"Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." Whoever first uttered those words was wise, indeed. In the sweet spirit of Top Chef's dessert-only challenge series, Chow Bella's treating you to a profile of a Valley dessert chef each week. This week: Chocolatiers Lou and Denise Mirabella of Chocofin. What started out as a less than stellar homemade-Christmas-gift attempt at truffle making grew into the passion and livelihood of the entrepreneurial Lou Mirabella and his wife, Denise, of Chocofin Chocolatiers.
Mirabella had his sights set on sorbet, making those during the summer and switching to chocolate during the cold Connecticut winters. He breaks out the photo album and points to a photo of a hand-push ice cream cart, which he bought with his chocolate savings.
After discovering chocolate would be a more lucrative business than sorbet, Mirabella decided to seek more formal instruction by getting on-the-job-training under a talented pastry chef. (He says Connecticut lacked any chocolatiers at the time.) After landing a gig, the lead pastry chef went elsewhere, leaving Mirabella at the helm, so much for learning!
A waitress set Mirabella up with Denise, a culinary student doing her out-service in the restaurant's savory side. The two bonded over their love of food and music, married, traversed the country looking for places to learn more tricks of the trade, landed in the Scottsdale resort scene, and set up shop in Fountain Hills in 2001.
"It was Lou's big pitch to do chocolates full time," says Denise of the leap to ditch their day jobs and become chocolatiers. "But we're both in it together. We're like the ying and the yang -- we balance each other out."
If the Mirabellas aren't whipping up chocolates, ice cream and other goodies at Chocofin, you might find them playing some pick-up jazz, fusion, rock or just jamming with friends: Mirabella plays standing and electric bass and Denise carries the tunes.
Today, the Mirabellas tell us how a fresh coconut and raw cookie dough got them started in the kitchen, why white chocolate has some merit (even though dark chocolate is soooooo much better), which famous chocolatier they met in Manhattan, and what fried treat they can't stop eating.
Head's up: Lou Mirabella's answers are in normal text and Denise's are italicized.
First memory in the kitchen? I was nine years old, and my mom got gourmet magazine. There was a recipe for fresh coconut cookies. We went to the store, bought the coconut, tried to crack it open, had no idea what we were doing, then we grated it, and made the cookies. I've always loved sweets and baking. And that was my first major memory of doing something on my own. I always used to ask to lick the batter when my sister made chocolate cookies, but she wouldn't let me eat the raw dough. So I told here, "I'm going to make my own." And I did.
Hardest kitchen lesson? Tempering chocolate. If it goes out of temper, it looks horrible and you could never sell the stuff. It might take an hour or a day or up to 48 hours for the chocolate to set up. They're good enough at that point to sell them.
Favorite travel memory? When we travel, our favorite thing is to find a bakery. We were camping in Durango, and we found this place called Bread. It was 25 minutes away, but we found a reason to go into town basically every day. We got to know the owner a bit, and you can just tell it's his labor of love. It's a much more casual atmosphere, very hippy, and the food quality was just exceptional. It's just really hard to find a very simple, fresh bakery. You could tell he had really figured out what he was doing. It's not that simple to just figure out. [Mirabella worked in a bakery in Scottsdale under a French pastry chef when the couple first moved to Arizona, learning everything from baking breakfast treats and bread to making and decorating wedding cakes.]
What's your best recipe experiment? Raspberry? It's definitely our most popular. We were doing a raspberry truffle, using Chambord, and we wanted to update it. We thought, "Why not do a roasted raspberry?" Roasting the raspberries concentrates the flavor. You bake them with sugar sprinkled on top, like an oven jam. It's a good way to concentrate the flavor without adding extract. It gives a good balance of brightness and tartness.
How long does it take to perfect a flavor? Almost every chocolate in there was about a month or two of experiments.
Given that dark chocolate is richer and healthier, is there a place for white chocolate? It's a good flavor carrier, especially citrus - lime, lemon and orange. It doesn't get in the way or overshadow. Our white chocolate key lime truffle is nice and tart, not too sweet.
What's your latest flavor inspiration? We love Thai and Japanese food, which is where the coconut and ginger chocolate came from. We tried lemongrass, coconut, and ginger, because you find those together a lot in the food. But the lemongrass was awful. It just tasted like soap, so we just eliminated that. Voila! We had a great tasting product.
Next flavor out of the kitchen? Blackberry cassis marzipan.
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Who does the inventing and final taste-testing? I can get mired in the details, so it's hard for me sometimes to get the big ideas. But I turn to her as the judge, asking how does this sound? She has a more sensitive palette. Just like with music, she can always tell when I'm hitting the wrong note.
Best chocolatier visit? We met Jacques Torres at his Chocolate Haven, this giant place in Manhattan. We told the guy at the shop we had a mutual friend and would like to say hello. Finally [Torres] shows up, and he's got the business card from the guy we both knew. We told him that we're full time chocolatiers. And he was like, "You wanna see the back?" We couldn't believe it. We were like, "This is incredible! He's taking us to see the inner sanctum." We gave him a box of chocolate. We didn't make him try them in front of us or anything. And we're just hanging out in his place. Then he came running back out, "You're chocolates are so amazing," he said. "You're chocolates are so good. The technical execution is perfect, and they taste delicious." He'd taken a bite of each of them. It was rally great to get validation form a well known chocolatier who knows what he's doing.
What's always in the kitchen at home? We have a garden. You can grow things really well if you plant it and do your homework. We grow basil, and make our own pesto. We always have cheese. We love cheese. Friends of ours just brought us stuffed salami and cheese from Brooklyn. Hot sauce and good wine. And cocoa nib bark, for snacking.
Any other food fixes? I sure love croissants. And I'm pretty partial to making muffins at home. Chunky peanut butter right out of the jar. Our son won't eat chunky, so that's really disappointing. Homemade fruit pie. Baking bread at home. I just love the smells too when it's fresh out of the oven. I just love donuts, I keep saying that I'm going to make them but I haven't. It's something about having a fried crunchy warm thing. And we love fried dough. Oh, that's it: Dough boys. It's fried pizza dough stuffed with mozzarella. You sprinkle sugar on them and eat them. We made those camping. We were technically supposed to eat them for dinner with marinara sauce. My grandmother used to make them, and no one else has ever heard of them. It's kind of like a rustic Italian donut.