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John Kelly Chocolate: Willpower Melt-Down

Photo: Peanut Butter Fudge Truffle

A uniquely American approach to artisanal chocolate-making has reached Santa Monica, with the new John Kelly Chocolates location in what I call the “truffle triangle” (1111 ½ Montana Avenue, 323-851-3269). Not coincidentally, “truffle fudge” is this boutique brand’s silky signature. But there’s more.

Can we just start with the company name? There’s no umlaut. There’s no phoney-baloney French, Swiss or Belgian inference. John Kelly sounds like somebody who’d look great in a white oxford cloth shirt, MAYBE with a cashmere argyle sweater knotted around his neck, plays tennis, has perfect white teeth, and might own a sailboat in Amagansett. Basically a regular, All-American guy, but amped up a few notches.

That’s where this brand lands in the often-overstated landscape of grandiose gourmet chocolate-making. Hey, it’s chocolate. The idea alone should engender child-like joy, and John Kelly does.

Let’s begin with size of the individual pieces. They are, by international standards, big and beefy. Large, hefty, hearty bites, for Americans who have never been known for dainty proportions. John Kelly Chocolates are sold in 1 oz. bites and clusters, 2 oz. bars, and the 8 oz. bar size.

Then there’s the fact that it’s not just chocolate, but it’s fudge. And now there’s new, improved peanut butter fudge. These are quintessentially American confections, without a whiff of European pretension.

And here’s the sweetest irony: making fudge is much more difficult than it sounds, reinforcing John Kelly’s essential modesty as a candy-maker. Fudge calls for mastery of temperature and timing, in order to achieve the classical “soft ball” stage. Any number of variables—cooking-heat too high, bad whisk-work, shoes too tight, too much humidity in the air, Mercury in retrograde—can cause crystals to form prematurely in the supersaturated sugar solution. This leads to big, gritty particles in the fudge, which then begins to taste like a candy bar melted into sand. John Kelly fudge shares nothing in common with those folksy, rough-hewn batches of fudge known to generations of plain American folk, though. The JKC version melts to a blissfully smooth slip on the tongue, without the slightest hint of emery-board to the tooth.

Texture is the crucial wild-card in the newly reformulated peanut butter truffle fudge. The trick, says President and Co-Owner John Kelson, is white chocolate. “It’s not enough for you to taste—that’s not why it’s there. But it has a wonderful ability to stay creamy after it’s cooked, and to retain moisture, so you taste peanut butter fudge that is as close as you can get to peanut butter right out of the jar.”

Really—there oughta be a law.

Kelly Green, Vice President and Co-Owner, adds that a fan of the new formulation—specifically, the all-natural Peanut Butter Fudge, coated in semi-sweet chocolate, topped with exotic Himalayan Pink Salt—recently called this creation “A Reese’s Peanut Butter cup on steroids.”

The salt-with-sweet is a key statement for JKC, which continues to steadily build a celeb following among the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Hillary Duff and Jesse Eisenberg. The shop’s top two sellers are Dark Chocolate (dark chocolate truffle fudge) with French Grey Sea Salt, and Chocolate and Caramel with Hawaiian Alaea Sea Salt, coated in semi-sweet chocolate. The former won a coveted Sofi award from NASFT (National Association of the Specialty Food Trade), topped with a superfine dusting of French Sel Gris de Guérande sea salt. The caramel and semi-sweet truffle fudge combo features a bigger salt-grain, with a crisp finish to stand up to the supple artisanal caramel. Even more robust: the Walnut Caramel Cluster with Mediterranean Sea Salt, where semi-coarse salt-grains strike a perfect balance in a carefully calibrated quartet of flavors.

The newest additions to the JKC chocolate menu are chile-infused, thus bringing together two culinary treasures of the Mesoamerican world. As with the salt component of the other combinations, the chile tang, smoke and heat (Dark Chocolate with Chipotle & Ancho Chile, or Dark Chocolate with Habanero & Jalapeño) emerge slowly, as a last radiant flare in a progression of complex neural sensations. Neither of these combinations is uncomfortably spicy.

The partners know what they’re doing. Kelson has years of experience in luxury fashion retailing. Green is an ad agency guy with major branding chops, and it shows. Since founding JKC in 2005, they’ve not only blended their expertise; together, their cleverly hybridized names create the moniker of the imaginary guy with the sailboat. And not surprisingly, JKC gift-boxes sell briskly at Neiman Marcus, The Ritz Carlton, The Four Seasons, and The Waldorf Astoria.

The new Montana Avenue shop is, in itself, like a John Kelly truffle fudge morsel: perfectly proportioned, smooth and espresso-colored, orderly, glossy and cool. And, for those times when you experience the craving for fudge on the other side of the 405, the original store is located at 1508 North Sierra Bonita Avenue in Hollywood (323-851-3269).

Urban legend maintains that soon after Kelson and Green opened their Hollywood chocolate factory, but before they opened the first storefront, residents were driven wild by the feverish perfume of chocolate in the making, the persistent aroma drifting through windows and vents, disturbing sleep, stirring dreams, triggering cravings, starting rumors.  It was in response to local demand that Kelson and Green went retail, and for this we can all be grateful.

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Photo by Serafin Canchola

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New York February / March 2014
New York February / March 2014