He stands only about a foot high, and resembles the highly coveted golden Oscar, but on second glance with his chef’s hat and platter, he looks more like Oscar’s butler. He’s the equally coveted and prestigious sofi award*—kind of like the Academy Award for the specialty food trade—and this year’s recipient is the eight-year-old chocolate shop, Chocolat Moderne, and its head chocolatier and president, Joan Coukos Todd.
It’s not an award that surprises two customers, Nicki and Sally, fans of the shop who admit to stopping by “frequently.” And its location on the ninth floor of a non-descript building off Fifth Avenue makes it a destination you don’t just come upon. But for Joan’s impressive list of corporate customers and specialty food chains, like the Food Emporium and Dean & Deluca, if she makes the chocolate, they will come.
Chocolat Moderne is not a sweet shop in the traditional sense, it’s more like a chocolate laboratory where Joan plays with combinations that seem an odd pairing, but taste like they belonged together all along. Like the sample she offered this afternoon, the Tangy Tomate, a square-shaped, melt-in-your mouth taste sensation featuring ingredients you’d expect, like the dark chocolate and sugar, but not the crushed tomatoes and lemon juice (HUH?) in the soft middle. The tomatoes and lemon balance out the sweetness and to my humble palate, it works wonderfully.
The shop has acquired many accolades during its eight years, including being on Oprah’s February 2012 O List for items that “help you express yourself,” with a collection of Joan’s heart-shaped bon bons. It’s a collection that includes about 18 heart varieties in a rainbow of colors and designs that she hand paints with cocoa butter and food coloring.
How does one become a chocolatier? A trip to Brussels, a taste of its hand-made chocolate, and the possibility of being unemployed. She dabbled with chocolate making, but sensing the bell tolling in her industry, she thought having a “plan b” was a must. She began experimenting all the more, and soon came up with a variety of chocolate with names and descriptions, one as unique as the other. Like the “Rhapsody in Green,” a combination of caramel and green apples, and the La Dolce Grapefruit with caramel and, yes, grapefruit. “I’m Greek” Joan explains, “and it was common to have candied fruit for dessert.” So, it made sense for her to mix and match these tastes in her chocolate lab.
Before leaving, I ask Joan what items won her the award. “My Lime Moderne Bar and the Kama Sutra Dark Drinking Chocolate.” (I really just asked so I could continue sampling pieces from the display she provides for customers). As she stands by the statue, she says, “I’m still waiting for the brass plate with the inscription.”
Hmm. This definitely warrants a return visit. Just for an updated picture of her very well-deserved recognition. Really.
Chocolat Moderne is located at 27 West 20th, off Fifth Avenue, Suite 904. Open every day from noon to 6 p.m. with samples and conversation always available. chocolatmoderne.com
*The sofi Gold for Outstanding Chocolate and sofi Silver for Hot Beverage at the 2012 sofi Awards from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, Inc. (NASFT)