Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2019

Currently: 72° — Complete forecast

Las Vegas chocolatier is living the sweet life, breaking molds and ceilings

Atelier Melissa Coppel

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.

Melissa Coppel’s chocolate bonbons emulate the planets of the solar system. Each delicate creation swirls with vibrant colors—forest greens and ocean blues that rival the beauty of Earth, oranges and pinks reminiscent of a desert sunset.

They taste otherworldly, revolutionary and nostalgic all at once. Imagine the taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with love by your grandmother, but in chocolate bon-bon form. That’s what Coppel does—resurrect the best moments and tastes you’ve ever experienced, all in one chocolatey bite.

Tangerine caramel nuggets filled with a hazelnut biscuit bouchée, limeade ganache, raspberry swirls and yogurt marshmallows—dozens of flavors constantly evolving and revolving.

Melissa Coppel Chocolate & Pastry School

• Where: 9001 W. Sahara Avenue

• Phone: 702-850-4118

• Online: melissacoppel.com/workshop

• When: Three classes start in January. One is dedicated to bonbon work, one is for those who have baking-related businesses and a third is dedicated to recipe development and formulation of fillings.

Coppel was born in Cali, Colombia, where being a chef was a nonexistent career choice. Her father was a tai chi teacher and her mother had a farm. Coppel, who has fond memories of cooking side by side with her parents, had an inherent gift of blending complementary flavors.

“When I was tiny and couldn’t physically cook, I would grab leftovers and smash them together. I would put them in something and decorate them with whatever,” she said. “I would, of course, require them to eat it. My mom tells me that even though I was tiny, and it was kind of strange, I had a sense. It was not inedible.”

After graduating high school, Coppel decided to be a chef and forged her own path at her mother’s urging. She studied hospitality at a local college and tested her new skills on her grandmother, whom she credits for helping her stay in the culinary field.

“She was so sweet. She’d always get me all the ingredients, and I’d cook for her, and she would love it,” Coppel said. “It kind of was like that—just cooking at home and trying to get better and just full of passion.”

Next up was training at the French Pastry School in Chicago, studies in Argentina, and stints in Las Vegas at the pastry kitchen of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Caesars Palace and Bellagio.

“When the [housing] crisis hit Vegas ... I was actually in between jobs, and there was absolutely nothing. The only job I could find was making chocolate decorations at Caesars Palace,” Coppel said. “After six or eight months, I moved to the Bellagio. I worked there for a year, still with chocolate, and then it kind of grabbed me in a way that never left. I started getting really intrigued and incorporating all those pastry elements.”

It’s that combination of passion, pastry and chocolate that differentiates her from others.

“When you are a chocolatier only, it’s very limited. So, I said ‘OK, if I’m going to really stay doing chocolate, I have to find a way to make it a little bit more creative.’ ”

• • •

Chocolate isn’t Coppel’s only passion. In Colombia, she taught basic kitchen skills to maids, mothers and home-cook enthusiasts, and learned she had a passion for teaching. So in 2016, she opened Melissa Coppel Chocolate & Pastry School in Las Vegas.

Her passion is about two things: the joy in helping others learn and setting an example for women who want to enter the culinary arts, a field largely dominated by men.

“When you’re a woman in a kitchen, you have to prove yourself twice. They’re going to doubt what you’re able to do and what you know. I’ve always had the sense that you’re treated a little bit under,” she said, and she’s doing what she can to level the playing field.

Coppel’s school is one of the best, according to Gabriele Riva, an Italian pastry chef, gelato maker and chocolatier who worked at Nobu. He has known Coppel for seven years and shares the kitchen at the school.

Riva touts the institution and uses a well-known rating system to describe why:“If you’re familiar with a Michelin star restaurant—you get one star for quality, two for service and everything beyond … three for consistency and creativity. It’s not just the food,” Riva said.

And just like Michelin-starred restaurants, the school strives to go above and beyond.

Recipes are taught exactly how Coppel makes them, and the space is clean, warm and welcoming. Breakfast, lunch and coffee are served on site, and everything is made in-house.

It’s one of the few places that teaches the disappearing art of molded chocolate-making, and because of this offering, the school competes with long-standing institutions, such as the French Pastry School.

What’s more unique is that Coppel develops new recipes for each class, using them to help implement lessons she’s learned in her career to educate students. She encourages questions and makes a concerted effort to ensure that everyone at every level feels welcome.

Coppel also takes time to teach aspiring and experienced chefs outside the U.S.

“I’m the only woman who teaches chocolate around the world,” Coppel said. “Sometimes I think, ‘Yeah, I have my school here, I have my daughter, I shouldn’t be traveling.’ But then I think, ‘No, I really cannot stop.’ Because [it’s important] to really go to these places and tell women, you know, I’m an example and you can do it ... just keep fighting.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.