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December 13, 2018

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Sweet leap of faith: Jin Caldwell follows her passion for chocolate, finds success

JinJu Chocolatier

Sam Morris

Jin Caldwell from JinJu Chocolates Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013.

JinJu Chocolatier

Jin Caldwell from JinJu Chocolates Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Jin Caldwell was in her own personal pressure cooker.

It was 2003, almost 10 years after Caldwell defied her parents’ wishes and chose spatulas over stethoscopes.

Jean-Philippe Maury, the world-class chef in charge of pastries at Bellagio, invited Caldwell to try out for a chocolatier spot on his team. After attending Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Ariz., and joining the staff at Green Valley Ranch upon its opening, Caldwell was preparing for the biggest interview of her life – a test that would go a long way to validating her career path.

“I’d work my normal shift at work and then practice for hours afterward,” Caldwell said. “I tried to think of everything, from the design of my showpiece to how I organized my station.”

Maury told Caldwell to come in at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday for her “interview,” a test of her skills.

When she came in with her tools, Maury asked Caldwell to make one 3-foot-tall showpiece — an elaborate decorative chocolate sculpture — and several chocolate truffles. Maury specifically said Caldwell must temper the chocolate herself and not use the equipment most pastry kitchens have on site to automatically melt the chocolate and bring it to the desired temperature.

“He was testing me. He was very cold. … I mean, he’s French.” Caldwell said.

Six hours later, Caldwell finished. Maury inspected the work.

“It’s not very good,” he said of the sculpture, according to Caldwell. “But, I like how you work. You’re professional. You’re clean. I like your style, and you don’t have a spot of chocolate on your apron. The job is yours if you want it.”

Caldwell’s parents sent her from her native South Korea to the United States in 1994. She was 20. Her parents’ plan was for Caldwell to live with family and go to medical school.

“When I went to culinary school, my parents were very disappointed at first,” she said, “My father didn’t talk to me for months."

When she moved to the United States, she lived with family in Denver. She took classes at a community college and waited tables. Her parents owned a restaurant in Korea, and Caldwell had always been drawn to cooking.

“I really enjoy cooking, but especially baking and chocolate,” she said. “I like how precise and exact everything is. If something is 1 degree off in temperature, it won’t work.”

Caldwell spent two years at Bellagio before she was called on to help launch the Wynn when it opened. There, she worked for renowned pastry chef Frederic Robert.

“(Robert and Maury) have very different styles,” Caldwell said. “Jean-Philippe is more glamorous and uses lots of color. Robert is more rustic and traditional. It was a learning experience for me to work under both of them and their different styles. I think my own style is somewhere in between the two.”

While the French chefs she studied under shun “American” flavors, Caldwell is not afraid to be a people, or American palate, pleaser. Although her old bosses would turn their noses at a peanut butter-and-jelly truffle or peppermint bark, Caldwell, even if she does not like them herself, makes the best ones she can.

Caldwell has earned several industry recognitions, including being the only female honored on the 2009 Top 10 Chocolatiers in North America list by Pastry Arts and Design Publication, and leading a team of pastry chefs to a silver medal at the 2007 National Pastry Team Championship.

After her tenure at the Wynn, she went to work for Mars, which owns Ethel M Chocolates. After serving as a corporate pastry chef, and working on new products for Mars and Ethel M while learning more about business, Caldwell saved enough money to open her own business at the end of 2011.

Caldwell does not have a retail store, but her chocolates are available under her brand JinJu, which she said means “treasure” in Korean, at Whole Foods Markets in Southern Nevada and through her website, She also sells chocolates wholesale to resort properties such as Bellagio and Hard Rock Hotel.

Now that Caldwell has found success and started her own business, her parents have come around.

“They are very proud of me now,” she said. “My parents will even help out in the kitchen when they visit and I’m busy.”

There are a handful of other chocolatiers in Southern Nevada, some of whom, like Caldwell, perfected their craft in Strip kitchens before launching their own companies.

    • The New York Times included Jean-Marie Auboine's chocolate caramels with sea salt on its 2013 list of the 10 best small-batch salted caramels.

      Jean-Marie Auboine

      Auboine started his career in Europe and worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants before moving across the Atlantic. Auboine later served as executive pastry chef for the Fontainebleau in Miami before moving in 2009 to Bellagio.

      In 2011, he started his own consulting business; in 2012, he opened his own shop, training kitchen and factory along with business partner Melissa Coppel. Auboine fills big orders for hotels and resorts, makes his own chocolates and teaches classes out of his own facility.

      In February, The New York Times picked salted chocolate caramel from Auboine as one of the 10 best in the country.

    • Ethel M

      In 1981, after passing the leadership of Mars to his children, Forrest Mars Sr. retired to Henderson and created Ethel M Chocolates as a tribute to his mother, Ethel Mars, who had taught him how to make chocolate.

      The factory, which offers tours, is still at the original location in Henderson, where the international company keeps the original recipes of Ethel Mars alive.

    • Jean Philippe Patisserie

      Philippe, who originally came to Las Vegas in 1998 with Bellagio, became executive pastry chef at Aria as well when it opened in 2009.

      The French chef, who has won the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the highest award for pastry chefs, moved his Las Vegas production facility into a new 6,000-square-foot kitchen at the Aria when it opened. There, 110 people on the production team produce all of the sweet treats for his two patisseries in town.

    • Chocolate & Spice

      Chef and owner Megan Romano spent more than a decade as the pastry chef at Aureole in Mandalay Bay before opening Chocolate & Spice in spring 2012.

      At her 2,300-square-foot cafe and bakery on West Sahara, Romano turns out chocolates, pastries and custom cakes in addition to breakfast and lunch fare.

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