(This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Like any artist, chocolatier Christopher Curtin, owner of Eclat Chocolate (West Chester, PA) finds inspiration for his product line in unlikely places. His company is aptly named after a French word which is hard to pin down. It conveys something done with brilliance to dazzling effect, but also refers to acclaim and creating a sensation, certainly appropriate to this chocolatier’s world.
Telling his story, Curtin says, “From an early age, I learned that you can apply a knowledge of other fields to the work at hand. I am thinking of hardware design and glasswork, which come into play in the field of chocolate and confection making. You can often learn more from another field if you have your antennas up all the time.” He goes on: “My time spent in Japan has led me to an appreciation of the very Japanese concept of wabisabi, which exalts imperfection as a mark of things handmade, crafted with the human touch. Perfection is not always the goal in chocolate; a handmade touch reminds the eater that what they are experiencing is a product of human labor and art. I sometimes ask myself, ‘Why do it by hand when you can get a more consistent product using fine-tuned machinery?’ But in the end, we want to operate as an homage to the old school ways that I learned at Herman Van Dender in Belgium, doing as much by hand as possible, yet remaining practical in our approach with ramped-up production and output.”
Another key element of his production is underpinned by another belief: less is more, an idea he also saw at work in Japan. Being practical in producing a limited array of products, he asks: “Why use six colors in airbrushing our molds when one will do? Although clients want it, I like to keep airbrushing to a minimum in my work. You can show creativity without it, even if it is harder to do. You’ve always got to ask yourself at least two questions: ‘When is too much too much?’ and ‘How do you design something that is efficient in manufacture and still looks beautiful?’” Curtin works from that stance all the time, always grateful for the team behind him (nine in the kitchen, plus office staff). He says, “I get the credit, but never forget that that team that runs the kitchen is every bit as important or even more important than my contribution to the day-to-day business.” When asked about his proudest achievement so far, he stops for a moment and then says: “It’s the team we have. I insist on sending the most promising and talented people to learn more elsewhere, to facilitate growth for people who are passionate in the field.” Talk about paying it forward…
My time spent in Japan has led me to an appreciation of the very Japanese concept of wabisabi, which exalts imperfection as a mark of things handmade, crafted with the human touch. Perfection is not always the goal in chocolate; a handmade touch reminds the eater that what they are experiencing is a product of human labor and art.
Drawing inspiration from a disparate array of sources, both architectural and decorative, Curtin explains: “I am influenced by the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona. The Spanish master chocolatier, Enrico Rovira, too, has taught me a lot about beauty in simplicity.” His product line reflects that. Another influence, Patrick Roger (Paris) has inspired Curtin with his “amazing sculptures in chocolate.”
For his own line, flavors such as Moroccan mint, ginger-caramel and Calvados all figure prominently in artfully done bonbons. The classic mendiant, that snappy disc of chocolate traditionally topped with diced dried or candied fruit and nuts, is turned inward in Curtin’s rendition. His are thin discs, either dark or milk chocolate, filled instead of topped with cacoa nibs, peanut butter, hazelnut and caramel, offering a surprising contrast of flavors and textures.
Why use six colors in airbrushing our molds when one will do? Although clients want it, I like to keep airbrushing to a minimum in my work. You can show creativity without it, even if it is harder to do.
He explains: “My overall aesthetic could be summed up in a few words: design-forward, elegant, sleek and with a wink, indicating a touch of whimsy.” His popular signature line of Junebugs includes a layer of pate de fruit inside as a nod to the squishability of a bug. In his role as creative director of Eclat (his preferred title), he oversees the overall style of the products, and is involved in important decisions about social media and packaging. This last one is another part of the business that Curtin enjoys and spends a lot of creative energy on. “Packaging enhances the overall aesthetic experience of the chocolates.” Unsurprisingly, as part of his creative input, the design of these chocolate specialties draws its inspiration from antique German botanical drawings, another signature touch that plays a role in his business’ identity.
On entrepreneurship, he muses: “Sometimes I regret not going the Four Seasons Hotel route,” which may seem less demanding on the surface than the 24/7 commitment that it takes to own one’s own business, but he only looks forward, expanding his reach and mentoring the next generation of chocolatiers who will move the art forward. He reflects: “There is a nobility in being a craftsman, being proud of the work you’ve done by hand and with the help of well-chosen machinery that are extensions of the human hand. Over the years, from my early apprenticeships in Brussels and elsewhere, I have learned that to be 10 percent better at what you do, you have to work 50 percent harder.” Indeed, a good mantra and a lesson in humility, words to live by.
Robert Wemischner is a longtime professional baking instructor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and the author of four books, including The Dessert Architect.