The Jewish Week

A Kosher Willy Wonka

by Randi Sherman
Staff Writer

Rack upon rack of chocolate sit in the crystallization room, cooling and setting chocolate-covered marshmallows, gourmet s'mores, bonbons and nut clusters. A few doors down, the pareve room is being prepared for Pesach, boxes of matzah stacked high. In the main room, the enrober creates a curtain of chocolate to cover the confections, and a chef greets a guest with chocolate-blanketed arms.
In an unassuming factory row in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a somber gray door doubles as a portal from the cold winter outside to another world, a kosher chocolate wonderland named Tumbador. Its chocolate, which scores corporate accounts including Jet Blue, Yeshiva University and the television series "30 Rock," makes a nice addition to Purim shaloach manot baskets in a time when many people are looking to spend their money wisely, on quality gifts.

Responsible for the company's delectable edibles is Executive Pastry Chef Jean-Francois Bonnet who, prior to opening Tumbador with CEO Michael Altman, had been working as the pastry chef at Daniel, the four-star Upper East Side restaurant run by French chef Daniel Boulud. While working there, Bonnet was recruited by Altman.

"Altman came to see me out of the blue," said Bonnet with the subtle accent of his native France. "In secret, I had always enjoyed working in the precise environment of chocolate."

Kosher, however, was new for him. "I always wondered what the OU was on the Coke bottle," he said, referring to the Orthodox Union's heksher symbol. Now, more than three years into the life of the company, he's calling rabbis from the OK kosher certification agency, discussing vanilla beans for their kosher-for-Passover line.

Tumbador Chocolates goes through more than 3,000 pounds of chocolate each month to create dairy and pareve confections, the first using Guittard chocolate and the latter Belgian chocolate. The pareve line has introduced the world of non-dairy milk to Bonnet. While he eschews soymilk - "You don't want to heat that stuff" - he's learned to use almond, hazelnut and oat milks, paired with fruit purees from France and other luscious ingredients like sesame, cinnamon, chestnuts, Thai basil and ginger. He just wishes people bought more of the product.

Expanding into the world of kosher chocolate has enabled Bonnet to continue to play with flavors, creating his own twist on traditional favorites.

His wife, who is also a pastry chef, brought him animal crackers on one of her days off. She suggested he enrobe them in chocolate, so he did. Altman loves Drake's brand Ring Dings and Yodels, so Bonnet created his own versions, using all-natural ingredients.

"It's what I think a Yodel should taste like," he said. "I put the right amount of salt in the cream. If you look at the ingredients [in processed foods], the balance in some of those things [of sugar to salt] is scary."
Everything gets revamped in Bonnet's hands.

"Mint chocolate is good, but with dried mint, it's more refined, the flavor's not so in your face," he said. "If it's a little more subtle, you think about what you're eating." He's currently considering reworking the whole line, making "the flavor a little deeper, making it less confection and more chocolate." Right now he's experimenting with a Guittard Hawaiian chocolate.

While everyone has their own taste in chocolate, Bonnet says there are a few key factors to consider, primarily the origin of the cacao and the manufacturer. "You have to know where the beans come from, that the manufacturer cares. If it costs less than a dollar, it's definitely not that great."

He also refuses to believe that there are people who just don't like dark chocolate. "There is a good chocolate for everyone out there. If you say I'm a chocolate lover and you like milk chocolate better, you need to get out there and keep looking. It's about the blend, like with wine."

A cacao bean's origin is so important to Bonnet and Altman that it's in their company's name. The original name, Theobroma, which translates from Greek to "Food of the Gods," was rejected because an Alaskan company is already using it. Bonnet, reading up on the history of chocolate, then chose Tumbador, the Spanish word for the men who climb into the cacao tree and inspect the pods, determining when they are ready for harvesting.

Tumbador has been filling more customer orders this year than last, but the orders are smaller, a fact Bonnet attributes to the economy. "Our clients are now spending less, but they are spending smart," which doesn't mean an inferior product, he noted. "Using cheaper chocolate just to make money I won't do; you can't go lower in quality."

The busiest season for Tumbador is right now, the period from October to May, encompassing Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Purim, which begins on Monday night, Easter and Pesach. The rabbi from OK was due in this week to clear them for Pesach production.
"The rabbi loves our stuff," Bonnet said. "He knows he'll have nice Passover candy at home."
Tumbador creates custom orders as well. Long Island Orthodox parents planning their son's bar mitzvah came to him looking for a unique party favor. For them, he's creating a matzah-shaped chocolate filled with toffee, almond and hazelnut praline.

"They went to all these high-end chocolate places, but they couldn't taste any of it," he said. "They come to me and ask me to recreate it pareve."

"It's hard to work off of someone else's palate, " he said, since one day they could love what you create and the next they may not, "but there's that love of food. It drives them, it drives me."