(This interview appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Melissa Coppel’s entré into the world of pastry began when she left her home in Cali, Columbia in her early 20’s to enroll at the French Pastry School in Chicago. She took some basic classes there, which whetted her appetite for the art of high level pastry.
Through sheer determination, Coppel eventually landed in the pastry kitchen of the prestigious L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, where she honed her pastry skills and soaked up knowledge like a thirsty sponge. She took continuing education classes in any free time she had, but the long hours of a pastry cook eventually led her to seek a more reasonable, family-friendly schedule. So she took a position in the chocolate room of Caesar’s Palace Casino, where she spent eight hours every day making chocolate decorations. This was the spark that ignited her love affair with chocolate, and launched her very specialized career.
Today, she runs the Melissa Coppel Chocolate and Pastry School in Las Vegas, and is about to start selling a collection of her intricate bonbons through her website. Coppel took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her work and what’s ahead.
You’re known for your amazingly beautiful – and complex – bonbons. How did you come to specialize in chocolate?
Everyone expects to hear a fairy tale about my beginnings – sometimes I wonder if I should make up a beautiful story around it. But the truth is not so glamorous: I started working with chocolate because it was the only job I could find in Las Vegas at that time, when the financial crisis hit the city and the job opportunities were extremely poor. I was lucky enough to get a position in the chocolate room at Caesar’s Palace Casino, where I would spend eight hours a day making chocolate decorations. Ten months later I was already working in the chocolate room at the Bellagio Hotel, where I still had lots of chocolate decorations to do, but the daily routine was not so cruel, and occasionally I got to work on truffles and enrobed bonbons, as well. Time went by, and two years later I opened a chocolate wholesale company with a business partner. We supplied hotels both in Las Vegas and all over the U.S. with a large variety of chocolate bonbons and French confections. It was during my time there that I started to get passionate about molded bonbons. Unfortunately, my creative ideas didn’t quite fit our business model, so I spent all my free time playing and exploring. That is why I decided to open my ‘Portfolio Website’ to showcase my personal work.
You were running a very successful business selling wholesale chocolates to high-end hotels – why did you decide to leave it and go out on your own?
After almost four years in business, I felt I did not belong there. My business partner and I didn’t share the same dreams or have the same vision about our company. I had to make a choice, so I decided to walk away from a place where I had put all my heart. I felt defeated. “Jump, you will find the ground.” This is a beautiful Navajo poem that describes perfectly what I went through at that moment. I felt like I had to let a part of me die, then start over and reinvent myself in a different way.
I understood I needed to create my own techniques to achieve the results I had in mind, and formulate my own recipes to have the flavors I was dreaming of.
What inspired you to start your own chocolate and pastry school?
I took many classes in the past with some of the greatest pastry chefs in the world at the time – it’s fair to say I spent every dollar I earned while working at Robuchon on continuing education. And of course, in many ways it was well worth it! Somehow though, every time the class was over, I would come back home feeling a little down. It took me many years to realize what was happening: most of those teachers energetically made us feel that we could never be like them. And this, for a young passionate person like me, was devastating. The routine was always the same: “Where do you work?” This was a question that would immediately rank your status. Inexperienced students – like me – stayed quiet, trying to go unnoticed, while the more experienced ones spent the class proving they knew everything and everyone. The ego, the pretentious answers, the games that were played always bothered me. And I felt that the schools didn’t know how to warm up the experience, either. I think that is why I love having a school now, because here things are handled very differently. We do not invite teachers who will not encourage and empower our students. And we ask students before the class starts to please leave their egos outside the door. Everyone has the right to learn, and only in a relaxed atmosphere does real learning happen. I said ‘relaxed’, not ‘unprofessional’ – it is important to explain they are two very different things.
How and where did you learn the most about working with chocolate?
By doubting everything anyone taught me once. From my curiosity. By never being afraid of making mistakes. From criticizing myself more than I would ever criticize others.
I realized that I had to find within myself what I was looking for, and that no one could teach me or take me wherever I wanted to go. I understood I needed to create my own techniques to achieve the results I had in mind, and formulate my own recipes to have the flavors I was dreaming of. I realize I had to let myself free, that I had nothing to prove to anyone, but to continue growing, evolving.
