A Chocolate Life: Sweet Odyssey Leads Chef to Paris and Back Again
Alexandra Whisnant fell in love in Paris.
At the encouragement of a trusted French teacher, Whisnant whisked herself away from Duke University to spend a semester abroad, determined to improve her fluency. She figured pastry school the best place to practice and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu.
A semester later, she found herself hands-deep in a relationship with all things sugar, cream and butter. And after a brief pause back in Durham to complete a degree in physics, Whisnant returned to Paris to begin life as an expat pastry chef.
She staged first at Ladurée, a sweet shop on the Champs-Élysées filled with gold-leaf-covered chocolates, pixie-colored macaroons and “magic,” as Whisnant describes. She worked at a variety of stations, from croissants to cakes to the decorating night shift. She realized quickly that croissants weren’t her thing—“but chocolate excited me.”
And while that summer a broken air conditioner meant less tempering and more water fights, she was hooked.
As a scientist, she loved the ability to manipulate and transform her edible medium. “Part of what appeals to me about chocolate is that there are fewer variables involved than pastry,” she explains. “Chocolate, cream, fruits and sugar—with less ingredients you can really dive into them. And you start to discover, within each, there are even more variables to play with, like the flavor profiles of the chocolates themselves, the viscosities and the temperatures.”
As an artist, though, Whisnant was equally drawn to chocolate’s ability to extract experiences. “Chocolate is a powerful ingredient,” she says. “It creates beautiful memories and emotions and feelings. Take a bite and close your eyes and you’re transported to another place.” She calls that dreamy phenomenon an imagination break. “I don’t find that with other foods.”
With passion in full bloom, Whisnant hopped the pond again, moving to the East Bay to be near her sister and continue her education with an internship at Chez Panisse. Although part of an eight-person pastry team, Whisnant’s ingredient favoritism was obvious. And with encouragement from the department, she quickly took on the role of “chocolate expert,” holding tastings for staff and creating the chocolate mignardise (the end-of-meal sweets) for the restaurant. And while Paris gave her the skills to make a memorable ganache, it was in the Berkeley kitchen where Whisnant set her signature style.
“Chocolates are a lot like wine: Each has a different personality,” she explains. “And to make these flavors vibrant I wanted the freshest ingredients I could find.”
To do so, she transformed morning deliveries of fruits, berries and herbs into chocolates for the evening, hand-dipping each right before service. She never relied on perfumes, extracts or refrigerators. And she learned to embrace irregularities, bumps and curves, ditching a uniform, molded look for one that celebrated movement and personality.
“I especially cherished a comment from restaurant chef Jean-Pierre Moullé, who described my chocolates as avant-garde and said that you cannot get chocolate like this in Paris.”
This is when people started to fall in love with Whisnant’s creations. She sold small batches at the restaurant during the holidays and Valentine’s Day. The matriarch of the house, Alice Waters, bought them as gifts for friends. And with support and gentle nudges from peers—and a brief break to earn an MBA from Cornell—Whisnant finally decided it was time to make chocolate her business.
Today, Whisnant operates Gâté Commes Des Filles (translation: “spoiled like girls”) out of an Oakland-based commercial kitchen. It doesn’t sport fields of edible flowers or flowing chocolate rivers, but Whisnant finds her little chocolate factory enchanting for the relationships it provides.
“I love working there because of the camaraderie with other cooks,” she says. The roster of talent includes bagel makers, caterers and other artisans who are willing to share “new creations, flavor ideas and [provide] ingredients for one another in a pinch,” she says.
For her chocolates, though, Whisnant currently collaborates with a Who’s Who of Bay Area producers, harvesting mulberries and honey with Novella Carpenter of GhostTown Farm and experimenting with smoky house-cured bacon care of Aaron Rocchino from the Local Butcher. Her recipe development runs more like a lab than a kitchen, with Whisnant testing and tasting each ingredient along a spectrum of different chocolate flavors until she achieves the right “synergy,” as she describes it. Often she adjusts the combination as the seasons and the products change. And each box carries a strict five-day expiration date—a welcome commandment for customers.
From ganache (made in reverse) to gold dust (blown delicately from her fingertip), it takes Whisnant three days to make her chocolates. Batches of ganache range from one to 150, depending on the amount of the ingredient she’s procured. She mixes, tempers and packages all by hand. She uses her bottom lip to test the heat; she folds the signature two-toned boxes with her own fingers; she fills the packages one jeweled treat at a time (the prettiest in the center, as she explains); and she dedicates the entire evening and early morning before delivery to dipping, a nod to her night shifts at Ladurée.
“This is the magical experience that makes Parisian patisserie so fresh and special,” she says.
As for what’s ahead, Whisnant continues to learn and experiment. She looks forward to playing with lime blossoms this winter and nutty apricot pits in the spring. She continues to stretch her own skills by teaching in San Francisco and abroad, passing on the wonders of tempering and getting one’s hands covered in warm chocolate. And she dreams of a brick-and-mortar shop, complete with an herb- and berry-filled garden in the back and an open kitchen in the front, “so customers can watch their chocolates being made and order them à la carte as soon as they are dipped.”
For the moment, though, chocolate lovers (and soon-to-be converts) will find Gâté Commes Des Filles at BiRite market, Good Eggs and the Local Butcher Shop. And Whisnant will continue to split time between her two cities of inspiration.
“It has been a really great journey,” she says. “I used to have a candy store as a kid once a year at my school and I used to write recipes for mud pies and things. So I’ve always been into making things, having little projects and stands. Being a chocolatière is line with who I’ve always been. And it’s really great that it’s who I’ve gotten to be.”
Tasting Gâté Commes Des Filles
Gingembre Confit: Spicy yet mellow Hawaiian ginger reveals exotic notes of sweet coconut, accented with chunks of ginger candied by hand.
Citron Meyer: Bright and punchy citrus ganache made with freshly juiced Meyer lemons from our garden and topped with freshly candied Meyer lemon peel.
Sauge Sauvage: Freshly infused wild sage brings an unexpected fruitiness to this clean, meditative and centering ganache.
Gousse de Vanille: Made with plump and fragrant Tahitian vanilla beans sourced from Paris, incredibly seductive and overwhelming.
Café du Kenya: Notes of luscious apricot emerge from this creamy coffee ganache made with freshly roasted beans from Highwire Coffee Roasters.
Noisette: An original ganache with dreamy notes of freshly roasted oregon hazelnut, plated with pure gold.
Miel-Noix: Waves of peach leaf unfold on the tongue for minutes after tasting this magical ganache made with honey from Ghost Town Farm's bees.
Figue: A trip to the gardens of wonderland with this infusion of candy-sweet Black Mission figs and Straus cream, with a breath of vanilla.
For more info visit gatecommedesfilles.fr/.