By JASON A. ZWIKER
Like a bird of prey snatching a treat from the water—that’s how Mark Gray moves his hand as he enrobes coconut in chocolate. Tap-tap-tap against the side of the bowl and then, in one smooth upward motion, his hand becomes a pedestal, displaying the confection like a piece of art. He sets it down, leaving a swirl on top.
“It’s like learning music,” he says. Each step in the process has a purpose, each step proceeds according to a precise count. It helps to have a song in your head as you go along. “And don’t forget to breathe.”
Chefs Mark Gray and David Vagasky have been making chocolate together since they met at The Greenbrier, a luxury resort in the Allegheny Mountains, many years ago, after Vagasky completed his training at the Culinary Institute of America. It was at Greenbrier, studying under Gray, that Vagasky realized chocolate was the medium in which he wished to express his art.
Today, Gray and Vagasky are the master chefs behind Cacao’s Artisan Chocolate. A small James Island, South Carolina chocolate-making kitchen, surrounded by a lush garden, is where the magic happens. As many ingredients as possible are sourced locally. Fresh local honey is harvested from bees that live along a winding path outside the door.
The start of the year is a busy time at Cacao’s—time to prepare for Valentine’s Day and Easter. Just talking about this time of year brings a big smile to Gray’s face. “It’s a lot of work, preparing the orders, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says. “It’s about taking the time to not only make the finest chocolate we can make, but to give each piece the little touches that tell a story, that truly create holiday memories.”
These fine details reveal the care with which each piece is crafted—floral strokes of royal white on the Easter bunnies, individualized styling on each Easter egg. “That’s the best feeling,” Gray says. “When you realize there is no other chocolate egg exactly like the one you’re holding. It’s one-of-a-kind.”
Mind, that’s handcrafted and one-of-a-kind on top of already being chocolate.
There’s really nothing else like it, is there? The luxurious look, the way it smells, feels, the sound of its snap, how it tastes. Chocolate touches all of the senses. Melts in your mouth and cools your mouth down while doing so. Even a tough day at work has to take a backseat when there’s a tray of finely crafted chocolate waiting for you at home.
It gets better. Not only are these master chefs crafting the sweet stuff here and now, they’re also passing the art and science of chocolate on to the next generation. Vagasky teaches at the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Tech, and Gray sits on the advisory board. Cacao’s accepts select culinary students as interns.
Students are directly involved in the process, learning specifically why a surface like marble, and not just any material, is used for tempering. Why temperature and humidity have to be just so. How properly tempered chocolate should feel when a knife cuts through it, how to examine an edge to make sure it’s crisp and clean with no pull. How to involve all the senses in your work and, most importantly, how to remain focused on what you are doing when you are preparing batch after batch of chocolate.
It’s all about synchronizing eye, brain, and hand. That’s where rhythm comes in. “There’s a certain way the bag should feel in your hand when you’re piping out truffles,” Gray says. “How you’re standing makes a big difference when you’re making a hundred of them, one after another, row after row. If you’re too stiff or if your mind is somewhere else, the quality will slip. That’s not acceptable.”
Think of it as becoming part of a grand tradition of confectionary, all those little secrets passed down from master to apprentice that, coupled with a thorough understanding of the how and why, make the difference between yeah, that’s good and oh! Oh, my…
“I love to watch someone taste one of our fresh, handmade chocolates for the first time,” Gray says. “First, there’s silence. Just feeling the chocolate do what it does in your mouth. The cool feel of it, the taste, it’s a beautiful thing.”
And when the newly converted handmade chocolate lover opens his or her eyes and says, “Wow, I never knew…” Gray just smiles and nods.
“That moment is what it’s all about.”
Cacao’s Artisan Chocolate is found locally at select food and gift retailers including Charleston Sweet Gourmet and the Vegetable Bin in Charleston; Southern Season and Coastal Cupboard in Mt. Pleasant; and Four Green Fields in Summerville. Chocolate can also be ordered directly from the Cacao’s web site. 843-225-9040, cacaoscharleston.com