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No limits on truffle tastes

 
If you'd like something a little different this Valentine's Day, how about a white chocolate-centered truffle infused with essence of orange flower blossom extract and Madagascar vanilla?
The half-ounce, $2 delight is the handiwork of Wendy and Susan Lieu, two Oakland sisters who founded Socola Chocolates in 2001 in the tradition of their Vietnamese family.

"Sweets are popular in Vietnam, especially for holidays," said co-owner Wendy Lieu, sitting at a table at Daily Delectables gourmet donut shop near Oakland's Grand Lake Theater. Socola's wares are available at the store, as well as via the Web and telephone order.

"Tet, the celebration of the lunar New Year and the biggest holiday in Vietnam, is currently under way," said Lieu, who makes the truffles by hand. When holidays such as Tet and Valentine's Day approach, Lieu notifies the 500 clients on her e-mail list and takes orders.

"I make the truffles at Daily Delectables over the weekend and ship them out Monday morning," Lieu said.

The wildly inventive truffles range from the irresistible, such as Vietnamese Coffee, made with coffee espresso shots and organic condensed milk, to the bizarre, including a bacon truffle and a truffle made with Guinness Stout.

"The Guinness truffle is one of our best-sellers," said Lieu, who is handling most of the heavy lifting for the company these days as her sister, who just graduated from Harvard, visits their home village, Soc Trang, in Vietnam.


Chambord, which contains French raspberry liquor, is another popular confection, she said. Her most recent invention, a green-tea truffle, caught on immediately in December.
The sisters' parents, Tom and Jennifer, fled Vietnam in 1982 and Wendy, now 25, was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia. One year after the three arrived in the United States, Susan, now 22, was born. Two brothers, Kevin and Anthony, were born in Vietnam.

"My parents opened a nail salon in Oakland when they got here," Lieu said. "After working seven days a week for nearly 30 years, my dad just sold the salon," she said.

The two daughters are no less hardworking than their parents. While running Socola, Wendy Lieu works full-time as a management consultant and is training to become a pastry chef at San Francisco's Tante Marie cooking school.

"Basically, truffles are a combination of chocolate, whipping cream and butter. That's the basic ganache," Lieu said. Socola which is Vietnamese for "chocolate" uses no preservatives and fresh local ingredients. The chocolate is manufactured by Berkeley-based Scharffen Berger and the butter and cream are from Marshall-based Straus Family Creamery.

Though Lieu wouldn't give her company's 2007 sales, she said business at the two-employee firm jumped dramatically last year when Socola added a number of corporate clients, including a major local information technology firm.

Lieu is graduating from Tante Marie in March and plans to open a bakery, probably in Oakland, that will afford her the scope to expand Socola, she said.

"As a teenager, I used to walk by See's all the time and wonder how they made the chocolates," Lieu said. After a good deal of research, she started experimenting "I messed up a lot" and her sister shared the truffles with friends and neighbors.

"My neighbor was the marketing director for KSRO radio station. She asked, 'Where did you get these great truffles?'" The then-teenagers ended up on an hourlong radio talk show and a business was born.

"I first encountered Wendy and Susan at the Wednesday night market," said Azalia Fernandez of Santa Rosa, who has been a customer since 2001. She was referring to a farmer's market in Santa Rosa where the sisters began exhibiting their wares.

"You couldn't resist those smiles and that energy, plus the candies were delicious," Fernandez said. "The chocolates are so rich. They don't taste artificial. We're supposed to have dark chocolate in our diet," she said, referring to recent studies that suggest dark chocolate contains heart-healthy flavonoids.

"My favorite is Big Fat Susan," she said, referring to a truffle with Scharffen Berger dark chocolate and organic vanilla extract. The name is derived from "Big Fat Giant," a children's tale by Roald Dahl.

Socola's inventive approach is part of a Bay Area chocolate trend, said Gary Guittard, whose family-owned chocolate manufacturing company in Burlingame was founded in 1868.

"There's a real food revolution going on and we're lucky enough to taste its emergence," Guittard said. "There's a tremendous amount of experimentation going on with flavor," and companies like Socola are part of it, he said.

"In the old days, probably 50 or 60 years ago, every neighborhood had a little chocolate company," Guittard said. Now, creative, locally owned small companies like Socola are spearheading a resurgence, he said.

"A lot of these people are chefs, so they are schooled in flavor and they are bringing their pastry chef experience and they're pushing the boundaries," Guittard said.

"It's (Socola) very satisfying to the palate, and to the mind, body and soul as well," Fernandez said.

Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671 or jmara@bayareanewsgroup.com. Check out her Energy Blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/energy.

SOCOLA CHOCOLATES

Owner/Founders: Wendy and Susan Lieu

Founded: July 2001

Product: Truffles

Cost: $2 per truffle

Address: 3249 Grand Avenue, Oakland

Phone: 510-672-3396
2007 Sales: Would not divulge

Web site: http://www.socolachocolates.com

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