By Greg Patent for the Missoulian • February 6, 2008
Ana and Jason Willenbrock live and breathe chocolate. They work with it every day, creating luscious truffles, caramels, pastries and chocolate drinks for eager customers in their inviting and charming store, Posh Chocolat.
Their three-year-old enterprise, at 119 S. Higgins Ave. in downtown Missoula, is a success story supported by years of training in the culinary field, with all the parts coming together in unexpected ways.
Jason and Ana met while students at America's premier cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y. Ana was born in Brazil, Jason in St. Louis, and both developed a love for cooking before they were in their teens. Part of their curriculum required an externship, a stint at an established restaurant for on-the-job training.
Normally occurring about midway through the two-year program, Jason and Ana opted for externships following graduation. For three months, the couple went their separate ways: Ana to Spain, to learn more about pastry and chocolate at Akelare, a restaurant in San Sebastian, and Jason to Montana's Triple Creek Ranch, a luxury resort south of Darby.
As fate would have it, Jason was offered the job as executive chef at Triple Creek, and he hired Ana to be pastry chef. Soon after, they were married. During the five years the couple worked there, Jason totally revamped the menu, and the resort's ranking in the prestigious Andrew Harper Report rose from 17 to 3. In winters when Triple Creek closed for a time, Ana and Jason received further training in Europe or in the States.
Often talented cooks and patissiers who have achieved experience and success in their field begin to desire a restaurant of their own. Certainly Jason had the chops to design menus and to turn out first-rate meals. And Ana possessed the passion and proficiency to make all sorts of delectable desserts and pastries.
But the best laid plans often go awry, and what happened next determined their immediate future. Jason spotted an empty store near the Wilma building one day, a bright space with high ceilings, and in an instant he knew its fate: It would be their chocolate shop, and he and Ana would fashion handmade chocolates made from premium quality cacao, and she would make pastries and chocolate desserts. Jason's excitement was so contagious, the idea so solid, Ana was as swept away by it as he was.
Since both Jason and Ana had received comprehensive training in chocolate manufacture and candy-making at the Culinary Institute, and Ana had so much additional experience with the art of pastry-making, they decided to go for it and open Posh Chocolat.
The location they chose had no kitchen, so they arranged to rent an unused catering kitchen in the Wilma, just a few yards down the street. Ana would make pastries and desserts there, and a small temperature- and humidity-controlled adjoining room would serve as a chocolate and caramel factory.
Most of Posh Chocolat's chocolate truffles have a creamy center with a dark chocolate coating. The centers, made from flavored heavy cream, are first shaped in molds, then dipped into melted chocolate and cooled, forming a snappy exterior shell.
Chocolate for dipping needs to be tempered, a complicated process requiring precise temperature control, so when the chocolate cools it maintains an even, smooth shine. At first, Ana and Jason dipped all their chocolates by hand, an extremely labor-intensive project with limited output. Now they use an automated machine that melts and tempers the chocolate, allowing them to produce 2,000 truffles an hour.
The trend today with chocolate-makers is knowing the variety and source of one's cacao beans. Jason and Ana know exactly where their chocolate comes from, and they are careful to use sustainably produced products from Venezuela and Colombia. They also use the most coveted variety of cacao, Criollo.
The couple are adventurous in the flavors of dipped chocolate truffles they offer. You can choose from classics such as Grand Marnier and hazelnut as well as more exotic ones such as garam masala and white truffle oil. They all work, and some combinations are revelations.
Dark Colombian chocolate bars containing Brazilian coffee beans from Ana's native home, and dark chocolate bars with dried apricots or chili peppers, deserve to be sampled. Their only milk chocolate bar is Tipu's Chai Bar, containing 37 percent cocoa butter. It is smooth on the tongue and has that soothing chai taste.
About eight months after Posh Chocolat opened, Jason began serving lunches because of customer demand. Right now, there is limited seating space and many items are available "to go," but a planned remodel will accommodate more diners.
On a single burner in the Wilma kitchen, Jason makes Ginger Carrot Bisque with Coconut Milk and Cilantro, Chicken Gumbo with Andouille Sausage, Curried Pork Stew, Feijoada (Brazil's national dish of beans and sausage), and he cooks the breast meat for Sesame Chicken Wrap. Ana also bakes a luncheon quiche.
Ana's pastries and desserts are a must. Her Chocolate Mousse Cups, thin chocolate shells filled with chocolate mousse, are sublime. The Truffle Mousse Cakes are a vision of chocolate glory, and don't forget the tiramisu, chocolate eclairs and German Chocolate Cake.
When you're downtown, I can't think of a better way to relax than to drop into Posh Chocolat and sit down to a pick-me-up cup of hot chocolate and a pastry. Then take away a few truffles and caramels and a chocolate bar or two for a tasting at home. What better way is there to spend a winter's night by the fire?
Greg Patent is a food writer and columnist for the Missoulian and Missoula.com magazine. He also co-hosts a weekly show about food with Jon Jackson on KUFM radio, Sundays at 11:10 a.m. His new cookbook, "A Baker's Odyssey," is published by John Wiley and Sons.