Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2018

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Culinary arts:

In a local strip mall, a chocolate camp for pastry chefs

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Joe Buglewicz / The New York Times

Las Vegas-based master chocolatier Melissa Coppel teaches the art of molded chocolate work to students from around the world.

The first lesson of the day concerned the spray gun — a powerful, deafening contraption filled with tinted cocoa butter. A dozen students from as far as New Zealand and Trinidad clustered together, taking photos of their teacher, the chocolatier Melissa Coppel, committing her every move to memory.

They noted the way she stirred and warmed the butter so it ran fluid from the gun. They watched how she adjusted her stance and pressure on the trigger, according to the fluctuating temperature, and the way she angled the trays so the glossy tops of each chocolate would be marked with a black-and-gold waxing moon.

“I always say, you have to develop a romantic relationship with your gun,” Coppel said over the clamor of the machine. Her students laughed. “I’m not even joking,” she added.

Coppel, 37, runs Atelier Melissa Coppel, a small chocolate school in a strip mall in the western Las Vegas Valley that shares the parking lot with an orthodontics office and a law firm. But with her meticulous, colorful style of making chocolates and more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, she draws pastry chefs from all over the world who want to learn by her side.

Her school is one of only a few places that teaches the art of molded chocolate work, a disappearing skill, at such a high level. As a result, it is competitive with a handful of much larger, long-standing institutions like the Chocolate Academy and the French Pastry School, both in Chicago.

Jenny McCoy, formerly a pastry chef at the restaurant Craft in New York, was at a recent class, alleviating what she described as an “existential pastry crisis.” So was Michelle Solan, who was eager to start chocolate production at her bakery in Chaguanas, Trinidad.

Marisela Espinoza, the pastry chef of the Apothecary Shoppe, a Las Vegas marijuana dispensary, was gearing up to add her own luxuriously packaged chocolates to the edibles menu. Like many of Coppel’s students, she noted that chocolate work is shrouded in mystery: Because the craft is considered elite, learning it was all but impossible in the traditional kitchens where she worked.

“Chocolatiers tend to be French, and they tend to be men, and they don’t tend to share their techniques,” Espinoza said, holding a dog-eared notebook.

Coppel works with international students at various levels of proficiency, and estimates that about 90 percent of her students are women. She teaches about 20 classes a year, each one usually covering several days.

Though the techniques she demonstrates are hard to master — from sealing chocolates neatly to balancing the water and sugar contents of ganaches — cooks can reproduce them at home, with some practice. (Coppel uses molds to produce her chocolates. Enrobed chocolates, usually cut from a slab and covered in melted chocolate, can require a bigger investment in equipment.)

“There are a lot of chocolatiers teaching chocolate, but what I do is very specific,” Coppel said. “I’m like one of those surgeons who only operates on one particular bone behind the ear.”

Her specialty: the molded bonbon. Coppel’s molded bonbons, or chocolate shells filled with ganaches, caramels and crunches, are handmade and hand-decorated in acrylic trays, using a variety of intricate spray techniques and painted designs.

Nick Muncy, the editor of the pastry-focused magazine Toothache, described Coppel’s chocolates as “very complex.”

“She goes to the farthest difficulty that you can with bonbons,” said Muncy, describing how each little bite often holds three or four different components, precisely layered. “It’s just awesome that there’s so much attention to detail, even inside a chocolate, which most people won’t even see because they’re just popping it into their mouth.”

Coppel’s fillings are fresh, complicated and sometimes unusual — a toasted poppy-seed crunch inside a floral tea-flavored ganache; a hazelnut gianduja with Japanese rice crackers; and a crème brûlée-like custard, speckled with tiny, pleasingly bitter shards of crunchy caramel that complete the reference, but lose their texture within days. These are chocolates made to be both admired and eaten — fast.

“Whatever the flavor, you can always taste it,” Muncy said.

Coppel occasionally takes note of a student’s question and comes back the next day with recipes she has developed especially for her, or the names and phone numbers of her purveyors. She is generous with her knowledge, she said, because it was so hard-won.

Coppel was born and raised in Cali, Colombia, southwest of Bogotá. In her early 20s, she lived in Chicago for a few months while taking basic cooking classes at the French Pastry School, then returned home. She made flyers and stuck them around Cali to advertise her own classes, in spring roll wrapping, dinner party planning, knife skills.

Women employed as maids signed up to learn how to prepare food in the upper-middle-class homes where they worked, along with a few food enthusiasts and stay-at-home mothers.

“It’s when I realized that I loved to teach,” Coppel said.

She eventually studied in Argentina before landing in the pastry kitchen of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas. She moved up quickly through the ranks, until the late restaurant hours got to her and her husband, who wanted to start a family. Shifting to a more regular schedule led her to chocolate, and she worked in the kitchens of casinos, including Caesars Palace and Bellagio.

Chocolate was not, at least to begin with, a passion for her. In fact, Coppel was beginning to notice that the grand kitchens of Las Vegas were shrinking in size and range: Restaurants that had once employed entire teams to work on laminated doughs, cakes and chocolate were now outsourcing that work.

Like many pastry chefs who value their craft, Coppel worried about these disappearing roles. She also saw a business opportunity. In 2012, she started a wholesale chocolate company, providing chocolates to various clients in Las Vegas, including hotels that no longer made their own.

That’s when Coppel began experimenting with fresh chocolate bars, treating each one like a miniature composed dessert. There was one filled with yogurt ganache and berry compote, on a base of oat crunch. Another one layered pineapple caramel with macadamia praline.

She found a devoted audience for that work — the elaborate chocolates and dessert bars that she made on the weekends — by hiring a photographer to shoot them, building her own website and sharing the images on social media. In 2016, Coppel started her school, and in October she will open an online shop selling her chocolates.

During the class lunch break, Coppel sat down in her office with Italian pastry chef Gabriele Riva, who runs Vero Gelato. The two talked shop — the curse and blessing of Instagram, a favorite topic of theirs. Why was it necessary to maintain an account and share carefully edited images of their work? Why couldn’t they tinker away quietly in their kitchens without worrying about self-promotion?

While they chatted, the students removed their chocolate-smudged aprons to eat vegetarian risotto in the conference room. Solan hoped she could coordinate some bonbons to match her favorite bands’ costumes at Carnival next March in Trinidad. And Espinoza wondered how the ganache recipes would need to be adjusted, and rebalanced, for cannabis oil.

Back in the kitchen, students banged their bonbon trays upside down onto parchment paper to unmold the chocolates and packed them up. Using the sharp end of a paintbrush, they had swirled some pieces with turquoise cocoa butter; others were speckled in bronze and toffee-browns, or striped in gold.

None of the bonbons were as immaculate as Coppel’s, with their even, delicate shells and pristine shiny tops, but they were beautiful.

Before everyone went home, Coppel applauded her students and opened a bottle of Champagne for a toast. She demanded that they share with other cooks everything they had learned.

“One more thing! How many of you found me through Instagram?”

A quick poll revealed that it was almost everyone. Coppel sighed deeply. “OK then, that answers that,” she said. “I guess I can’t close my Instagram account.”