Here’s the really cool thing about Portland.
We are a city of makers.
Now we could talk about this in a broad sense, and I could cite scores of individuals who are making really interesting things — everything from wedding dresses to tear-drop trailers.
Even those who don’t make something for a living are probably indulging in a creative hobby in their spare time; they could be home-brewers, knitters, welders, writers or watercolorists (and in this town, maybe even a combination of all of these).
But what really gets my juices going, so to speak, are talking to those who are making more ephemeral goods. Single batch bourbon. Unusual loaves of bread. Limited production jams. Homemade caramels. Amazing charcuterie.
What I want to focus on here in these occasional Meet Your Maker posts are the stories behind some of the relatively-unsung heroes in town who are making world-class foods and beverages. They might not be getting all the press (yet!) but these are just-below the radar artisans with great stories.
And even better, products that you may not know about but need to try.
Meet Your Maker: Steven Lawrence of the Chocolate Maker’s Studio.
I first came across Steven’s chocolates at the Providore tasting last week.
(photo courtesy Dina Avila, eater.pdx.com)
Sometimes it’s the lack of access to something that intrigues you, and this chocolate was the perfect case in point. At Providore’s party, I’d worked my way through an impressive array of ice cream, Chop charcuterie, honey, Pastaworks white bean and hummus on stellar Little T bread’s and Quince caramels. All good, right?
Only problem was that I kept having trouble getting in close enough to one particular tasting — either the people who were tasting it weren’t moving or those on the periphery were so quick to secure front-row tasting that I just couldn’t get in for a taste.
It made me wonder what kind of deliciousness was being doled out that normally civic-minded people were instead being stubborn and inconsiderate about moving on in a tasting queue.
This kind of behavior is so antithetical to regular Portland civility that I knew something really extraordinary was being doled out — and finally, I saw a micro-second opportunity and I swooped in.
I had a bite and then I understood.
I was in the midst of something really special.
I didn’t get the chance to talk to the owner/creator, Steven Lawrence, at the time as he was being bombarded with questions and rapidly-depleting platters of his confections.
I contacted him a few days later and asked if we could meet up for a cup of coffee. I sent him a link to my blog and to my delight, he invited me to his kitchen/studio on Burnside.
I met up with him this week, and I spent a few hours in the space he shares with Cacao, a retail shop he and many others have urged me to visit.
He started by giving me the run-down on chocolate making and what’s involved in beans-to-bar production (some of his confections are a result of this process while others use a top-flight chocolate couverture, a common practice amongst even the finest chocolate makers).
I saw the beans that he’d roasted the night before in his kitchen — and what steps it then goes through in order to become the lovely tempered chocolate he uses.
Here’s some chocolate before it’s tempered. It looks worrisome, I know– but Steven and some impressive machines were about to fix all that.
This chocolate then goes into this — an Italian machine “as expensive as some cars”, said Steven with a nervous chuckle.
This machine tempers the chocolate (up to fifty pounds at at time) and then holds it at the perfect temperature until it’s ready to go into the molds.
It took every last molecule of willpower I possessed not to run my hands or mouth under that spigot.
The machine then lightly vibrates these molds so that the chocolate reaches all the edges and the filled mold is perfectly level.
Steven then allows the bars to firm up before wrapping each exquisite bar.
I got to taste chocolate made from beans of different origin (Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador to name a few), both with and without soy lecithin (which gives an incredible velvety quality both for pouring and tasting) and with and without vanilla.
These are two mini-tempering machines and it was fascinating to taste different melted and tempered chocolates side-by-side.
These bean-to-bars (those are the ones without toppings, or what Steven calls inclusions) are where the different qualities of certain beans really shine through; some had unusual notes of cinnamon, others of dark fruit, and it was so interesting how vanilla made the bars seem more chocolatey (and certainly more dimensional).
What started out has a micro-lesson in chocolate making turned into a two and a half hour gab session.
