IN the deep of night when most of Los Angeles sleeps, Xuan Ngo -- his hands working with all the speed and precision of a veteran pastry chef -- intently cuts small squares of ganache, scrapes the seeds from Madagascar vanilla beans and candies tiny bits of freshly ground coffee for his Xuan Chocolates.
Cut to a crisp, sunny afternoon at Madame Chocolat, a recently opened store in Beverly Hills: Owner Hasty Khoei stands behind the counter in stylish fitted whites, a telltale smudge of chocolate on one cuff, cheerily placing samples of her peanut butter ladybugs or rum-caramel hearts on tiny silver trays for customers.
In the last few weeks, two new chocolatiers have stepped up to help fill L.A.'s growing demand for artisan chocolates -- one a single-minded Vietnamese French pastry cook adopted as a boy by a prominent chef in Provence, the other a spirited Persian American entrepreneur raised in Woodland Hills whom master chocolatier Jacques Torres took under his professional wing.
The two couldn't be more different -- nor could their chocolates.
Ngo's are refined, delicate squares of ganache enrobed in thin shells of chocolate, each piece painstakingly decorated. Khoei's are molded chocolates in the fun shapes of big raspberries, coffee cups or faceted jewels; in her shop are two near-life-size chocolate busts that she created for Valentine's Day. Ngo, serious and meticulous, has worked his way through kitchens in Provence, Paris, New York and L.A., mostly satisfied to man his station in big bakeries or bustling kitchens, such as Lenotre, Daniel and Spago. Khoei, outgoing and charming, worked in finance before deciding to pursue a career as a chocolatier.
Ngo drops a pristine square of Earl Grey-infused ganache into a half-hotel pan filled with tempered chocolate (a mixture of French Valrhona and Swiss Des Alpes). He carefully fishes it out with a three-tined dipping fork, gently banging the fork against the side of the pan to get a perfectly even, thin couverture. "You don't want any bubbles," he says. His ganache is special -- creamy, smooth, melt-in-your-mouth; to infuse it, he uses milk instead of cream because he says the milk better takes on the flavors of the tea. The result is delicate but dark, not-too-sweet chocolate with the tea's bright flavor of citrus and heady notes of bergamot.
Once the chocolate has been coated, he takes his dipping fork and drags and lifts it in one motion across the top to make three distinct lines, then sprinkles on a few tea leaves and says, "Voila!" with a big smile. "The more you work with chocolate, the more you understand, get the feel for it," he says.
Ngo seems happiest leaning over a slab of marble, concentrating on every detail of the confection-making process. Khoei is at the top of her game when she's interacting with customers, holding court in her shop and playing the role of Madame Chocolat.
Born in Danang, Vietnam, Ngo grew up mostly in Les Baux de Provence, where his adopted father, chef Jean-Andre Charial, owns a hotel and Michelin two-star restaurant, Oustau de Baumaniere. Ngo, 37, says he spent summers in the kitchen and was immediately drawn to pastry. "I liked the accuracy and the organization, and the consistency," he says.
After high school, his father's connections helped him land a job at Patisserie Lenotre, the Paris bakery renowned for its sweets and chocolate confections, where he worked for four years, mostly baking cakes. Next was New York, where he worked at Daniel Boulud's restaurant Daniel, when Francois Payard was pastry chef there. That's when he first started making chocolates, served only to the restaurant's VIPs. "I learned a lot from him, about how to work and how to work clean," says Ngo of Payard.
In 2000, Ngo moved to Los Angeles to work at Spago (Wolfgang Puck had once worked at Baumaniere and helped Ngo get his green card) and has since worked at Sona and Boule and now as a pastry cook at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. It's only after he finishes his shift at the Peninsula that he begins to make chocolates, working through the night to fill orders sold through Los Angeles-based coffee roaster LA Mill's website.
Flavors include chocolate onyx, for which Ngo uses the roaster's Black Onyx coffee, and Earl Grey-infused chocolate. He also makes fleur de sel caramel and ginger and passion fruit chocolates. "I taste, and I play," he says matter-of-factly. Other flavors he is playing with include Sicilian pistachio, ginger caramel and calamansi (a citrus).
Lady breaks the mold
AFTER five years of planning, including more than a year at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, a year and a half working for Torres in New York and four trips to Brussels to source chocolate, Khoei opened Madame Chocolat, a chocolate boutique and "factory," in December.