Las Vegas Chocolatier Is Passionate About Tempering Chocolate NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Melissa Coppel about the art of creating the perfect molded bonbon, and about teaching aspiring chefs this disappearing skill.
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Las Vegas Chocolatier Is Passionate About Tempering Chocolate

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Las Vegas Chocolatier Is Passionate About Tempering Chocolate

Las Vegas Chocolatier Is Passionate About Tempering Chocolate

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Let's head now to a Las Vegas strip mall to taste some chocolate.


MELISSA COPPEL: Hi, how are you? (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

I meet Melissa Coppell. She knows and teaches chocolate but not just any kind of chocolate.

I smell something amazing. What is this over here?

COPPEL: It's chocolate. So we have three tempering machines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tempering. It's the process of slowly cooling and raising the temperature of chocolate. And it's key to making the perfect bonbon, a rare art because of the delicacy of the shell that encases the ganache inside. It's now Coppel's specialty.

COPPEL: Chocolate is an element that has its own timing, its own rules. And it's very mysterious. And it's very - it's not that it's hard to work with, you know, if you know your basic - you know, your knowledge. But I like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's not where she started. Born in Cali, Colombia, she wanted to learn to be a chef. But she says there was no professional cooking school in the whole country. So she went to Argentina. Then she got married and moved to the U.S. and got into making desserts. She studied at The French Pastry School in Chicago. And from there, she landed a job at L'atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, which earned, in 2008, three Michelin stars. She began at the bottom - for months, endlessly cutting strawberries.

COPPEL: But I was fine. I knew, you know, when you have a goal, it doesn't it really matter. You know you're going to get there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Less than a year later, though, she was running the pastry kitchen under the executive pastry chef. She was only 26 years old. But working in a high-end restaurant is brutal, with terrible hours and endless work. So she took a step back from her career for her family. And when she tried to make a comeback, it was at a terrible time in Las Vegas - the Great Recession.

COPPEL: And the only thing I could find was doing chocolates - actually chocolate decorations, not even chocolate bonbons - at Caesars Palace. And it's the only thing I could find. So I started doing that. The shift was from 4 a.m. in the morning to, I don't know, 2 or 1. And I was the only person in one room making decor all day long for the entire casino. I thought it was going to be, you know, a team. I didn't have much experience in chocolate. So I had to start at 4, but if I would make mistakes, I would arrive at 2 a.m. in the morning to make sure, if I made a mistake, I had time. And for six months, all I did was, you know, making chocolate decor. And I really started getting a feeling for chocolate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so began her journey into chocolate. There were more classes and more studying, with teachers who, at times, could be a challenge.

COPPEL: None of them were mean to me. But energetically, they will make me feel I'll never going to be like them, like I will - never going to get their level. So all...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think that was? Is it...

COPPEL: It's because there's a lot of ego. And there's a lot of the way that teachers around the world tend to be - are very much, I am awesome. I know everything. You don't know anything. You're there. So there's like a really big...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And also, it's a very male-dominated industry.

COPPEL: Oh, my God. Don't even start me on that.


COPPEL: So I was, you know, I...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, start. Start.

COPPEL: I'm a very sensitive person. And I can feel energy, I mean, more than I should. So that always hit me. So unconsciously, when I start teaching, I actually develop a completely different style of teaching. And I believe that that's the reason why the word of mouth keeps running. And that's why people come from all over to learn from me. It's not - I really don't believe in talent that way. I'm - you'll never hear me saying, I am so talented. Please come in. It's not talent. It's hard work and passion and dedication. But the biggest thing that I think is what people talk about is not that. It's the way I teach.

So when students arrive to my kitchen, everybody will learn. And no one is going to feel ashamed of not knowing something basic. So there's no stupid questions. And I ask everybody, please, leave your egos outside the door. I'm really - you don't need to impress me. And I don't need to impress you. We're just going to have a good time. We're going to respect each other. And that's what they really appreciate. And that's why people come from all over - more than to see what I do is to, you know, feel that they can learn in a relaxed atmosphere.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In today's class, there's a mix of professional chefs and home cooks. There are 17 students here, mostly women, from as far away as Japan and South America, as well as from here in Las Vegas. This day, they're learning to make ganache, the soft chocolate filling inside the hard shell, with pistachio rose and a special, costly and rare Iranian saffron, bought in a street market in Dubai.

COPPEL: I know. It's really - you can toast it, but don't burn it.


COPPEL: Ay yai yai (ph).


COPPEL: When people ask me what is that I have done? What is that I can pass along? I think that you have to have such a passion inside of you that nothing can kill it. And that is easy to say but hard to do. But at the end, talking about the women, for example, this year, I started debating if I should keep traveling so much because for me - I have a 7-year-old. And I have this business here that I need to, you know, make it happen. But in reality, I'm the only chocolatier, woman chocolatier, in the world that travels around. There's no other. So how can I, you know, do that? How can I stop? It's really - I feel I'm an ambassador for women. And there's - it's almost like, for me, this is my goal now - to really show women and inspire women that it's possible, and they can do it. And they have to keep fighting hard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After smelling and looking at all this chocolate, it was mercifully, finally time for a taste. I was given 12 perfectly moulded, round bonbons, shimmering like planets with swirls of yellow, magenta in a sky of dark chocolate.

These look like stained glass. They're beautiful. They're absolutely beautiful.

Then I take a bite - caramel and hazelnut, raspberry with lychee.

Mmm. I'm going to eat them all now. OK.

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