ICE Alumni Working with Chocolate
These pastry, management and culinary grads have sweet careers getting creative with chocolate.
It’s no secret that working with chocolate is a challenge. From temperature control to scientific measurements, a lot can go wrong. We checked in with three ICE alumni who continue to get it right, from creating organic bonbons to marketing chocolate for chefs, to see how the confectionery business is treating them.
Kate McAleer (Pastry/Management, '11) is the founder of Bixby & Co., a craft confectionery in Rockland, Maine. Her company produces organic chocolates, single-origin bean-to-bar chocolates, drinking chocolate, bonbons and more that are sold in more than 3,500 stores, including Whole Foods, Walmart, CVS and Stop & Shop. “It’s awesome and a roller coaster all at once,” Kate says. “Chocolate is a fascinating medium through which I was able to explore many of my interests: culture, art, history and business.”
She loves developing new products, tasting her own classics and traveling to origin countries to meet with her farmer partners, but Kate faces challenges as well. Chocolate making is a finicky art that requires proper humidity and temperature. Plus, Kate’s days are long as a business owner. She starts with a Peloton workout, followed by a morning meeting with her production team and a check-in with the retail department. Kate spends much of her time on forecasting, inventory, sales and marketing, typically working about six months ahead. “ICE was a fantastic foundation upon which I was able to build my skills and knowledge base to start and grow my business,” she says. So far, it’s been a success, with The New York Times featuring the chocolatier's fall flavors — apple cider, cranberry and maple — in September.
About three months ago, Katya Witthuhn (Pastry, '18) opened Bluebird Chocolates, a bonbon shop in Long Island's Glen Head neighborhood. She discovered her love of creating chocolate in ICE's Pastry & Baking Arts program. “When Chef Michael Laiskonis introduced our class to chocolate, I was immediately hooked," Katya says. "I was truly inspired by learning about chocolate from him. The complexity of flavor and the ability to pair it with so many different ingredients really appealed to me, and I knew that I wanted to work with chocolate going forward.”
Though her business is very new, she’s already built a roster of nine year-round flavors, as well as seasonal ones like raspberry dark chocolate, gingerbread, apple caramel and pumpkin spice. She’s also excited about working on a goat cheese bonbon in partnership with a local restaurant.
Katya wears multiple hats as she runs her company. Rather than implement a daily routine, she reserves each day of the week for a different task. Mondays are usually for decorating, Tuesdays for casting, Wednesdays for fillings and Thursdays for capping. On Fridays, she makes deliveries to the various businesses that stock her chocolates. “Every day brings me joy and new challenges to figure out,” Katya says. “I had a great first holiday season and am looking forward to expanding and trying new flavors in 2020.”
Colleen Gibson (Culinary, ‘15) works as the marketing manager for Valrhona Chocolate in New York City. As a longtime chocolate lover, Colleen was disappointed when she learned that many chocolate brands rely on milk, sugar or other additives for flavor. When Valrhona connected with her, she was excited to join a company that focuses on premium cocoa beans and thoughtfully sourced ingredients. “It is so inspiring to work for a company that puts ethical and sustainable considerations before profits, and I am proud to know that I am part of making the world of cocoa fairer, more sustainable and more ethical,” Colleen says.
Recently, the company has been working on creating dairy-free and vegan recipes to help support the need from pastry chefs. “Having a dairy allergy myself, it’s been exciting to work with the team as they develop flawless recipes using dark chocolates and our fruit couvertures that happen to be dairy-free,” Colleen says. She created a vegan chocolate tart with a macadamia nut crust using Valrhona’s Itakuja dark chocolate, which is fermented a second time with passion fruit to give the single-origin Brazilian chocolate a unique, powerful flavor.
When she isn’t helping with recipe development, Colleen creates marketing materials, prepares recipe books, analyzes sales and trends, hosts events, visits customers, tastes new chocolates and collaborates with pastry chefs on new recipe books. She also works closely with the brand’s headquarters in France and manages the Cercle V loyalty program for top pastry chef customers.
“I think the only challenge of working with chocolate for me is that I want to eat all of it. Valrhona chocolate is designed with pastry chefs in mind, so it is easy to work with, consistently delicious and truly unique,” Colleen says.
She wouldn’t have this chocolatey dream job if it weren’t for her culinary education. “ICE helped me reach my dreams of working in the food industry and loving what I do,” Colleen says. “The knowledge I gained from my time at ICE, my externship and my post-graduation restaurant job helps me every day as I work with pastry chefs to provide them with the best products, services and support they need. I am proud to have gone to ICE because I got a well-rounded education in the food industry, and really learned about what’s important and what’s next in food.”