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Kate Weiser - Joy through chocolate

Dai
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Kate Weiser

CHOCOLATIER Kate Weiser honed her skills in the kitchens of star-chef Stephan Pyles, Nobu, and Chocolate Secrets before opening her four eponymous chocolate shops.

Do you remember the movie Joy? It tells the story of inventor-entrepreneur Joy Mangano, who invented the million-dollar-making self-wringing mop. Well, while listening to Kate Weiser tell the tale of Carl the Snowman, you can’t help but compare these two creative go-getters. You also have to wonder whether a movie or a limited made-for-TV series is in store for the 36-year-old, dimple-cheeked Kansas City-raised blonde with smiling eyes.

Now based in Dallas, the noted chocolatier recently opened a pop-up shop in Houston’s River Oaks District (4444 Westheimer). Her lease runs through March, and she hopes Houstonians will fall for her colorful, hand-painted chocolates so that she can hang a permanent Kate Weiser Chocolate sign at Suite F125. So far, she’s been lucky, starting with her first shop at Trinity Groves in Dallas – then along came Oprah.

In 2018, Oprah Winfrey continued her famous ritual of tasting, testing, and picking her “favorite things” list for the holiday. Among them was Kate’s on-the-fly creation for the holidays: Carl the Snowman. Oprah said, “If Frosty were stuffed with mini marshmallows, he'd be like Carl here. Just place this hunk of a chocolate man into a pot of milk, turn up the heat, and watch him melt into a few mugs’ worth of rich cocoa."

Kate will tell you the rest of the story, along with her strategies for pairing chocolate with wine:

Carl the Snowman

Carl the Snowman is a hot chocolate phenom – which landed on Oprah's famous “favorite things” list in 2018.

Dubbed the “million-dollar snowman” because you have sold tens of thousands across the country at stores like Neiman Marcus at $38 a pop, how did you come up with the idea for Carl the Snowman?

The snowman is by far our most popular product. We sell this snowman for three months, which is responsible for 30 percent of our entire year’s sales. I feel that this is how most people know my brand – because of the snowman. At this point, kids have grown up with Carl the Snowman. My first store opened in August 2014. Usually, when you have a chocolate store, you have your seasonal products planned far in advance. We didn’t start planning for Christmas until October. I knew I wanted to make a molded Christmas tree, an ornament, and a snowman.

One day, I placed a snowman in front of a customer and asked whether she would try it and give me her thoughts.   

It was a gorgeous eight-inch chocolate snowman, and I remember the customer saying, “Oh, I love him, but I don’t want to kill him!” What? You don’t want to kill him? That just tickled me. She gave him a persona. My dark humor kicked in, and I thought, “How do you kill a snowman? You melt him, of course.” The sun comes out, and he melts, so how do I make my customers melt him? With a candle? No. Let’s melt him in a pot of milk, and as he melts away, he becomes hot chocolate!

So that was your “eureka” moment.

We were flying by the seat of our pants. We didn’t even have proper packaging or instructions, but every time we explained it to a customer, they would buy five, so the first 100 we made were gone in a day. I looked at the chefs and said, “Guys, we got to make 100 more. This is going to be big.” We thought 100 was big. Then someone from the Dallas Morning News put a giant picture of the snowman on the food and wine page, and our phone wouldn’t stop ringing. We had a wait list to get on the wait list. We ended up only being able to make 2,000 that first year. It was bananas.

This year, you’ll make about 25,000 Carls, plus 170,000 single-serving Lil’ Carls. How did you come up with the name for this dark chocolate hollow hunk filled with hot cocoa mix and mini marshmallows?

C-A-R-L stands for “chocolate and real love.” He’s become this persona, and every year, we get videos with parents and their children melting Carl, or friends around the stove, or people my age, pouring in Baileys.

Carl aside, you initially made a name for yourself with your hand-painted chocolate bonbons. Each is filled with either ganache, pate de fruit, caramel, or gianduja (chocolate-hazelnut paste) and takes six days to make from start to finish. You’ve garnered countless fans with three successful chocolate shops in Dallas and Fort Worth. Named among the Top 10 Chocolatiers in North America by Dessert Professional magazine, you can set up shop in any city. How did you narrow your final choice down to Houston?