I see the ideas in my head, and from there I let myself go.
How did you find your first students? Did you have any idea how successful – and how hugely popular – this endeavor would be?
In the summer of 2016, I opened Atelier Melissa Coppel, a small kitchen where I would come to play and develop new ideas. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, all I knew was that I didn’t want to produce chocolates at wholesale levels again – or at any level, in fact. One midnight – half awake, half asleep – I posted on Instagram that I was going to teach a three-day Chocolate Workshop. It was a big surprise when I saw that so many people were interested. It took only two days to fully book that first class. Then I offered a second, then a third. A year later, Melissa Coppel Chocolate and Pastry School was born. It was a much bigger space where I could not only teach chocolate workshops, but I could also host amazing pastry chefs, chocolatiers and bakers from around the world to come and teach pastry, bread, sugar and viennoiserie. I think that what makes the school successful is what I mentioned before. Students really appreciate how they are welcomed and treated in our school. They appreciate our smiles, our homemade breakfast, coffee breaks and lunches. The perfectly set tables with ceramic plates and wine. The quality of the paper in our recipe books. All those details make them feel special. Then they go home, tell their friends – our marketing is all word-of-mouth.
In an industry where many are reluctant to reveal the secrets of their craft, you are known for your generosity and willingness to share your knowledge. Do you think this will inspire a new generation of artisan chocolatiers?
I see this as my path in life: to teach and to inspire others to be generous with their knowledge. Keeping knowledge and ideas to yourself – to climb up the mountain and receive recognition alone – is the wrong approach. Have you ever wondered why most of the pastry you see around looks the same? Evolution only happens in special places, where there is a team that grows together, supporting, dreaming, discussing, learning, being honest and generous with each other – then new ideas will flourish and everyone will evolve. This is the only way that your work will become rich, unique, and personal.
Using whatever chocolate they have available to make the shells is one of the biggest mistakes people make. You have to find the perfect balance between the shell and the filling.
Ninety percent of your students are women – are you sensing a gender shift from primarily men to women in the chocolate and pastry industries?
In my opinion there are two main reason for this: I think many woman are inspired by me and the minority I represent. They see hope when they see me, because they know how hard it is to be considered, to be respected, in this profession. The second reason is because I think many men feel embarrassed to take a class with me. It makes them uncomfortable.
Tell us about your chocolate dessert bar concept, where you combine the elements of a plated dessert in a bar or bonbon.
I couldn’t picture myself making ganaches all day long, so incorporating my pastry background into my work happened naturally. My inspiration was to bring classic desserts like a lime pie, an apple tart or a cheesecake into the chocolate world. And what was unique about the approach was that I was not limiting myself to making only shelf-stable products, so the world of possibilities was endless! And suddenly recreating that original idea was much more fun, even if that meant the shelf life was going to be only one or two days. I can say that when I started doing this nine years ago, no one else was doing it, so when I see the trend now, it excites me to know I started something.
Everyone has the right to learn, and only in a relaxed atmosphere does real learning happen.
Each of your chocolates has “Melissa Coppel Chocolatier” stamped on the bottom in cocoa butter. Is this part of reinforcing your brand identity? How important is that, and what else do you do to accomplish this?
I close them with transfers because they look beautiful that way. I care about each step of the process the exact same way, and this is the only way to achieve a product that will be different. When I think about branding, I see it as a whole. I have certain ways to brand my name that are much deeper than simply have our logo everywhere. For example, when someone comes to our school, we make them feel that we are a reliable, fair, and honest group of people – our brand. It is very important for me to reflect who I am in what I do.
What inspires your designs and flavor combinations?
For the look, I see the ideas in my head, and from there I let myself go. The flavors? Traveling, food, childhood; combining the extremes, like something clean and acidic like yuzu or lime would go very well with something creamy and rich like yogurt or caramel. Something silky and sweet will be amazing with something crunchy and tangy. I have to confess that I am totally obsessed with finding the right balance between the elements inside my bonbons, much more than I am with the outside. Unfortunately, we live in a world right now where the only focus is the look. Who cares what is inside anymore? It seems like a constant competition about how many tricks and techniques you can showcase to impress with your skills, so the pictures have more reach, more likes, which means more followers? Very sad, indeed.
