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Chocolate makes a sweet career change December 9, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Chocolate.

One day last winter, after having worked as a carpenter for 22 years, Jonathan Spillane came home and said to his wife, “I quit.” He had had enough of climbing ladders and working on rooftops in the freezing cold. He wanted to find another way to express himself creatively. And he thought he might do it through chocolate instead of wood.

Today the former carpenter is a chocolatier and the guiding force behind Cocoapelli Chocolates, the Natick-based company he founded in September. His wife, Cinda Corwin, handles the company’s accounting, and their 12-year-old daughter, Hayley, does all the packaging.

Cocoapelli chocolates, the name comes from the fertility god Kokopelli, is operating out of Spillane’s garage, which is no longer filled with ladders and table saws. And production is limited. He makes about 100 eight-ounce boxes of chocolates every other week. But he’s given up the carpentry business entirely.

Spillane, had never tried chocolate making. “I have always loved food,” says the entrepreneur. “Wherever I travel, I buy whatever chocolate I find.” He began his exploration, which led him to an online course offered by Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver, British Columbia. The course includes the basics of chocolate making and techniques, attributes of different chocolates, and equipment and supplies. It also provides resources, such as names of the school’s successful graduates and a list of all the chocolates sold throughout the world.

“We had assignments like, ‘Go buy as many different chocolates as you can find, taste them, and see if you can see a difference,’ ” Spillane recalls.

Another ongoing assignment was to make chocolates. Spillane started experimenting, and gave his sweet efforts to friends and family. “People loved it. They kept saying, ‘You should sell these,’ ” he says.

Last spring, Spillane applied to the city of Natick for a business license and began to build a 350-square-foot kitchen in the garage, this involved his carpentry skills. Today he turns out a selection of handmade chocolates. His ganache fillings range in flavors from raspberry and kona coffee to hazelnut and key lime.

The bon bons are covered in dark, milk, and white chocolate. Spillane uses high quality chocolate made from Madagascar cocoa beans, which he selected after experimenting with “300 pieces of chocolate,” he says. He also makes milk and dark-chocolate-covered caramels; milk and dark-chocolate turtles with cashews; dark chocolate-covered almonds and hazelnuts; and a dark chocolate candy bar with cocoa nibs. And he’s thinking of new ideas. “Whenever I eat something, my brain goes first to how do I make this taste good with chocolate?” he says.

Spillane starts work at around 8 every morning. Each day is devoted to a different kind of chocolate. He hand-cuts and hand-dips every caramel, ladles chocolates into their molds, and fills each one using a pastry bag. He decorates every piece of chocolate, spraying white chocolate hearts with colored cocoa butter or applying colored cocoa butter designs from acetate transfer sheets onto individual pieces.

The chocolate-maker is determined to remain a one-person operation, because, he says, “the quality goes down when other people get involved.” He is hoping, though, that his daughter “kicks it up and helps” with more than filling boxes.

Spillane does catered events, where he serves chocolates on silver trays, and near the end of the farmers’ market season, he began selling his confections there. “It’s really fun to be in front of people and talk about my chocolates,” he says. “I like being ‘the chocolatier.’ ” And the new job doesn’t involve ladders or roofs.

Cocoapelli Chocolates are available at Tilly & Salvy’s Bacon Street Farm, 100 Bacon St., Natick, 508-653-4851; Five Crows, 8 Court St., Natick, 508-653-2526; Fifth Ave Liquors, 235 Old Connecticut Path, Framingham, 508-872-7777 ; www.cocoapellichocolates.com

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