We looked at all the equipment in his studio — some which followed him from Austin and then some new ones that were just settling in.
He showed me how various pieces of equipment throughout his kitchen are used.
We talked of people we both knew in the food business and who we revered — all the while, tasting, trying, sampling.
We talked of our favorite chocolate shops and chocolatiers.
I told him that the mendiants I’d tried at Providore reminded me of confections from La Maison du Chocolat in Paris and he knew the chocolates well; in fact, he’d once spent the day with the late Robert Linxe (the creator of LMDC) during his many years at Fran’s Chocolates in Seattle (Steven was the production manager there and worked closely with Fran Bigelow).
Just take a look at some of the various pieces he’s tinkering with at the moment.
We talked of his years here at Papa Hayden’s and also of his years doing pastry in Denver, Syracuse and Baton Rouge.
He talked about moving around as his wife Regina, a professor, got increasingly more prestigious positions around the country, but how happy that they were finally able to move back to Portland (she’s now the Executive Director of U. of O.’s Turnbull Journalism Center here).
We talked of so many things, all the while sampling a bite of this bar, a nibble of that one, grinding beans, opening bars and listening for that snap as you break apart a new bar — it’s the trademark of chocolate that’s been tempered and handled perfectly.
Take a look at this bar — and the ooze of homemade caramel inside the thin shell of dark chocolate.
Now here’s what you need to know.
Steven Lawrence is an extraordinary chocolate maker.
He approaches his craft with the curiosity of a scientist, the eye of an artist (just take a look at the beautiful tree etched into his bars) and the tastebuds of a gourmand with a weakness for sublime salt. He knows just how much salt to add to create detonations of flavor without overloading your palate (lesser talents would under- or over-salt).
Look at those Maldon flakes underneath the bar.
Each bar is a masterstroke– whether it’s one of the straight-up chocolate-only bars or to me, the more intriguing bars with inclusions of things like Marcona almonds or blood oranges.
These were some of my favorite things here.
Look at the various combinations in these gorgeous bars.
Ginger and pistachios.
Orange Confit and Cherries.
I asked Steven which of his chocolates he most loved and although it was like a Sophie’s Choice decision (“you’re asking me which of my children I love most?”), he admitted that this bar was perhaps his favorite.
Make your acquaintance with the Salted Brown Butter Texas Pecan Brittle.
The buttery nuttiness of the sublime pecan brittle collides happily against the deep dark chocolate and the flecks of salt pop the whole shebang into sharp focus.
I have to say it was my favorite, too.
It’s the love child of a pastry chef’s homemade Skor bar, roasted pecans and the darkest, most creamy dark chocolate you could imagine.
He spoke at length about wanting a retail shop of his own — a place to not only sell his chocolates (including some of the ones we tried together) but also as a focal point for the community.
He envisions a place kids and adults could witness the transformation first hand as beans turn into bars. Somewhere seniors might visit and be invited to make their own custom bars.
Chocolate for the people. By the people.
Until he realizes his dream of his own shop, you’ll find him tinkering with beans and new confections behind the scenes and then hand delivering his beautifully rendered chocolates to a few select locations in town.
Look for his bars at Cacao. Steve’s Cheese. Buttercraft. The Arrangement on Fremont. And, as mentioned, Providore on Sandy — they are carrying both the bars in their confection section and the little wrapped mendiants at the register.
Do him — and more importantly, yourself — a favor.
Buy a bar (or two) and share with someone special. Or if you’re feeling particularly magnanimous, wrap it up and surprise someone you know with the rarest of treats on their front porch.
Sure, they’re aren’t inexpensive, but neither is, say, Parmigiano, champagne or fresh morels. Sometimes you need to spend a little to get something truly extraordinary.
Live a little –and support Steve in the process.
Let him know Portlanders want to welcome him back and care to support another fine artisan.
And as all chocolate lovers know, just a bite or two of excellent chocolate is all you need to leave you swooning.