September 2011

Goddess of Chocolate

VALERIE GORDON knows our adoration of the creamy confection is not about need but more about chasing desire by JENN GARBEE / photographs by PEDEN+MUNK

  • Liquid caramels
  • Pumpkin-seed  toffees with smoked paprika
  • Gordon lovingly plies her trade at Valerie Confections.

As the weekday lunch hour wanes, a lingering frisson of energy is still palpable among the chocolate-stained tempering machines and stainless-steel prep tables at Valerie Confections near Koreatown. Owner Valerie Gordon, her hair neatly restrained in a ponytail, runs down the results of the morning’s production: Dozens of delicate vanilla tea cakes and rose-petal petits fours for the American Tea Room in Beverly Hills, three batches of fruit jam to plump up the holiday-pantry reserves and the floury beginnings of savory galettes for the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers’ markets, all in various stages of completion.

Showing the tiniest twitch of a smile, she says, “For chocolate, today it was champagne truffles and dark-chocolate bark.”

Since Gordon began her business seven years ago, her signature chocolate-enrobed toffee squares have been joined by dozens of pastries, jams and fruit ketchups, even a retro cake or two. But a focused business acumen belies this confectioner’s magnificent obsession: chocolate. Currently offered in a host of nougat, caramel and alcohol-infused forms, the sweet treat is still the main event within the walls of this emporium. “There’s something very seductive, almost spiritual, about chocolate,” she says, settling into a chair in her tidy office.

Gordon’s words flow readily—almost, one might observe, like melted chocolate that pours uninhibited into awaiting molds. “I don’t like to talk when I’m making chocolate, as I’m in a very different state. You have to be sensitive, always listening to the chocolate, or it suddenly goes somewhere you didn’t really intend.”

When that patient chocolate tempering and mold scraping goes well, the molten liquid hardens into a flawless shell, and on this day it envelops a silky champagne-infused center. What happens next depends on who spies one of those clandestine champagne truffles first, but she believes there’s more at work than simply taste. “The allure goes beyond the flavor of the chocolate,” she says. “Into a fantasy world.”

Gordon doesn’t take such emotion-fueled words lightly. She is quick to point out there is no basic biological need fulfilled by yearning to consume the buttery bits. After all, it’s simply chocolate and sugar.

And yet, for many connoisseurs, there’s something beyond the primal urge to satisfy a craving. “Even just untying the ribbon,” she says, “pulling back the tissue paper and seeing the beautiful chocolates elicits an incredible level of anticipation.” The joy is in the pure indulgence.

In fact, before opening Valerie Confections, Gordon and her partner, Stan Weight-man Jr., interviewed friends to better understand the carnal desire ignited by a silk ribbon–adorned box of cacao. “People described it as the same excitement as receiving a gift of very expensive lingerie or jewelry,” she says. And that emotive rush is not limited to the ladies. “I’ve definitely seen men have the same response.”

As for her own chocolate moments, Gordon is staunchly devoted to the confections in her lineup with a pronounced savory side. Perhaps tonight, it will be the bittersweet chocolate bark with roasted almonds and cocoa nibs or the pumpkin-seed toffee sprinkled with paprika. Both culminate in a somewhat startling hickory-smoked, sea-salt bite.

Gordon smiles at the mere thought. “It’s all about the sensory exploration.”