By Iris Graville
A sweet girl prompts a sweet life for Orcas Island chocolatier
If you had to describe Ted Aspinall’s job in one word, it would be sweet. Six years ago, this former executive chef abandoned the grueling work schedule of restaurants to focus his passion for cooking on a single ingredient. Now he spends his days making handcrafted bon bons. “Chocolate is so different,” Aspinall says. “You’re romanced by it.”
Aspinall’s daily commute to his job as a chocolatier is just a two-minute walk from his house on Orcas Island to the barn-like building he’s dubbed “the chocolate lab.” The name may conjure up a brown dog with floppy ears, but for Aspinall, it’s all about his process. “This is like a laboratory,” he says. “I have to do a lot of experimenting, usually up to a dozen tries, when I’m developing a new bon bon. Those first ones don’t ever look nice, because I’m just going for the taste and texture.”
A butcher block and a spotless stainless steel table take center stage in the lab. Behind them, metal shelves store bags of dark chocolate pieces, and a walk-in refrigerator chills butter, cream and fresh fruit. Cool enough inside the lab that you need a sweater, a heated concrete floor and air conditioning maintain the building’s chilly temperature year-round.
A white bib apron covers Aspinall’s compact frame, and his bespectacled blue eyes sparkle. Close-cropped gray hair peeks out from under a baseball cap. Aspinall, 53, began his culinary career at 16 in a small restaurant where he came to believe, “We eat with our eyes first.” His skill balancing presentation and flavor led to chef roles at the Four Seasons Hotel and several exclusive, fine dining restaurants in Seattle before taking a position at Orcas Island’s Rosario Resort.
As a chef, Aspinall learned to temper (melt) chocolate and to use it in his cooking. His evolution from chef to chocolatier, though, was inspired by the birth of his daughter, Kathryn Taylor Aspinall. “She’s as sweet as you can get,” Aspinall says, a big grin spanning his face. “When we had Kathryn, I didn’t want to miss anything with her.” Becoming his own boss and creating a small business with his wife, Susan, was a perfect solution; four years ago, they opened Kathryn Taylor Chocolates. Having grown up with the business, Kathryn, now 8, has a good bit of chocolate knowledge. “She has lots of suggestions, and she likes to help,” her dad says.
Though he can set his own schedule, Aspinall’s chocolate romance keeps him plenty busy. During the summer tourist season and around holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day, he’ll produce a thousand chocolate treats each day. A baker joins him part-time making cakes, scones and cookies. Most mornings, Susan takes the baked goods and chocolates to their storefront in Eastsound, where she serves the sweets and Stumptown coffee. Having trained with chocolatiers in the United States and Canada, Susan also inspires new recipes, markets the candies to wholesale customers throughout Puget Sound, and ships orders received online all over the country.
Bon bons – one-inch square dark or milk chocolates with ganache in the middle – are Aspinall’s specialty. Much of his experimenting focuses on the soft center that’s a fusion of chocolate, fat, liquid and flavors such as fruit, coffee or liqueurs. He strives for a balance of complementary flavors instead of showcasing a single dimension. “That’s a tightrope between too much and not enough,” he says.
Trials in the chocolate lab have led to a dozen or more ganache flavors including passion fruit, champagne, cognac, blood orange, raspberry, Orcas pear (courtesy of nearby Black Dog Farm), and two origin chocolates (Madagascar and Afrique).
“Cappuccino ganache was our first,” Aspinall says. “We tested 36 different blends on friends and family.” Without giving away the recipe, he describes the steps to create his top seller. First, he soaks Orcas Island’s Local Goods espresso beans in cream from Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy in Lynden. The next day, he brings the cream to a boil, strains it, and slowly pours it over chunks of solid Valrhona dark chocolate in a stainless steel bowl. As he stirs, the heat from the creammelts the chocolate. Next, Aspinall incorporates butter and sugar.
Aspinall pulls on white surgical gloves to pour the filling into a plastic rectangular frame that looks like it could hold a picture. For some bon bons, he layers pate de fruit (fruit jelly) and more melted chocolate. Twelve to 24 hours later (depending on the humidity), the sheet of ganache sets up and is ready to be sliced into individual pieces with a confectionary guitar cutter. Shaped more like an industrial paper cutter than a musical instrument, its 16 strands of metal wire resemble guitar strings as they slice the tray of chocolate into one-inch strips. Aspinall rotates the tray horizontally after the first cut and slices again, resulting in 160 ganache squares.
Aspinall carries his tray of chocolates into a small room walled off from the main kitchen. Here, a sultry aroma infuses the air. Another shiny machine, called an enrober, keeps tempered chocolate flowing like water from a faucet into a long trough. Aspinall has christened the machine “Robert” (pronounced, as in French, with a silent t). The tray full of ganache squares vibrates under the chocolate stream, the chocolate “robe” enveloping the ganache to keep it fresh.
While the coated ganache pieces set, Aspinall returns to the kitchen to prepare the final, signature detail— handmade chocolate “tiles” to adorn the top of each bon bon. Aspinall uses thin paintbrushes and colored cocoa butter to stroke abstract designs on a transparent sheet of acetate. The hues represent the colors of the fruit or flavor in the ganache so you “see” what’s inside. Aspinall then pours tempered chocolate onto the sheet, the chocolate sets up, and “at just the right time,” he cuts the pane of chocolate into squares with a knife and straight edge. “I do that part when I’m calm,” he says, his grin returning. When he removes the acetate, the colored image transfers to the chocolate, and he places a tile on top of each bon bon.
Aspinall presents a plate of stunning bon bons for the most important step – tasting. “The best compliment to Ted,” says Susan, “is that his food is beautiful, but not too perfect looking to eat.” The spice of ginger and zing of tart plum mingle with the creamy ganache. The flavor of another piece, topped with a redand green-striped tile, bursts with its brandied cherry filling. Aspinall’s personal favorite is salted caramel – chewy perfection inside and a sprinkle of sea salt on top. “Texture is the hidden gem,” he says.
While much of the food industry purports that success depends on super-sizing, speed and convenience, Ted Aspinall mixes a different concoction at Kathryn Taylor Chocolates – fresh, local ingredients, craftsmanship, and a balance between work and family. Sweet.
Kathryn Taylor Chocolates | 109 North Beach Rd., Eastsound, Orca Island | 360.376.1030
Shop in Eastsound Square open daily
8 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Bon bons sold individually and by the box:
$14/6 pieces; $28/12 pieces