesota because it is all natural and uses no stabilizers, which would affect the quality of the finished product. The European chocolate she uses is very expensive, making her finished product pretty expensive, too. Two truffles cost about $7, but really, you only need one.

A sample of Mary Leondard's custom chocolate work

A sample of Mary Leondard's custom chocolate work

"Good chocolate should be something that lasts, something that truly satisfies. That once you've had that chocolate, you don't need another." She breaks out two truffles to prove it. We both bite into one. It's sensational in the truest sense -- the outer filling yields to the tooth like a shell over a hardboiled egg. The inner ganache floods the inside of your mouth. Not just the tongue, but the sides of your mouth, down into your throat, tickling the very glands. It's chocolatey, yes, but also buttery, fatty, winey, fruity, and aromatic. Neither of us reaches for a second.

Here is what you should look for in a perfect chocolate truffle, according to Leonard:

1. It should have a shiny exterior, which indicates that it was tempered properly. If it does not, what's inside could easily spoil.

2. It should have a snap, and never be gritty or dry. Again, good indicators of freshness and quality.

3. The chocolate shell on the outside should be very thin. "It's not about the shell. It should be about what's inside, and what's inside should be perfectly smooth."

Leonard spent her 20s married to an economist who went to MIT, so even though she knew from the age of 18 that she was going to have a pastry business, she did not do so until she was in her mid-40s.

"My husband had other ideas. He went to MIT so he thought, 'Why don't you want to make more money?'"

But her mother was an entrepreneur, at a time when female entrepreneurs weren't really a thing. She had two eponymous hair salons in St. Paul, called Eileen's. And she was good at it, too, until a couple of other names came to town: Horst and Rocco. Guys from New York who "became names at the dinner table."

Still, her mom made enough money that they would count the cash at the dinner table every week, go to Highland Bank, and then go to the restaurant right next door, every week. Once called Lee's Cafe, it's now the Village Cafe, and Leonard still goes there each week after going to the bank.

"My mom bought cars and furniture with cash. She made more money than my dad. Sometimes when I'm standing here I can feel her inside of me."

While it may have been her mom who provided her with entrepreneurial smarts, she says her eye for beauty and design is all her own.

"Everything I do is about what I see. My staff always says, 'Oh, she didn't miss it!' Mistakes, or if there's a fingerprint on a chocolate, or if there's a gnat over there; I see everything."

She made a video of the specific way she wants the bows tied on her chocolate boxes, and she sends it home with employees to practice. She insists I watch as she ties mine.

"I don't want it like that or like that. I want it like this."

These details, and the simple beauty therein, is why she chose chocolate in the first place.

Mary Leonard's bow-tying prowess

Mary Leonard's bow-tying prowess

"It's about creating something beautiful. I've always liked to give a beautiful gift. Something to impress. And I have a core group of customers who understand that."

Her chocolates have been featured in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and she's done custom work for some big-time names: the Mirage and Belagio resorts, Meryl Streep, and the U of M, which she gave a break to because "I graduated twice."

That last part is a big challenge for her. She says she has a hard time finding a serious work force. "When I went to school for culinary, it was a scientific thing. I took sugar technology and chocolate technology. That's not really a thing anymore." So she does almost everything herself. You'll probably never not see her on site. As we chat, she actually hides behind me when some clients come through the door, so that she'll be able to continue our conversation. It's clear that her customers know her, and come in part for her attentions.

But still, she says it can be a challenge to communicate what it is she does, how well she does it, and why it matters. Grocery stores and other retail outlets are not good ways to market the product because it needs to be handled properly in a temperature-controlled environment, and there's the matter of the shelf stability.

She recently had a chat with a colleague about how they could make her product "edgy," edgy seeming to be a thing that food products have to be these days in order to compete. And, she says, she can do edge. "I had chocolates covered in skulls and they had habanero raspberry inside and everybody wanted the skull ones!"

"But [famous chocolatier] Joseph Schmidt said do what you are passionate about and don't pay attention to what other people do."

And what she is passionate about is providing what she says is the only chocolate in the Twin Cities that is single origin, contains only cocoa butter and no alternative fats, and is always fresh with absolutely no stabilizers. "This is truly artisanal. It is correct."

And by the way, all that hot pink? It's not just her favorite color. A beloved boss once told her she should wear pink all the time in order to balance out her personality.

"I'm one of the most serious people you will ever meet."

Try her. Everyone is welcome to tour her kitchen. It's worth the trip, and for something sweet to offset the serious, everyone gets a free sample.

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