How do you decide which couverture to use for each bonbon flavor?
Using whatever chocolate they have available to make the shells is one of the biggest mistakes people make. You have to find the perfect balance between the shell and the filling. Most of the time I even do the shell in certain chocolate, and then cap the bottom with a different one. The rule is: if the filling is very mild, it will go well with white chocolate. But if the filling is mild and sweet, it will balance better with milk chocolate. If the filling is sweet but has enough character, then dark chocolate is the best option. Paying attention to the ratio between the filling versus the shell is very important, too, and this will depend on the type of shape or mold you are using.
I am totally obsessed with finding the right balance between the elements inside my bonbons, much more than I am with the outside.
Tell us about the process of developing your famous Apple Pie Bouchée?
Combining apples and chocolate has always been a challenge, because apples are mild in flavor, and you lose them completely once you combine them with chocolate. Have you ever asked yourself what is the reason we add chocolate to a ganache besides the taste? Clearly, in this case, the flavor was not something we needed. And what are the ingredients that we really need from the chocolate couverture? The answer was simple: we need sugar and cacao butter, because both the cacao solids and the milk powder – in the case of milk and white chocolates – are optional. So to formulate this apple ganache recipe, I remove the chocolate almost completely, while increasing both the sugars and the cacao butter content. The result? A caramel based ganache, with fresh Granny Smith apples and a bit of roasted apple extract to enhance the flavor – amazing! To finish, a layer of bitter pecan praliné with crunchy croissant flakes folded in. Could it get any better?
What are some of your most popular flavor combinations?
Yogurt, Lychee, Almond, Raspberry and Rose.
Jasmine, Strawberry and Poppy Seeds.
Peach, Comte Cheese, Pecan and Zéphyr
Honey and Tahini.
Yuzu, Coconut and Bitter Macadamia.
Roasted Caramel Apple, Pecan and Croissant
Strawberry, Almond, Black Olives and Alto el
When I think about branding, I see it as a whole. I have certain ways to brand my name that are much deeper than simply have our logo everywhere.
Which creation are you most proud of?
I would say usually my favorite ones are the Dessert Bars, because they are complex and unique. The most recent one I am making is called Infiniment Noisette, a tribute to one of my absolute favorite flavors, the hazelnut. It is a soft hazelnut ganache paired with salty gianduja and caramelized hazelnut pieces. Also, there are two different ones that marked the beginning of my career, and I still love them and make them once in a while. One is called Putumayo, and it was inspired in my home country Colombia. It is a burnt coconut caramel, with a tangy passion fruit ganache and a crunchy base of Maria cookies. The second one was the one I made when I won The Chocolatier of the Year competition a few years ago, and it is a tangy yogurt ganache with a fresh berry compote swirl and an oat crunch. This one was inspired by my absolute favorite breakfast: granola, yogurt and berries.
What’s your most unusual chocolate, and what inspired it?
Now I am making one inspired by one of my favorite Italian pasta dishes: Cacio e Pepe. It is a ganache that combines Parmigiano Reggiano with lots of freshly ground black pepper and Zephyr Caramel, really amazing!
I see the ideas in my head, and from there I let myself go.
You’re about to launch an online shop to sell your chocolates – tell us about this exciting project, and when it will be live.
I still cannot believe this is finally happening! We will launch our first collection in September with a new brand look and website! At www.melissacoppel.com you will be able to shop our Chocolates boxes, Bouchée boxes, Confections and Panning. We will produce only 100 boxes of each per week – after that they will be sold out until the following week. For me, it was important to be able to still do my work and to not lose my essence. Our shop will run exclusively from mid-September through mid-May (due to the weather). In the same website you will find our amazing class calendar, as well. And a product shop to buy tools, chocolates by the kilo, colored cocoa butters, sugars, books, etc.