Tucked away on a side street just outside of Somerville's Union Square, Aeronaut Brewing Company has been brewing beer for enthusiastic crowds for the last two years or so, but that's not all that goes on in the cavernous space. Attached to the taproom, there's a long hallway, Aeronaut's Foods Hub, that acts as an incubator of sorts for local food- and beverage-related businesses. Barismo, for example, used to have its roasting facility there before finding a larger space in Woburn, and the high-end restaurant Tasting Counter sits at the far end of the hall. The Foods Hub is also home to a duo of chocolate businesses that share a production space — Somerville Chocolate (a "bean-to-bar" CSA) and Gâté Comme Des Filles (a small-batch chocolatier specializing in ganaches and pralinés).
Gâté Comme Des Filles ("spoiled like girls") founder Alexandra Whisnant is a Cambridge native, but she left the area for a while, spending time in northern California, Paris, and Ithaca, New York. Her path has taken her through pastry school at Le Cordon Bleu (Paris), an internship at famous French macaron purveyor Ladurée, and jobs at San Francisco's Recchiutti Confections and Berkeley's Chez Panisse — not to mention her non-culinary pursuits, including a Cornell MBA and a consulting job with Bain & Company.
Her interest in chocolate started to show when she realized she could work in the chocolate area during her time at Ladurée. "I got really excited," she says. "It just felt right. I sort of knew then." And while she worked at Chez Panisse, the chefs kept giving her all the chocolate work. "They could just tell that I was obsessed."
Along the way, she began making and selling her own chocolates, focusing on seasonal ingredients and high-quality chocolate, such as Valrhona. These days, she's back in town, and she makes small batches of her bonbons — some topped with camouflage print, some with an iridescent shine or candied citrus or a nut — in her Aeronaut production space. She sells them right there on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights (7 p.m. to 10 p.m.); she also distributes to the Cambridge and Boston locations of Formaggio Kitchen.
Whisnant changed her workflow over the summer. While she used to do "big crunches," preparing large batches over ten days straight and then recovering for a few days, she now comes in early in the week to make fillings, dips the chocolate during the week, and has plenty ready to sell by the time her retail hours roll around at the end of the week.
The product line is based on traditional French chocolates. There are ganaches — "emulsified chocolate and liquid," she says. "I do some that are cream-based and some that are fruit purees. I also sometimes use tea (with water instead of cream)." Her other type of bonbon is the nutty praliné, for which she uses organic West Coast almonds and hazelnuts, toasted and ground up with hard caramel; the chocolate is rolled up in that mixture. "It was one of my favorite things to eat in Paris," she says. "I'm trying to recreate it here."
Unlike many chocolate shops, where everything's available all the time and the chocolate-making process is a continuous flow, Whisnant generally opts to go through the process from start to finish before starting up a new set of batches. "I'm trying to make it more of a 'these are this week's flavors' approach," she says. "Everyone enjoys them at the same time, and then next week we'll all enjoy some different ones."
Whisnant has about 15 flavors in her repertoire that she tends to make over and over again, but she loves to experiment with new combinations as often as possible. Her source of inspiration for developing new flavors is simple: "It comes from finding really tasty ingredients and then trying to make a chocolate out of that."
And it's not just about finding an interesting ingredient for a filling; it's about matching it up to the correct chocolate (or chocolates) for the ganache and coating as well. "There are flavor synergies with the different flavors," she says. "Some of them cancel each other out, but sometimes they really help each other blossom, and when you find one like that — that's the one. Then I make the ganache with that chocolate or sometimes a blend of chocolates, and then I do the same thing to find which coating would best frame the filling." In this respect, Gâté Comme Des Filles has an advantage over much larger companies; many stick with the same coating for all of their chocolates because it'd be a lot more difficult to keep switching between blends at that scale. But for Whisnant's small business, where she does everything by hand, she doesn't have to play by the same rules.
Whisnant puts equal care into her packaging — beautiful paper folded into boxes, decorated with an Alice in Wonderland-inspired logo, and held together with a few small pieces of shiny tape. "Kind of like the chocolate, it's about the ingredients," she says.
Look for Gâté Comme Des Filles chocolates at Aeronaut and Formaggio for now, and they'll also be at Barismo's Cambridge locations soon. Stay tuned for news of additional places to find it in the future. But keep in mind that Whisnant's chocolate is fresh and made to be enjoyed within a short span of time; this isn't a shelf-stable Hershey's bar, and you shouldn't start stocking up for Valentine's Day just yet.
“I don’t add any stabilizers or preservatives,” she says, “and that allows me to add more real ingredients that really blossom and express themselves.” Over the summer, for example, she was able to use fresh berries in her chocolates. Larger companies that make chocolate that may stay on shelves for months are unable to do that. “You really can’t experience this unless you come eat my chocolates,” says Whisnant.
Update, January 2019: Gâté Comme Des Filles has opened a permanent storefront at Bow Market in Somerville’s Union Square.
- Gâté Comme Des Filles [Official Site]