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The sweetest jobs in Texas

Two artisans make chocolate treats almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.

Dale Rice

Originally published February 13, 2008.

One works in Bryan, the other in Bastrop. One entered the trade soon after culinary school, the other spent decades in the restaurant business before changing track. One experiments with cutting-edge color, the other relies on more traditional methods. Both, however, are among a new generation of artisan chocolate makers in Texas. Mitch Siegert of Truman Chocolates in Bryan and Frans Hendriks of Roscar Chocolates in Bastrop are part of a growing cadre of Lone Star chocolatiers who are producing exquisite, labor-intensive, handmade candies that are as tasty as they are beautiful. Here are the remarkably different paths they traveled to reach the same small culinary circle.

Shop in Bryan creates masterpieces in chocolate

BRYAN - Mitch Siegert pours a bit of warm chocolate paint - cocoa butter mixed with coloring - into a small cup, dons latex gloves and picks up a clean candy mold. He dabs his index finger in the paint and makes a small swirl on the bottom of each cavity that eventually will hold a chocolate bonbon.

Setting that aside for a few minutes to dry, Siegert makes a small paper cone, fills it with a different shade of chocolate paint, snips the bottom open and rapidly leaves streaks of color in another mold. While that dries, Siegert, 29, shifts back to the first mold. He fills a jar with chocolate color, attaches it to an airbrush and then paints the mold with a deft, sweeping motion. He sets it aside for later filling.

It's a technique that Siegert repeats with each mold, sometimes decorating with multiple colors, as he produces the painted chocolates that are making a name nationally for this Bryan-based chocolatier. He's one of a handful of chocolate makers in the country pursuing this approach.

Already, boxes of his vibrantly colored Truman Chocolates have been distributed by a New York hotel to its guests who were delegates to the most recent U. N. General Assembly, sent to hundreds of clients of a San Antonio law firm and given by a Dallas jeweler as gifts with purchases.

That's not bad for someone who has been in business less than a year and who relies on the Internet for most of the sales of his chocolates, which sell online for $42 for a box of 16, plus shipping.

Although some customers do stop by the small retail counter in front of his production facility in a strip mall near the College Station city line, less than five minutes from the Texas A&M University campus, Siegert's reach is well beyond the city where he grew up.

Siegert was in his freshman year at Texas Tech University when he decided what he really wanted to do was become a chef and open his own restaurant. After returning to College Station and working in a restaurant, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he earned two associate degrees: one in culinary arts and the other in baking and pastries.

A job with a Florida pastry school, where he taught people to make elaborate chocolate showpieces, prompted Siegert to change course, from future chef to candy maker.

He returned to College Station and began experimenting in his apartment kitchen with the chocolates, both the coloring process and the flavorings to fill them. As word of his activity began to spread, Siegert found and outfitted the commercial space for his chocolate production.

He has slowly expanded his painted line to the point where he has 32 flavors - ranging from banana (his favorite) to s'mores (the top seller) to apple-cinnamon and cherry (the last two he perfected) - for the ganache that forms the center of the molded chocolates.

Flavor preference, he says, is personal. "There are some that aren't my favorites but people really love."

Before the ganache goes in, however, there's a step that follows the painting. Siegert, who doesn't have a tempering machine and must heat or cool chocolate to the right temperature on his own, fills the trays with melted chocolate, leaves them for 30 to 60 seconds and then dumps the chocolate out. That produces the thin outer shell of the candy.

After that, he fills the candies and then cools the centers overnight, allowing them to solidify enough to finish with a final coating of chocolate that forms the bottoms. The whole process takes a day and a half.

"I work backward, starting with the outside," Siegert says.

But just because he works backward doesn't mean he's not moving forward. The growing demand for his bonbons has him running to keep up with it.

- Dale Rice

Flavor takes its time at Roscar Chocolates

BASTROP - Frans Hendriks sits in front of a large tempering kettle filled with melted milk chocolate. At his side are a tray of large globes of ganache flavored with lime and tequila and a large bowl of toasted, sliced almonds.

He takes a ball of ganache, drops it in the chocolate and - once it is fully coated - extracts it with what looks like a miniature circular whisk. He places it in the bowl of almonds, using a wide-tined fork to cover it completely with sliced nuts. Then he moves on to the next ball of ganache.

Although he clearly loves virtually all aspects of the chocolate-making process, he considers coating truffles the most boring part of his candy production. However, after nearly six years of practice, he can move quickly through that monotonous task, finishing 120 chocolate truffles an hour.

Those Texas-sized truffles and an extensive line of gorgeous dark-chocolate-covered bonbons share a trait that has helped Hendriks build a glowing reputation for his candy: They are filled with flavors, ranging from rum-raisin-apple to Fall Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon , created and refined by Hendriks especially for his chocolates.

This month, for example, Hendriks has distilled the flavor from fresh rose petals to use in the Roscar Chocolates that are a highlight of his Valentine's Day production.

Although some may think that Valentine's would be the busiest season for a chocolatier, just as it's the busiest night of the year for Austin restaurateurs, Hendriks says the day of romance doesn't come close to Christmas.

After all, most consumers buy chocolates for a single recipient on Valentine's. "If they're buying for two, they're in trouble," he says, chuckling.

That sense of humor and ready smile surface often during a two-hour demonstration of his craft, which he reached in a roundabout way.

A native of Holland who moved to the United States in 1972, Hendriks spent decades in the restaurant business. He was an executive chef in hotels and for Brennan's in New Orleans, ending up with his own San Antonio restaurant, Bistro Time.

Tired of using commercially made after-dinner mints for his patrons, Hendriks decided to make his own. He called old friends in Europe who were in the chocolate business, asking them to help him refresh old skills and learn new ones. He went there for a chocolate education and returned to San Antonio to begin making his first bonbons filled with crème de menthe ... a flavor he has since retired.

Making the chocolates to serve with coffee at the end of the meal led to filling orders for customers, which in turn led to sales in a couple of retail outlets.

At that point, Hendriks decided it was time to leave the hot, pressure-filled evenings behind in favor of cooler days making chocolate (his work environment now is a constant 65 degrees, with 50 percent humidity).

He sold the restaurant in 2000 and found commercially zoned property, a former model home, on Texas 71 just east of Bastrop in 2001 and built a production facility behind it. Last summer, in response to consumer demand, he converted the house into a tasting room, which opened on Labor Day and where customers can sample any number of intriguing Roscar flavors, from intense coconut to fresh mint.

What those customers may not fully appreciate is Hendriks' sense of perfection. Chocolates with even the tiniest imperfection - perhaps a pinhole where a barely discernible amount of filling has reached the surface - are immediately pulled and sent to the tasting room to be cut into samples.

While he brought his exacting standards from the restaurant to the chocolate business, he left behind the sometimes-maddening production of full-course meals and overseeing a staff of cooks and servers during the dinner rush. And he's happy he slowed down a bit.

"Chocolates," he says, "you don't rush. You have to take your time making chocolates."

drice@statesman.com; 445-3859

Truman Chocolates

Address: 4407 S. Texas Ave., Bryan

Phone: (979) 260-4519

Retail hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays

Web: www.trumanchocolates.com

Mail-order price: $42 for a box of 16, plus shipping

Roscar Chocolates

Address: 4501 Texas 71, Bastrop

Phone: (512) 303-1500

Retail hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Sundays

Also available: Breed & Co. in Austin

Web: www.roscar.com

Mail-order price: $32 for a box of 24 bonbons, plus shipping