Pastry chef and chocolatier Cinthya Romriell injects joy into every unique creation.
By Kathryn Freeman, Photos by Joi Conti, with assistance from Valerie Bizzarro; Styled by Asma Parvez with inspiration from Nordstrom, Arbor Eye Center and Charm School Vintage; Makeup and hair by Nia Ford; Nails by EY Nails; Paper wall art by Amanda Witucki; Shot on location at Cinful Sweets
It is often said “good things come in small packages.” In the case of pastry chef and chocolatier Cinthya Romriell, they come in small chocolate confections with perfectly blended notes of milk chocolate, banana, guava, coconut and pineapple. “I put a lot of thought into my flavor pairings, so I want my clients to feel that wow factor as they enjoy my creations. It gives me joy when my clients can be like, ‘Wow, I do taste all [those]flavors,’” Romriell shares on a gloomy afternoon that was anything but joyful as we sit down to talk about finding joy in her work.
During all this social, economic and political upheaval, it is easy to lose sight of the joy found in the small, quiet things that give our lives meaning. Meals with family and friends, a favorite dessert, smiling customers, adventures with friends to far-flung destinations. It can be easy to look at things like Romriell’s perfect bonbons and see something small and inconsequential. But in both her flavor pairings and her chosen career, Romriell shows us that those little things make a life. Just as a surprise box of chocolate chip cookies can provide comfort after receiving a layoff notice, these seemingly trivial things connect us to one another. They give us joy; they comfort us in times of grief.
Romriell, owner of Cinful Sweets, did not set out to be a purveyor of chocolates and pastries. Instead, this daughter of Honduran immigrants was purveying homemade cookies to 82 hungry middle schoolers distracted by their hormones and the growls of their empty stomachs. She was a teacher because her mom had been a teacher. In fact, as a child, Romriell helped her mother get a bachelor’s degree in education, because English was her mother’s second language.
Romriell enjoyed helping her mom, so when she received a full ride to the University of Texas, she chose education. After starting with sharing boxes of animal crackers, she tried her hand at baking the famous Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe on a whim. She found herself staring into dozens of satisfied and grinning faces after making them a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Soon, the students brought her a list of cookies they wanted her to try.
“I love a good challenge,” she admits. “There were cookies on the list I had never heard of like oatmeal raisin and white chocolate macadamia nut. But in putting them together I discovered I liked them for myself and not just my students,” she laughs. The cookies addressed a felt need for sustenance, but they also brought Romriell and her students joy. For Romriell, the joy was a bonus. “It was the fact that I had made them feel so special; I had never associated feeling special with a dessert.”
The gift she gave her students was small. But it changed the way they thought of themselves, of her and the way she thought about herself. Romriell left the classroom behind, but not her love of making people feel seen and special. She enrolled in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, and wouldn’t you know it? Her first assignment was making chocolate chip cookies, this time with the really good stuff: Valona chocolate. She describes her first taste of high-quality chocolate. “There was a symphony of notes in my mouth as I had that curvature. It was just so amazing how there were so many flavor notes. It’s floating in my mouth, and it’s just chocolate. So I just really fell in love with chocolate.”
The ways Romriell describes chocolate would make even the most anti-dessert person line up for a taste of her confections. It is not just her love of chocolate that comes through in our time together. “[In culinary school], we only had four days of chocolate work, and my curiosity was ignited. So every job I took I asked what brand of chocolate they were using and how they were using it.”
Romriell’s curiosity has meant learning skills beyond just what she was taught through her formal education. She talks of spending years doing chocolate work on her own time when her jobs in hotels did not allow her to use her chocolate skills. “I have gotten so many ‘no’s in my career,” she shares. “The more ‘no’s I get, I want to figure out a way to get a ‘yes.’ I just don’t give up.”
Good things come in small packages, but sometimes those packages require tenacity. Romriell advises anyone looking to make a change in their career to take the time to get the education they need and find ways to get to a “yes,” even if it requires working side jobs or holding off when your friends go on exotic trips. “Do not accept no for an answer.”
Her inquisitive nature and ambition led Romriell to visit kitchens and restaurants around the world. Even now, as a successful chocolatier and business owner, she’s still learning and discovering new flavors. When she feels uninspired or fatigued, she takes time off to travel to learn from other master chefs. Rather than seeing competitors, she sees potential collaborators. The creativity of others “immediately ignites me because what they are and what they do for their community, that is what I want to do for mine.”
