A chocolate Easter bunny army is being raised, recruit by delicious recruit, in the Windsor chocolate kitchen of Jeff and Susan Mall. Sitting at attention, the milk chocolate rabbits stare silently ahead on sheet pans, awaiting the candy carnage to come.
“They’re totally solid, so you can eat their ears off,” says Susan Mall, co-owner of Volo Chocolate, with a wink. Made with a pinch of cinnamon, Mexican sea salt, milk and cacao beans from the Chiapas region of Mexico, they’re more than just basket filler. These are gourmet, bean-to-bunny chocolates, each made by hand in a tiny chocolate factory where the couple roast, grind and process the cacao beans they fell in love with while working as chefs in Baja.
If the names sound familiar, it’s because the Malls were the former owners of Zin Restaurant in Healdsburg. The longtime eatery closed in 2014, allowing the couple to spend 18 months at Rancho Pescadero, a remote Mexican resort where they operated a farm-to-table restaurant and farm. While in the Chiapas region they fell in love with the local cacao, frequently used in a drink called “pozol,” made with corn, water and local cocoa, something appreciated since Aztec and Mayan times.
It was a short leap for Jeff, an avid tinkerer, to embark on a mission to learn chocolate making using the famed Chiapas cacao. How hard could it be, he surmised? Using his chef instincts rather than any real recipe, he created a passable chocolate on his first try.
“We thought, imagine if we used instructions… it would be really great,” he says. Instead, it was absolutely inedible. So he went back to puttering with his own ideas of how to make a great chocolate bar using local ingredients, then roasting and processing the beans into a refined, chef-driven bar. Originally branded as “El Jefe” chocolate, the couple enlisted the help of eager resort guests to hull the beans with their bare hands, winnowing the chaff with an old hairdryer, grinding the beans with a manual whetstone and tempering the chocolate on a steel table. Though their production was minuscule, eager patrons bought more than a thousand of the crudely made, but delicious bars.
“If it hadn’t worked the first time with the chocolate, I probably would have given up,” Jeff says.
The couple returned to Sonoma County last August with plans to modernize their chocolate making into something more commercially viable, but with the same bean-to-bar process. With a little internet advice, some homemade tools and a few bags of cacao, Volo Chocolates was born.
The Easter Army
It feels almost cruel to be taking this busy couple away from their massive orders of bunnies on a Tuesday morning before Easter. Just a few months after launching the business, they’ve got pickups later that afternoon, with a pop-up at Relish Culinary Adventures and more chocolate bunny deliveries on Saturday. In all, they’re planning to make more than 100 of the tasty critters, four at a time, by the end of the week. That, and the other orders for their six other flavors of chocolate bars: Dark Dark with local candied orange peel, Dark Milk Chocolate, Dark Milk Chocolate with Roasted Almonds, Mocha (made with Flying Goat coffee) and Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Crunch. The 2.6 oz bars range from 62-73 percent pure chocolate.
Volo Chocolates is not a slick, streamlined kitchen with spanking new equipment. Located inside an office park off Shilo road that Susan calls the “Gourmet Ghetto,” they’re friendly with nearby micro-producers including Firefly Chocolates, Barrel Brothers Brewing, Tierra Vegetables and Moustache Bakery.
Like other scrappy startups, they’ve found ways to create their own small-scale equipment. A ShopVac and wheatgrass juicer purchased on Ebay have been combined using duct tape and perseverance into a makeshift grinder/separator for the chocolate nibs. An old peanut butter grinder processes cocoa butter and nibs into chocolate liquor, and a rumbling contraption once used in a dentists office shakes the bubbles out of the chocolate molds. He found the rabbit molds online, as well.
“I love to build stuff,” says Jeff. He and Susan, having worked in the restaurant business for most of their lives, also appreciate thrift and making the most of small kitchen spaces. Their chocolate factory is only about 500 square feet, with nearly every empty space utilized.
“We come at this from a chef perspective,” says Susan. “It’s a true advantage,” she says, allowing them to be more experimental and play with interesting flavors rather than be constrained by the current chocolate trend of only using single-sourced beans and one or two ingredients, for a purer chocolate experience.
“It’s like single source vineyard wines,” says Jeff. “We tasted more than 100 single source bars, and it wasn’t us. We ended up thinking, ‘Maybe they should have added a few more ingredients.’ ”
“We wanted to make chocolate people want to eat, and we want them to want more,” he said. ‘That’s the fun part of this, experimenting and being a chef,” he says.
Much of what they’ve learned about making chocolate has come from trial and error as well as a website called chocolatealchemy.com. The site offers “hacks” for making chocolate-making equipment from other machinery. “There are a lot of newer people in the chocolate industry that come from tech. They’re coming at this from an open source perspective. We’re all sharing information,” Jeff says.
As the couple dives back into production later in the morning, the smell of chocolate fills every nook and cranny of the space, and it’s hard not to surreptitiously stick a finger into the still-warm molds that Susan is carefully placing slivered almonds atop. So hard.
Volo Chocolates are currently available online at volochocolate.com, Relish Culinary Adventures, Dry Creek Vineyards, Bella Winery, Wilson Winery, Rodney Strong Winery, Ferrari-Carano Winery and Jimtown Store, or at a pop-up on April 15 at Relish. The bunnies are $10 each.