We’ve been at Central Market since February 2020 and at Neiman Marcus. We’ve been able to track the trends of Houston customers on the wholesale side, and it has always been one of our bigger markets. The plan is to see how it goes. Number one, I want to learn the logistics: How do you open a store four hours away from your corporate headquarters? How do you staff it? How do you get chocolates there? Ultimately, we just wanted to see if this would be a future home for us.

Tell us more about this interactive sensory experience you’ve created for your guests.

I went to Harrods in London in 2019, and they have a wine room where they have this aroma table experience for you to smell the different flavor notes in the wine, and that would help customers select which bottles of wine they wanted to purchase. It was so incredibly fun and thought out. It was the coolest experience, and it did help me choose a bottle of wine…. It was such a unique experience, and that stuck with me.

So, fast-forward to the present, and you ended up building your own sensory table for chocolates.

Chocolate is very similar to wine. There are so many flavor notes and nuances. I was just waiting for the perfect opportunity. When I signed the lease for the Houston store, it was a larger space than I typically have. It’s 1,300 square feet, and my space is typically 500 square feet or less, so I thought, I finally have the space for people to walk around to look at things, taste things, and smell things.

bonbons

Kate Weiser’s hand-painted bonbons are a year-round favorite, including best-sellers Cookie Monster and Mango Habanero.

Is this free? Can anyone come in, taste different chocolates, and learn how smell affects your taste buds?

Yes, it’s free. I can walk you through it. So, basically, what you’re going to do as a customer, you’re going to go to the back area, where we have an area dedicated to this experience. We have these little plates with a tasting guide on the plate. We have these beautiful bowls with different samples of different chocolates. So, we have a piece of white chocolate, blonde chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate. On your tasting sheet, you’ll put down a piece of chocolate. I’ve highlighted flavor notes for each chocolate, so when you put white chocolate on your tongue, you’re going to taste a lot of milk, a lot of cream, vanilla, and a little honey. So, I listed all that there. So, before you even enter the aroma arena, you understand what you’re tasting with the chocolate.

OK, this one is nutty. This one has a little grapefruit. If you want to stop there and eat your chocolate, you absolutely can do that. Or you can take the plate over to our aroma table, and the best way to do it is to lift up these gigantic hand-painted bonbons that I painted myself in the backyard because my husband wouldn’t let me spray-paint in the house. So, you lift up the dome, and you’re hit with this aroma, and we have four different scents under each of the four bonbons: passionfruit, lavender, coconut, and raspberry. You let the aroma take over your senses, and you put the piece of chocolate on your tongue.

For the passionfruit, we recommend trying it with blond chocolate. But again, you can choose your own adventure. But what is fascinating about this is that 80 percent of what you taste comes from your sense of smell. So, when you smell that passionfruit, and you put that piece of chocolate on your tongue, it will change the experience. Your brain will send signals to your tastebuds that what you’re eating has flavors of passionfruit.

Even though it contains no passionfruit.

Exactly.

The holidays are upon us. This November and December, families and friends will be getting together – some for the first time since the pandemic. Any thoughts on how to pair chocolate with wine?

I try not to be too bougie with it. Whatever excites your palate, then that’s a good pairing. If something exciting is happening on your tongue, you’ve done a great job, so you don’t have to overthink it. We have a four-piece Wine Hanging Box with a loop, designed to hang on the neck of a bottle of wine. So, we’ve taken all the guesswork out of it for you. We have four chocolates that go beautifully with a cabernet or pinot noir. That makes a great Thanksgiving gift if you’re going to someone’s house for turkey.

Dark chocolates typically go well with bold red wines. As for champagne, I love pairing white chocolate with champagne because white chocolate is very fatty and sugary. White chocolate coats your whole tongue with this sweetness, so when you drink with this dry bubble, the effervescence of the bubble cuts through that white chocolate and creates this exciting sensation on your palate. When it comes to white wine, we have a lot of fruity-flavored chocolate. We have key lime chocolate that goes well with a pinot grigio. You can play around.

Editor’s note: Buzz dining columnist Dai Huynh is a James Beard food-journalism award winner and longtime Houston-based restaurant writer.

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