Guest Blog: Kevin Wenzel
I’m going out to the opening weekend of Choctoberfest, the month-long Chocolate extravaganza held annually in Hico, Texas (about an hour and a half outside of Austin). I caught up with Kevin Wenzel of Wiseman House Chocolate, the chocolatier who started the event, to get some insight on the fest, and on his shop.
What is the most exciting thing right now about chocolate in Texas?
Texans have discretionary income unlike some parts of the US and it allows for affordable luxuries and thus support of high quality foods like artisan chocolates and bean to bar makers. We have such good quality products here in Texas that have been sustainable.
What did you do before you started making chocolates, and how did you transition into becoming a chocolatier?Or, given your background, was chocolate always something you were interested in?
I studied visual art in University and overseas in the Orient the Eastern Europe as it was opening up in the 90’s. It was really my new friends in Eastern Europe that help me appreciate chocolate when they had very little else. Back then I was a vanilla guy who loved playing with flavors and I felt vanilla was a comfortable canvas with which to play and layer flavors, so when I was moving towards dark chocolate I need to punch up the flavors and be brighter or to rethink the layers of flavor so they would float in the middle and on top.
What is your philosophy behind your chocolates, and how you choose flavor profiles? (Why are many of your products gluten free? Any favorite origins to work with? Any favorite pieces of equipment?)
I have always wanted our chocolates to be accessible to everyone. Anyone can enjoy some of the world’s best chocolates for less than seven dollars:affordable luxuries. Even if chocolate truffles are not their thing we have a variety to choose. Some of the things that inspire me when making something new: season and fresh ingredients of the season, new local whiskeys, traveling and finding new to me foods, or remembering and interpreting food of my youth.
Nearly everything in the store is gluten free as I have a son that is gluten intolerant so I keep everything gluten free in case he or anyone else wants to try something. One item that is not is the double dipped malt balls because they are so yummy and gluten is part of malt I can’t remove the gluten. I don’t advertise which products are vegan or gluten free or organic chocolate[we do have an instore menu] because in Hico we don’t care if it is a clean and organic label. We mostly care if it’s delicious and happens to all be gluten free etc. besides being clean with no artificial flavors, colors, etc etc.
Tell us about your team. How do you all work together?
We celebrate birthdays, when people matriculate onto their next life step, eat together and pray for each other. Life happens and we are supporting and celebrating as go. I am harder on myself than those I work with so I suppose it makes a nice work environ.
How do you conceptualize a new truffle or toffee flavor?
New flavors are usually conceptualized cognitively, picturing and tasting before I grab ingredients or start to cook. I try not to get hung up on what’s in my mind and what turns out of the pan. I make I cook I experiment and experiment. I polish the flavors a little at a time until they have been fully realized.
What is one thing most people don’t know/realize/understand about the toffee making process?
Well they will need to take a class to find out. One tip is not to work it but only to spread it once and then let it set up; don’t work it until it’s perfectly flat and even all the way across, it is one of several ways that makes toffee stick to the teeth because they are then making taffy instead of toffee.
What are some of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do/places you’ve gotten to go because of chocolate?
Chocolate has open many door for me including Washington DC presidential inauguration of 2009 which included first time visit to Mount Vernon, meeting television and newspaper personalities, and being looked at like I was somebody special. I could get very proud, but then I have family and dirty dishes that keep me humble. There have been times in the last twenty years that I needed something done or a mistake corrected and bringing our chocolates and a warm smile often eased our way passed the problem.
What is the best chocolate dessert you ever tasted?
I still love the simple chocolate eclair, that is more about pastry texture and vanilla cream. When I was fifteen and my sister twelve we worked at my father’s deli and sausage kitchen. One particular time an order of chocolate eclairs came in that was amiss delivery. My father said we could eat all we wanted and boy did we, it was two an hour if not more and I still think it was one of the best memories. The pastry wasn’t wet from the pastry cream and the chocolate not to sweet, for a fifteen year old it was the perfect dessert all day long. The chocolate eclair was my fifteen self version of a really great creme brulee.