Did you know that Manhattan Beach is home to an artisan chocolate maker with fans from around the world?
Bar Au Chocolat
, run by Nicole Trutanich in Manhattan Beach, is a boutique chocolate studio that produces specialty products for chocolate lovers, chefs, and more.
The studio is located on 13th Street in downtown Manhattan Beach, in a former duplex that has been artfully designed as a high-end chocolate production center. With soaring ceilings, natural light, and specially designed rooms for refining, cooling, and aging, it's a atelier that is as beautiful as the chocolate is delicious.
Trutanich had been building a reputation among restaurateurs, retail stores, and bakeries when the pandemic hit and slowed down external business. And although she's still busy filling orders, this fall she set up a small booth at the Manhattan Beach Farmers' Market, which has earned her a new legion of local devotees.
Trutanich takes a minimalist approach to chocolate making, which she described as simply bringing the bitterness of
cacao into balance with the sweetness of sugar. "Stripping chocolate down to two ingredients presents an
irresistible challenge - and a call to be a little bit daring," she said.
And while she creates magnificent chocolate bars, she takes great pride in the multitude of gourmet chocolate products that come out of her studio. "I want to be known as a chocolate lover, and also as a cook's best friend," she said.
"Love at First Sight"
Trutanich, who has always enjoyed making foods from scratch, made her first batch of chocolate as a treat to herself one year on her birthday.
"What I thought would take one day took four days - I had to husk and winnow each bean by hand," she said. "Finally got I enough to make a small batch."
Despite all the work it took, she was hooked. "It was really kind of magical to have this bitter bean turn into something sweet and beautiful," she said. "I fell in love - love at first sight. I said to myself, 'This is what I’ve been meant to do my whole life."
When she made this decision, she said her boyfriend promised her, "After a year, if you're still into this. I'll help you make your dream come true."
She continued pursuing chocolate making with a passion, refining her technique and experimenting with different flavor profiles.
She went to New York to the famous Salon du Chocolat New York, a prestigious chocolate festival. There, she met famous fourth-generation French chocolatier Stefan Bonnat, who invited her to come observe at his factory/laboratory.
Trutanich launched Bar au Chocolat in 2010, working out of a small industrial facility in Torrance. By 2015, she had earned a gold medal
at London's Academy of Chocolate, which L.A. Magazine
described as "like winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes."
She moved into her current Louie Tomaro-designed space in 2019 when construction was complete.
A Meticulous Chocolate Production Process
Trutanich sources all of her ingredients carefully. She imports cacao beans from Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Madagascar, Mexico, Peru, Tanzania, Trinidad, and Venezuela. She also brings in maple sugar from Vermont and cane sugar from Lousiana.
Then the chocolate production begins in the gleaming white kitchens of Bar au Chocolat.
To make a batch of chocolate, she sorts the beans to weed out substandard beans, then sifts them. The beans then go into a roaster, where they are carefully roasted, 40 pounds at a time. From there, the beans go into a winnower where the shells are cracked, the husks are carefully bagged up (and donated to a local garden nonprofit for compost), and the nibs are collected.
At this point she sifts the nibs one last time to remove any additional husk. Then they go into a special grinder, where they're ground into a paste; and then into special machines for refining and conching.
From there, the chocolate is poured into large containers. Depending on the product, the various batches of chocolate may be aged and then tempered (heated to the right temperature to give it a glossy sheen and a satisfying "crack").
Each product is then molded into different shapes and finally packaged using exquisite handmade containers and papers, and topped off with a copper foil stamp.
The process can take a while, admitted Trutanich, but that long action is
what it takes to develop a well-developed flavor. "You could speed
things up, but I like to go very slowly - like an elephant," she said
with a grin.
Trutanich added that her most important gauges are her senses and her intuition for what's right in each batch of chocolate. "Every bean has a different feel to it," she said. "My hands, my eyes, my ears, my nose, my mouth - those are all of my best tools."
From 'Soul Roll' to 'Slowdance'
So what kinds of products does Bar au Chocolat sell? (This is an important question to know the answer to, as Valentine's Day is quickly approaching.)
Trutanich sells single-origin and estate chocolate bars; hot chocolate powder; brownie mix; granola; roasted cacao nibs; and baking essentials such as chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate.
For kids there are molded chocolate animals; and for surfers, there's the "Soul Roll" - a thin sheet of chocolate carefully crafted to emulate an ocean wave. For those eating a plant-based diet, she also makes vegan dark and milk chocolate.
Then there's her popular Slowdance set - chocolates that are cave-aged with a variety of flavors. (The cave-aging process takes up to a year.) Her collection includes chocolate with orange peel (Zest), honeycomb (Swarm), Buddha’s Hand (Embrace), habanero (Crescendo), coffee beans (go-go!), grapevine leaves (Hedonism), cacao nibs (Polka Dot Bikini), and rose petals (Blush).
For 2021, Trutanich is preparing to release even more Slowdance varieties: lavender (Rendezvous) - a May release; chili pepper (Ciao, Jimmy:
an homage to Jimmy Nardello and the eponymous heirloom chili pepper) - an August release; and truffle d'Alba (Dig-it!) - an October release.
Last but not least, she has perfected the ritual art of dried Hachiya persimmons
. These seasonal late-winter delicacies are still available (in limited quantity) while supplies last.
Manhattan Beach Farmers' Market
Since Trutanich joined the Manhattan Beach Farmers' Market, she has drawn a new crowd of local fans and aficionados.
She says she loves the in-person interaction with market-goers, and is known to try new products and bounce ideas off her loyal customers.
On warm days, she has an assistant working with her to ferry orders up and down the block from the studio to the customer so the chocolate doesn't have to sit out in the heat.
"I probably would never have been at the market if it hadn't been for the pandemic," said Trutanich. "But during the pandemic, we have had to reimagine everything."
Cynthia Rogers, who manages operations for the Manhattan Beach Farmers' market, said that Trutanich has been a true asset to the
"Slow food is alive and strong in Manhattan Beach with Nicole and Bar Au Chocolat representing the heart of what is so wonderful about the shared experience of the Manhattan Beach Certified Farmers Market," said Rogers. "In fact, this is what slow food is all about: knowing where your food comes from, while slowing life down to discover a wealth of riches shared by farmers, ranchers, and food artisans."
Rogers continued: "While we pride ourselves on bringing the freshest locally grown produce to our community of shoppers each week, we also aim to curate the market with local food businesses that have passion and true dedication to artisanal foods. Bar Au Chocolat is simply the best - richly procured cacao from the most sustainable sources and held to the highest degree of chocolate making. We're so fortunate that our community of shoppers has access to Nicole each and every Tuesday."
Trutanich agreed that her products fit right in with the character of the market: "It's been wonderful. I've learned so much. I've met so many nice people."
Trutanich is currently seeking new partnerships with restaurants, bakeries, and breweries. And she continues to dedicate herself to working slowly, painstakingly, to get each product exactly right.
"It’s a little scary to put yourself out there," she said. "But I have to do this. It’s in me. I hop out of bed every morning and I cannot wait to come in here and create and make something beautiful."The Bar au Chocolat studio is not currently open to the public, but you can visit Bar au Chocolat every Tuesday at the Manhattan Beach Farmers' Market (13th and Morningside Drive) from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.