If you were patient enough to wait in the very long line for French specialties at the food expo Chicago Gourmet back in September, you were rewarded with some of the most beautiful, most delicious chocolates made in town today. Filled with smooth spiced pumpkin and white chocolate ganache, the glossy hand-painted bonbons in vibrant shades of orange, yellow, and green were made by Chris Nugent, the executive chef at Les Nomades, where they're among the mignardises served at the end of meals. Now Nugent's gearing up to sell them, for the first time, to the general public.
His repertoire includes 20 flavors, ranging from classics such as roasted hazelnut-milk chocolate praline to inventions like the Hot Toddy, with caramel, whiskey, honey, and spices in milk chocolate. Many of the chocolates feature fruit, among them the Three B, with blackberries, blueberries, and aged balsamic; Wild Brazilian Passion, with passion fruit-white chocolate ganache; and Melba, with red currant-white peach ganache. A couple familiar combinations are rum raisin and dark chocolate with chile pepper; less expected is a combo of wild berry and hibiscus tea.
Although Nugent, 37, has no formal training in chocolate making, his interest in sweets goes way back. When he was 11, his mother died; his parents were divorced, and he was taken in by John Daly, a friend of the family who was the chef at the Drovers Inn in upstate Vestal, New York. Daly would bring him to work after school to keep an eye on him, and by the age of 14, he'd learned all the stations in the restaurant's kitchen and volunteered to apprentice with the freelance German patissier who supplied the desserts. "They were so wonderful, I just wanted to learn how to make them," he says. Over the next three years, he did just that. Upon graduating from high school, he faced a dilemma: whether to enroll in Johnson & Wales University's culinary program or its baking and pastry program.
Ultimately Nugent opted for the savory over the sweet, taking the two-year culinary course, and after graduation spent a year at a seafood restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island. He moved to Chicago in 1995 to take a job at the Hyatt O'Hare, as part of the hotel chain's culinary management trainee program, and learned all sides of the business at several properties. "I was very happy at Prairie in the Hyatt Printer's Row because it reminded me of upstate New York," he says, "but after opening the Hyatt McCormick Place, I decided I didn't want to do high-volume cooking at a convention hotel."
Next stop was the private Mid-America Club, where he was executive sous chef from 1998 to 1999, followed by a year and a half at MK, a year at Park Avenue Cafe, and then his first executive chef position, at Bêtise in Wilmette—where he doubled as pastry chef. But he wanted to get back downtown, so when Les Nomades' Mary Beth Liccioni approached him about becoming executive chef, he accepted. He's been there since January 2005.
Nugent began making chocolates as a hobby a couple years ago, after admiring a picture of bonbons in So Good, a trade magazine. He attended a few free classes at Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy and Kendall College, to taste different chocolates and refine his technique, but mostly he taught himself by doing research online, reading, and trying out ideas. He says it takes three batches to create a recipe: the first is "a wild experiment," the second focuses on "tweaking" elements like the kinds of chocolate and sweetness level, and the third involves weighing everything by the gram, recording exact temperatures, and finalizing the details so they can be reproduced consistently. That last step can be difficult: Nugent's often inspired by the fruits of the farmers' markets—Cinderella pumpkins from Dotson's Farm at the Lincoln Square Market, chestnuts from the Andersonville Market, fraises des bois and other fruits and jams from Seedling Fruit at the Green City Market—which tend to change in flavor and texture throughout the season.
Other local ingredients he relies on include cream from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, Illinois, butter from Nordic Creamery in Westby, Wisconsin, and Chicago's own Beeline Honey. The chocolate—ranging from 35 percent to 74 percent cocoa mass—comes from all over the world: Amedei from Tuscany, Callebaut from Belgium, Cocoa Barry and Valrhona from France, and others from Madagascar, Venezuela, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.
Nugent produces the bonbons in the restaurant's kitchen in the morning, spreading out 50 to 100 polycarbonate molds (holding 28 to 40 pieces each) all over the counters. The first step is to apply ten thin layers of cocoa butter, which he buys in dozens of colors and warms slightly before swirling it into the molds by hand (wearing a latex glove to prevent fingerprints) or painting it in with bristle brushes or an air brush (which is fast but not his favorite because it's not as hands-on). "This is the artistic part," he says. "Each chocolate looks like an abstract painting." The layers set quickly, so the first mold is ready for another by the time he's finished the last. The final layer is usually white; just a little shows through the other layers.
Next the molds are "shelled" with tempered chocolate, which has to be 90 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. (If it's warmer, the colored layers will melt and bubble up; if it's cooler, the chocolate won't adhere to the colored layers.) Nugent fills each mold with the tempered chocolate, scrapes off any excess, taps the mold on the counter to get out bubbles, scrapes off more excess, lets it sit a minute or two, then turns it upside down, so the chocolate drizzles out, leaving a hole for the ganache. The molds then cure upside down or on their sides for 30 to 35 minutes—unrefrigerated.
Ganache recipes differ for each flavor, but the basic principle is that cream sweetened with glucose (which doesn't crystallize like sugar syrup) is mixed with the flavoring (hazelnut paste, pumpkin puree, etc), a little vanilla, and a dash of salt, then heated and whisked until smooth and strained into a cylindrical container with the chopped chocolate in it. Nugent uses an immersion blender to combine the hot and cold ingredients, incorporating softened butter last to complete the emulsion. The ganache is poured into the molds, leaving a little room for the chocolate cap, and they're tapped again to even out the filling and remove any bubbles.
The ganache cures at 68 degrees for at least six hours and then is capped with tempered chocolate. Nugent says it's very important to scrape off the excess chocolate, because any left around the holes will prevent the pieces from unmolding properly. They cure again for 20 to 30 minutes, then go into the cooler to chill to 40 degrees for the same amount of time.
"You unmold the chocolates just like you would ice cubes from an ice-cube tray, " Nugent says. "Twist to loosen, tap the bottom, turn upside down. If you've done everything correctly, they'll pop right out looking good enough to eat."