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A League of Their Own

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Four creative confectioners remind us why, when it comes to chocolate, you never know what you’re going to get.

Story by Rachel Rascoe , Photos by Keith Trigaci

When sampling the sweets of local female chocolatiers Maggie Callahan, Tessa Halstead, Serena Lissy and Nicole Patel, one might indulge in confections ranging from salty and spicy to sweet and crunchy to nostalgic and nutty. By melding quality craftsmanship with unique artistry, these four businesswomen are putting the Austin chocolate scene, as well as their own handmade desserts, on the map. Austin Woman tasted everything, just to be sure.

 

Maggie Callahan
Maggie Louise Confections

Maggie Callahan, a lawyer turned Le Cordon Bleu graduate, has broken out of the brown, square mold with a rainbow of themed chocolate creations. What started with a lipstick mold for white chocolate has expanded to sushi bento boxes, jewel-toned shapes of Texas and a host of holiday assortments, just to name a few. The chic, Chanel-inspired style Callahan showcases throughout her East Austin studio has also caught the eye of clients like Neiman Marcus, Gwen Stefani and Jimmy Choo. If one of her gorgeous themed boxes doesn’t suit you, visitors can also customize their chocolate boxes using Callahan’s color palette and trademark chocolate letters.

Austin Woman: How did you make the decision to move from law to chocolates?

Maggie Callahan: I’m the daughter of a fine artist and lawyer. Everyone’s a hybrid of their parents, but I truly am 50/50 right and left brain. Growing up, I actually thought I was going to be an artist. My superlative in high school was Most Likely to Have an Exhibit at The Met.

AW: Where do you find your inspiration?

MC: I’ve always thought that unique products will come from unique sources of inspiration. I love antique glassware, antique books and the way they would style food 50 years ago. I find inspiration in art, daily life, travel. It’s really just a matter of being open-minded.

AW: Do you have any early memories of chocolate?

MC: We lived three blocks from an old-fashioned pharmacy. I would ride my bike there, and other kids would pay me to buy them candy. I would charge extra and take a slice off the top, so it was a great money-making scheme for me, and it also funded my interest in eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. My exposure was really just with common American candy. A lot of these nostalgic flavors that we have here at the store were the ones around me growing up, so that’s what I’ve always liked.

AW: What made you fall in love with chocolate during pastry school?

MC: We had just a little bit of time on chocolate, but it was enough for me to realize that it’s this artistic medium that you can shape and mold and color, and it can be so fun while being delicious. I kind of wondered why everyone was taking it so seriously. I started doing research and found a lipstick mold. I was like, “Why would anyone possibly make a square when they could make a lipstick?” We aim to create an experience for all senses, and that includes your eyes.


Tessa Halstead
Chocolaterie Tessa

Second-generation chocolatier Tessa Halstead creates elegant, Parisian-style truffles and bonbons with cacao beans sourced from throughout the world. Her offerings are a hybrid of old family recipes, like her mocha pyramid and Italian cherry, and new classics, like her award-winning salted butter caramels. The Texas native’s commitment to detail is evident in her kitchen’s enrobing machine, a chocolate conveyor belt a la that famous I Love Lucy episode, which allows her to make select chocolates in a more time-consuming European method without molds. Even more special, the machine is the same one her father used at their previous Dallas-based family business, Morgen Chocolate.

AW: Do you have any early memories of chocolate?

Tessa Halstead: My parents always tell this funny story from Christmastime when I was 3 or 4 years old. My parents had received a Christmas basket with a chocolate Santa Claus lollipop. They always say I unwrapped the chocolate and started eating it, and then I looked at them with this face and started spitting it out and said, “What is this?” They were like, “That’s when we knew you were a chocolate snob.” AW: Do you feel like it was your destiny to be a chocolatier?

TH: When I was in college and my dad decided to retire, he did offer me the business. Sometimes, people say, “Oh, don’t you wish you had just done it from the beginning when your dad offered?” I really feel like if I had done that then, it would have always been his business that I was following. It worked out that he was able to let it go, and I was able to restart my own thing. Life is funny that way.

AW: How do you think your personality shines through in your chocolate creations?

TH: I think that my personality really comes through in the ingredients that we source. We’re one of the only chocolatiers in the world who work with craft chocolates in their confections. It’s more expensive to do that, but it’s also a commitment to excellence, and I believe that’s where the future of chocolate is going. People want to be connected to the source.

