Last Updated: January 19, 2015
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, we were thrilled to be able to pick the brain of Buffalo’s newest Chocolatier, Ben Johnson of Blue Table Chocolates. The local startup offers hand-made truffles in carefully crafted collections, each with two or four flavors – or create your own custom boxes.
Collections are ever changing, including monthly specials available to subscribers and the public at local pop-ups and the Horsefeathers Winter Market. The number of pieces per box vary from 6 to 24 and prices range from $9 to $30. I can tell you from (several) personal experiences, these chocolates are delicious.
The February limited edition flavors this year (2015) are “Drunken Cherry” and “Parisian Raspberry” (a loose interpretation of Pierre Hereme’s famous Isphan Macaron, consisting of Raspberry, Rose water, and Litchi).
In an interview with Ben we got the dish on the chocolate, flavors, their monthly subscription, and some food for thought about the good life. If you love chocolate, love letters and/or Buffalo, you’ll want to keep reading.
Q&A, February 2014:
Where are Blue Table Chocolates made?
Liz Kolken of the Quaker Bonnet has been an invaluable early supporter of the business, agreeing to rent her ‘Chocolate dipping room’ at her off-site kitchen on Chenango street (off of W Ferry). It’s a daunting risk to invest in a long term lease without any sense of whether the business will take off, and most other shared kitchen spaces available wouldn’t have worked, with the associated heat and grease most other cooks use. Having a dedicated space means I’m able to be with my family during the day, then visit the kitchen late into the night, cooking with the radio turned up full blast.
What is your connection to WNY?
I was born and raised in Manhattan, but after years living all over, including 10 years in Boston, my wife accepted a teaching position at UB. We moved here in 2010, and I was lucky enough to find work with the Parkside Community Association, a neighborhood non-profit. Through the PCA I was able to meet so many people throughout WNY, without whom I never would have been able to take this leap. After 3 months in Buffalo we knew more of our neighbors than we ever did in the 10 years spent in Boston. With the cost of living of NYC and Boston as a baseline, the idea of taking this huge financial leap of faith seemed more plausible here in Buffalo. This never would have happened if we had ended up in a different city.
What is your favorite flavor of Blue Table Chocolates?
The real joy has always been and will continue to be exploring new pairings and new techniques, but I’ll always come back to the Creme Fraiche. It’s one of the more straightforward recipes, but highlights the appeal of high end confections. The story goes that, back in the late 19th century, famed french pastry chef Louis Dufour found he had run out of a key ingredient for the desert he was preparing for a famous client. Rather than ask his fellow chefs for help he substituted what was on hand, and ended up inventing what we now know as the hand rolled truffle. The story typically stops there, but what is typically lost is the idea that he didn’t have any heavy cream, but instead relied on creme fraiche. In the same way that Marie Antionette is often misquoted to have said, “let them eat cake” (she actually was referring to brioche, which with the amount of butter used then, was too expensive for the local peasants) it’s the often forgotten wrinkle that makes the story that much more interesting. We revert back to the use of Creme Fraiche then as a reminder to how the first truffles actually tasted, which is wildly different and infinitely more complex than the cheap Lindsor truffles found at the local 7-11. In other words, taste is paramount of course, but each piece is that much more fun if it tickles the imagination at the same time.
What is your favorite collection?
I’m an avowed coffee-freak, so will always gravitate towards the Cappuccino / Gianduja pairing. There’s just something about coffee, chocolate and hazelnuts that gets me every time.
What do you recommend for a Valentine’s Day Present from Blue Table Chocolates?
If we’re trying to offer something that isn’t already available out there, we first and foremost decided to avoid all things cherry and pink. Rather, our February limited edition flavors are an edible way to offer your sweetheart a box of flowers, including our dark chocolate Lavender, and caramel ganache St. Germain. A decent gift should be both surprising, and delicious. Update: The February limited edition flavors for 2015 are “Drunken Cherry” and “Parisian Raspberry”.
Tell us about your monthly subscription:
Each month we introduce a new limited edition flavor or flavors, based on seasonal availability, but just as much on the need to never stop playing. There’s a near endless list of ideas I’m dying to try out, from a Cilantro-Tangerineganache, to a Rose-Lychee-Raspberry pairing. A small cadre of brutally honest friends have offered to keep me from going too far in unconventional directions, but the subscription is an invitation to explore with us those flavors that range beyond just peanut butter or mint.
Are the chocolates sold online only? (if not, where else?)
We are considering developing a second line of products designed for retail sales, but until then, boxes will occasionally be available at the Quaker Bonnet (175 Allen Street) (Update: Quaker Bonnet has since closed) or at short term pop-up sites around town. Check the website or follow us on Facebook for further details.
Where does the name Blue Table come from?
When we were new parents, living in a small condo in Boston, we were pushing our stroller around Jamaica Pond one Spring day, when we passed a small house with a sprawling side yard. In the middle of a manicured lawn was a long, cobalt blue farm table, that looked to be set for an outdoor dinner party. The garden was immaculate, the place setting simple but elegant, and the whole scene was just cut straight from a magazine. On our way back to our tiny condo we talked endlessly about how, one day, we would try to recreate that Blue Table in our backyard, and have that kind of life where crowds of friends would come visit, we’d cook a rustic, but interesting five course meal for everybody, and stay up late into the night laughing over just one more glass of wine. The idea being that someday we’d reach a place where we we’re settled, comfortable enough in where we were and what we were doing, surrounded by people we loved and respected, and could host that kind of dinner party in our own garden. Over the years, when making career choices, or moving to a new town the idea of the Blue Table became our short-hand code for ‘the good life’. Not necessarily wealthy or famous, just comfortable and secure, and above all happy. By launching this business, we decided to stop waiting for things to fall into place, and take steps to make it real. Whether or not we ever become famous or wealthy doing this, it’s the idea of being where you’re supposed to be that matters more now.
What makes this chocolate stand out/different from others?:
There’s no shortage of good chocolate in Buffalo, but it struck us that most of what’s available seems targeted at the same market. We might sell more volume sticking to the “Dark chocolate with peanut-butter, Milk-chocolate with peanut-butter, white chocolate with peanut-butter” approach, but there was a whole world yet unexplored out there. Visits to the chocolate shops of Toronto or NYC, if not Paris and Zurich were revelations of what was possible. Coming back home to Buffalo we just couldn’t find anything comparable. Secondly, and just as importantly, we want to reestablish the idea of chocolate as a luxury item. From packaging, through decoration and design we’re committed to making each piece an individual work of art, then work backwards towards making the business profitable.
It’s clear to me that a lot of passion has gone into Blue Table Chocolates. The story behind it and the flavor choices have peaked my interest – I’ll be placing my order as soon as I finish here. Not only are Ben and his family bringing an exciting, innovative product to Western New York, but he is setting an example for business people (and aspiring business people) to follow their passions and make their dreams a reality.
His description of the “Blue Table” idea is one that I believe is plentiful here in WNY – although I haven’t heard anyone ever put a term to it so eloquently. WNY is a place where you can create your own “good life” – it’s the area’s best quality. The “Blue Table” idea is what makes Buffalo great.
In this interview we set out to get some background on Blue Table Chocolates, an emerging, interesting WNY business. What we ended up getting was all of that, and a love letter to Buffalo. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Where to get Blue Table Chocolates:
> Order Blue Table Chocolates for your valentine
> Visit their “Blue Table” at the Winter Market @ Horsefeathers on Saturday Mornings
> Follow Blue Table Chocolates on Facebook for updates on their latest pop-ups
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