Grand Design

Grand Design
Éclat Mondiants (Niki Weeks)
From the Feb 29, 2020, issue

Every now and then, a happy surprise comes along. Something you’re used to unexpectedly punches above its weight or delivers something new. This happened to me recently with two chocolates made by Christopher Curtin, who runs Éclat Chocolate in West Chester, Pa., coincidentally near where I grew up. I’ve known Curtin for over a decade, and his chocolates always deliver. But this time he really blew me away, with his filled chocolates called Mondiants and his striped Parallel bars. 

Mondiants ($29 for 5.6 ounces), a riff on the classic chocolate rounds called mendiants, are Curtin’s invention. Chocolate discs a couple of inches across are molded, then injected with filling: cacao nib, caramel or my favorite, peanut butter in milk chocolate. They’re disarmingly thin, delicate even, each with a pattern that creates a literal grip on the palate. The chocolate Curtin uses is more pleasurable than austere. The proportions are perfect. I defy you to eat just one. 

The Parallel bars ($10 for 2.2 ounces) explore what he calls “symbiotic relationships in nature.” Each features two flavors and is striped. In one, allspice and sesame seed are infused into 54%- and 33%-cacao batches of chocolate and molded together. He won’t tell me how he does it, but the effect is waves of flavor in varying proportions depending on how you eat them. They elicit surprise. 

Curtin had the ideas for both for years before he and his team of 10 figured it out, almost by accident: “You’re way too tired, you’re being silly and you’re like, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can fill this.’ All great things in the kitchen, I’m convinced—puff pastry, hollandaise—started with some junior cook making a mistake. It’s not like on Chef’s Table where they’re walking by the water, contemplating.” 

Curtin’s background combines traditional training and hard work with risk. He grew up in Madison, Wisc., in an academic family and was a nationally ranked competitive cross-country skier. He excelled but also began to realize it might not be a viable career. He landed in culinary school but dropped out after a year: “I’d rather go to Europe and learn straight from the source.”

In Germany, he achieved the accreditation Konditormeister—master pastry chef—and soon gravitated toward chocolate: “There’s an artistic element,” he muses. “There’s a travel aspect and a huge cultural aspect, traveling to countries around the world and learning about issues with sourcing.” 

Curtin has a long-standing membership in Les Compagnons du Devoir, a centuries-old France-based guild that preserves and supports traditional tradespeople and artisans through housing and work connections. Through them, he was exposed to a broader field of handiwork and craft. 

After Germany, he went to Brussels, first to Van Dender, a very high quality small producer, and then to Pierre Marcolini, also high quality, but at scale. “Belgium was finishing school,” he says. “I had the industrial background by then—industrial has a bad connotation, but it doesn’t have to. I had bean to bar. I had sourcing. Then I worked at the best in Belgium. That was the plan, then to come back to the States.” 

He’d been in Europe 14 years and his parents were retiring to Pennsylvania, where they have roots; one ancestor, Andrew Gregg Curtin, had been governor during the Civil War and helped sway the state into the Union. 

He opened Éclat in 2004. He had no investors, so at first was somewhat conservative and crowd-pleasing. He didn’t have a marketing hook like so many upstarts did; he simply made excellent chocolate. As the business became secure, he started to branch out into more products but avoided novelty. “We’re trying to do interesting things that aren’t gimmicky,” he says. “The bacon chocolate thing I never got.”

He’s also enjoyed diverse collaborations with nearby Victory Brewing Company and with Fruition Chocolate Works in Woodstock, N.Y., among others. With chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City and food and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, he made a bar they called Good & Evil, from a rare Peruvian cacao strain, embedded with crushed nibs. Recalling Bourdain’s suicide in 2018, he says, “We pulled it that morning. People were ordering like 15, 20. We had lists, and we just declined to sell to them. I went to Eric [Ripert] through his people, but I made that decision on my own. Out of respect for everyone involved, it did not seem right at all.”

Curtin makes some of the raw material himself and is expanding with a new facility. He’s very committed to fair and sustainable sourcing, even in parts of the world like West Africa, where poor labor practices have led to boycotts. He works directly with farmers there to ensure that they and their workers are treated equitably. He likens refusing to work in the region to not voting. 

Curtin explains his drive and his place in the chocolate world through a racing analogy. “I won a race with 30,000 people in the stands, but that’s not my best race,” he says. “My best ski race, I came in 11th. I was in the zone for 15 kilometers. I felt no pain, I was totally focused, I remember seeing my mom on the sidelines. It was an out-of-body experience. My best race was actually the one I didn’t win. So we push what’s possible for ourselves. Hopefully other people will like it.”

Owen Dugan is features editor of  Wine Spectator.

Food Chocolate

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