Romriell also takes great pleasure in surprising and delighting her customers with her unique flavor pairings. “I love hearing when my customers ask me, ‘How did you come up with those flavors?’ Or, ‘How did you learn about these ingredients if they’re from Asia or France?’” The ability to surprise even her most loyal customers every time, “it just ignites my passion to continue to do it.”
“We had Blue Bell cookies and cream ice cream every six to eight weeks, and only if we got excellent grades,” Romriell says. The memories in and around her childhood home have found their way into her chocolate flavors. “I had to include the cookies and cream into my [chocolate]collection. I am very fortunate to have had a happy childhood, so it made me happy to recreate those memories in my work.”
Her background shows up in other small ways. Romriell is Honduran American. But growing up in Houston’s vibrant and diverse food culture exposed her to all kinds of cuisine.
She loves Mexican street corn and pan dulce, having grown up surrounded by panaderias (Mexican bakeries). Romriell includes a tribute to her childhood neighborhood in bonbons infused with the flavors of Mexican street corn, “because it was my favorite after-school snack as a kid.”
She also works with the cacao found in her parents native Honduras. Bringing her full self into her work truly makes her creations special. Romriell inherited her parents’ adventurous spirits. They left Honduras in their early 20s to see another country and fell in love with Houston. Romriell left teaching to study to become a pastry chef, but those four lessons on chocolate were not enough. So, she traveled to Chicago to learn from Norman Love about making chocolates taste and look fantastic. “I love to travel to learn from master chefs; it’s an obsession. I am always thinking, ‘What more can I learn?’ When I learned about cassis, I wanted to travel to France to learn about other fruits I had never been exposed to.”
Her passion and excitement about exotic fruits and flavor combinations radiate through the computer screen. She talks excitedly about the differences between plated desserts and the challenges of bringing flavors, colors and textures to such a small plate.
Romriell even finds joy in the sometimes lengthy and tedious recipe creation process. “Working with flavors makes me happy even as I spend weeks tweaking a recipe to bring out the complex flavors of Mexican street corn and chocolate, but I cannot stop until I get it just right and my customers marvel at my ability to capture the joy of Mexican street corn in one small bite.”
Ironically, she says the simplest recipes are often the hardest to create. She exclaims, “There are only so many times you can tweak vanilla! But I love a challenge, and I never settle. I won’t sleep or eat until I am happy and I am sure my customers will be happy.”
Her cookies and cream bonbon did not come together until she discovered an Asian tea that had chocolate and coffee notes. “I had never heard of a tea that had chocolate notes. But when I smelled it, I was just like, ‘Oh, I bet this would taste really good with chocolate.’ So, I put 10 grams of that into my chocolate and cocoa nib sable, and suddenly this simple thing had a real wow factor.”
If you ask her customers, Romriell’s hard work pays off in every bite. One described her chocolates as “decadent, but not exclusive. Anyone can partake in her treats and feel like they’re taking a bite out of something luxurious.”
Romriell’s love for her work, her customers and her family emanates from her store, Cinful Sweets. Her shop is a welcoming place; her employees seem happy to be there working to bring their boss’s creations to life. “You can really feel the love Cinthya puts into her creations. [Time in her shop is] definitely a lovely and loving experience.”
Romriell loves making desserts, but like the rest of us she still has a preferred holiday home-cooked meal. “My mom’s tamales bring me joy. She makes them with beans and cotija cheese and then wraps them in banana leaves. It is the only dish that she makes that does not follow her usual pattern of quick and easy.”
Her mom’s tamales are special precisely because they take time and they are made with love. It is easy to disregard the small things in life. Christmas tamales, laughter over a cup of coffee on a rainy day, the hours studying toward a degree, the burnt brownies when attempting to create an epic recipe, the smiles of satisfied kids.
But these small moments often contain a quiet joy. There is a peace in knowing the small things can add up to big things. You could be making chocolate chip cookies and the day seems long. But maybe it leads to the thing you were always meant to do. Thrill multitudes with a small bite that took hours to perfect. Romriell’s story is a reminder that wonderful things often begin with small acts of kindness in the small moments between meetings or after work. There is joy to be found in these things. While not everyone will quit a job to chase flavors across the world like Cinthya Romriell, we can find joy in our passions and the small bites of our lives. They might not contain the perfect blend of Mexican corn and chocolate. But they will be sweet and exciting all the same.