It's really the place to be this time of year, a room full of neat rows of milk chocolate pyramids and cocoa-dusted bittersweet truffles, balls of white chocolate ganache dubbed "Full Moons," and whiskey-scented milk and dark chocolate sprayed with powdered sugar. It's the devil's workshop.
Well, actually, it's the kitchen of Palais du Chocolat, and unlike the chocolates that will be sold in beribboned boxes from most stores next week, the European-style chocolates sold by Dominique Leborgne in his store downtown are also made by him, here in this small and sweetly perfumed factory in Takoma Park.
But this factory, which also produces rich pastries, cookies and cakes, isn't the stuff of children's dreams; it's a place of adult fantasy. The little bonbons made here are designed for older tastes with the flavors of Cointreau and Armagnac, for people who don't need to examine a chocolate first to see if they'll like it but feel comfortable nibbling hazelnut praline and licking the last traces of raspberry syrup from a dark chocolate shell.
When Leborgne, an experienced chocolatie`re who learned the craft in his native France, began the business, he worked entirely alone, making, boxing and delivering all the orders. Now, with 15 employees helping, the factory hums.
A sunny kitchen in the back smells like a confectioner's should, with the warm air fragrant and sweet from an oven turning circles of pale pastry into sand-colored shells. In the stockroom, sheet trays of delicate chocolate shavings in white, milk and dark stand ready to garnish a festive cake -- larger curls that will grace the top and smaller chips to be gently shaken onto the frosting on the sides.
Before the sweets can come together as a piece, individual ingredients must be refined. That explains the trays of cracked caramelized sugar and slivers of lightly toasted almonds, a woman rubbing a pile of hazelnuts against a fine sieve to remove the skins, and a lone worker carefully fashioning white chocolate roses. The roses aren't those shocking neon-colored buds usually seen on store-bought cakes, but white petals irregularly splashed with pink.
"I won't make it all one color," says Leborgne, watching the rose man dab a thin circle of white chocolate with color and swirl the pink with varying streaks. "I like some nuance, some special effects."
But it's the smaller workroom in the front, cooler and darker than the other, that is the chocolate center, so to speak. With Viennese waltzes playing on the radio, Leborgne and chocolate chef Pieter Plaetinck, a 27-year-old Belgian, make chocolate hearts and treasure boxes to lilting music. "You like classical music?" asks Plaetinck, who confides, "I have good tapes that I bring here but Dominique always takes them home."
There is a gentle rivalry between the two over the merits of French vs. Belgian chocolate, but Leborgne isn't a chauvinist; for instance, he prefers Swiss white chocolate to French, and the machine that tempers these cocoa butters busily blends French, Belgian and Swiss like it's 1992.
The machine melts the chocolate to the proper temperature and then keeps it moving, churning it with a wheel and moving it up to a spout; the candy middles are bathed as they roll along on a rack and emerge at the other end, newly baptized and glossily brown.
It's done fairly slowly, a few dozen at a time, so that there's time to fit them with a garnish of pistachio or gold leaf.
The difference, says Leborgne, between most commercial chocolates and the ones he makes is that "we make it day by day, but the big factories are already preparing for next Christmas." Since the ingredients are so fresh, he declares, "you cannot be sick if you eat too much of it."
But even quality takes quantity. About 600 pounds of sugar is scooped up each week, sweetening liquid chocolate, butter creams and pastry batters, and dissolving into syrups flavored with black currant and kirsch. Tablets of the imported chocolate, bearing the honored names of Barry, Callebaut and Lindt, will be used in a quantity of more than 2,000 pounds by the time Valentine's Day is over.
Much of what's crafted here goes into the display cases of his new store at 1200 19th St. NW, and while there is competition for the walk-in business from the other downtown chocolate shops, store manager Patricia Shepard says that there is plenty of other business supplying wholesale orders for private customers, businesses and more than 50 restaurants.
"Caterers use us for more intricate things," she says, flipping through an album of photographs of Leborgne's work. Among snapshots showing geysers of spun sugar, elaborate cakes and a towering croque-embouche, she points with pride to a wedding cake whose layers are photographed from below, revealing sugared patterns dotted on the underside of each layer as well as on the visible tops.
You have to be fascinated with such tiny details to want to make chocolates for a living.
"I love the precision and the artistic work," says Leborgne, who adds another, not surprising, reason for working with chocolate: It smells and tastes wonderful. He was 19 when he started work in the sugar business and says, "Since 14 I wanted to do this and didn't want to do anything else ... that's good because many people never find what they want to do."
His single-minded interest led to work as a pastry chef in grand hotels and pastry shops and success in international competitions, eventually bringing him to Washington on Bastille Day, 1986, after being offered a job as the pastry chef at the Willard Hotel.
When he decided break out on his own in 1987, one client he sought to cultivate was Jean-Louis Palladin, star chef at the Watergate, who has since been a regular customer.
"He does it better than I could do it," says Palladin. "You need to be good because it is a very precise job, you know."
The chocolates Leborgne sells to the restaurant are now stamped with Palladin's name in gold from a custom-made mold. "After my dessert I give that to the customer," says Palladin. "It's a good finish to the dinner."
Leborgne does keep busy outside the shop, teaching a Saturday afternoon pastry class for the professional students at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, and he visits France several times a year to keep in contact with professional colleagues there. Recently, he said, the chef at the famous Parisian gourmet store Fauchon asked for blueberry muffin and pecan pie recipes, so Leborgne faxed them over.
Still, there is more than enough work here to keep him busy, and Leborgne goes about his business, checking the day's work orders on the bulletin board, sculpting chocolate leaves by the dozen, and neatly piping balls of whipped cream around the edge of heart-shaped puff pastry shells to show to a prospective client.
And then his attention turns to a series of large chocolate hearts designed to carry an assortment of candies for Valentine's Day. Leborgne makes these boxes carefully, but if sometimes they crack, that's okay -- it's probably the only part of his job that's heart-breaking.