AW: Where do you find inspiration for a new chocolate recipe?

TH: I’m inspired when I find something really special, like a single origin chocolate. … My latest thing that I’m all jazzed up about is our Tahitian vanilla. Whenever I find an ingredient that is truly special, I will create a piece just for that ingredient. I wanted to use these blood orange thins just because I found them and I was like, “This ingredient is perfect.” It’s beautiful and we needed to find a way to use it.


Nicole Patel
Delysia Chocolatier

Nicole Patel can’t eat chocolate because of an allergy, but she loves to watch customers enjoy her handmade truffles. During her career as an industrial engineer at Motorola, Patel began making chocolate truffles at home as a form of stress relief. Demand for her homemade sweets at parties and events grew, so Patel started Delysia on the side, never imagining it would one day become her full-time business. Partnering with Becker Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country put Delysia on the map as the first chocolatier in Texas to make chocolates using local wines. Patel’s flavor explorations have continued through partnerships with local businesses, including Tito’s Handmade Vodka and The Salt Lick, leading to unusual truffle infusions, such as collard greens with bacon, bloody mary and baked beans.

AW: How did you make the decision to focus on making chocolate full time?

Nicole Patel: I was a contractor for the state and my contract ended, so the decision was kind of made for me. It was that push that I needed to be OK with letting go and doing this full time. … Engineering is very much in my blood. It’s all about process efficiency and continuous improvement. It’s a lot of quality control and things like that. Though I’ve moved away from having a fulltime engineering job, I still use all of those skills, probably more than I ever did before.

AW: How did you teach yourself to make truffles?

NP: A lot of it was just experimentation. I found one recipe online, and that recipe actually didn’t work. This is where the engineering kicked in. I used a lot my design experience in varying one variable at a time and seeing what works.

AW: Where do you find inspiration for your chocolates?

NP: My husband and I, every year, would travel to Europe. We never thought we were starting a chocolate business, but a lot of what we saw over there is the inspiration for some of our flavors. … We believe that there is always a reason to enjoy chocolate. It doesn’t need to be a holiday or a wedding. It can be a good day at work or a bad day at work—you just need chocolate. With that, we have chocolates that fit every season and every palate.

AW: What do you think makes your chocolate unique?

NP: We keep continuously pushing that envelope of what we can blend with chocolate. We started with the traditional flavors, but it’s a lot of fun, especially for our loyal customers, to come in and see what new thing that we’ve done. It creates that creative process.


After leaving a career in hotel finance to enter the food industry, Serena Lissy dabbled in food photography before heading to pastry school at Austin’s Le Cordon Bleu. There, she fell head over heels for the challenging medium of chocolate. Best known for her eye-catching bonbons and hand-painted delicacies beloved by brides throughout the country, Lissy polished her confection perfection through extensive training, including at local eateries Sway and Uchi, as well as America’s Test Kitchen.

Serena Lissy
Serena Lissy Chocolates

AW: After working in the food industry, what made you want to focus on chocolate?

Serena Lissy: It’s creating. You’re starting with a bag of chocolate, and what are you going to make with it? It’s the creative process. … Chocolate is probably one of the hardest mediums to work with, especially here in Texas. It doesn’t work well in the weather that we have and the humidity changes daily. I like the challenge of it.

AW: Do you have a favorite step in the chocolate-making process?

SL: Every time I turn a mold over, it’s like Christmas. In my mind, I think I know what it should look like, but I never really know until I pop it out after everything is airbrushed or painted or dipped. I just love the surprise there.

AW: What were some of your biggest inspirations in learning to make chocolate?

SL: When I went to work for America’s Test Kitchen in Boston, I would go to New York City almost every weekend and we would do chocolate tastings all weekend long. I had this humongous list of all the chocolate makers throughout the world, and we would just go from chocolate maker to chocolate maker gathering our goods for the day. At the end of the night, we would sit down and do the tasting. I learned tons from that, just the different ideas and creative processes and styles that chocolatiers have.

AW: How do your chocolates reflect your personality?

SL: It feels like I’m always on an airplane going somewhere. When I was in finance, I was in the hotel world. I spent 20 years traveling all over the world, so I have a deep, deep passion for travel and experimenting with flavors and spices. … I also have a degree in graphic design, so my style is very modern, minimal and clean. The colors are all matched for specific reasons. I think that comes through in the chocolates.

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