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Sweet rise of Savannah’s artisan chocolatier

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POSTED: December 6, 2012 11:28 a.m.
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Chocolat by Adam Turoni opened in October

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If life is really like a box of chocolates, then please Lord, let them be made by Adam Turoni.

The Pennsylvania native opened Chocolat by Adam Turoni in October, showcasing his exquisite line of original confections: Bacon–flecked toffee. Gold–dusted truffles. Sea salt–flaked caramels filled with local honey. Could one do better than to compare our enigmatic existence to these edible jewels?

Located on the west end of Broughton Street, the whimsical retail space also serves as Turoni’s workshop. He can often be seen wielding a wooden spoon as shoppers browse, collecting their candies on silver trays. Melding a formal culinary education with giddy adoration for innovative ingredients, Turoni approaches his craft with the passion of an artist and the skill of a scientist.

“Chocolate is a challenge, and I love challenges,” grins the dapper chocolatier, dressed in dark yellow chinos and a crisp oxford shirt. “I make a lot of work for myself, but it’s worth it to see people’s faces.”

Case in point: In front of the marble counter, he carefully prepares a cup of his signature hot chocolate — a creamy chocolate spoon stirred into  steamed milk — and waits patiently for it to melt. Then he tops it with a few shavings of fresh nutmeg, followed by a crumble from a rosy block of Himalayan sea salt.

“There aren’t many industries that make people light up as they come in the door,” he says, satisfied as his visitor sips with a squeal. “Giving people instant gratification, it never gets old.

Though he talks animatedly about molecular gastronomy and habeñero peppers, Turoni traces his enthusiasm back to where many have discovered their sweet tooth: In his grandmother’s kitchen.

“We would drink tea and bake cookies and stay up decorating them until three or four o’ clock in the morning,” he recalls with a smile. “From there, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

At just 23, Turoni may appear an ingenue in the culinary scene, but his chops have been refined for almost a decade: He got his first restaurant job at the questionably legal age of 14, working on the pastry line of the renowned Isabella restaurant through his high school’s tech program. At 17, he was promoted to head pastry chef. He left after graduation to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York City, where he studied with chocolate pioneer and James Beard Award winner Peter Greweling.

Greweling was working on his second cookbook and invited Turoni and a handful of others students to help with early morning research–and–development sessions before class — an experience that crystallized the young chef’s interest in the dark ambrosia: “We’d brew our coffee, put on some music, and work in complete silence. It was life–changing.”

During his CIA internship, Turoni also spent six months in the San Francisco Bay Area studying with another culinary hero: the legendary Alice Waters. The Chez Panisse chef, who spearheaded the farm–to–table movement and revolutionized America’s fine dining scene with her insistence on fresh, seasonal ingredients, made a lasting impression.

“She changed people’s ideas about food and showed them how important community is,” says Turoni, who keeps a framed photo of himself and Waters in his office. “I learned how to shop locally, to value quality over mass production.”

True to his mentor’s values, he began forging relationships with local suppliers the day he arrived in Savannah with the aim to become the city’s only artisanal chocolatier. Using honey from the Savannah Bee Company and coffee beans from PERC, he quickly built a wholesale business: Local chocolate connoisseurs already know Turoni’s delectable work from Wright Square Café, where he supplied the shelves for several years. Working out of a DeSoto Row kitchen in the Starland District, his comrades were custom coffee roaster Phillip Brown and independent wine dealer Christian Depken of Le Chai.

“We would sit and talk about food twenty four–seven,” he laughs.

Turoni also made the rounds on the private party circuit, enticing the city’s most influential palates. He created a special music–themed candy for the Savannah Philharmonic and found a fan in ice cream mogul Stratton Leopold, who introduced him to Paula Deen. Recognizing Turoni’s talents, Deen persuaded her producers to include him on an episode of her Food Network show, and sells his bonbons in her Congress Street shop.

“I think if you surround yourself with people who are inspiring and want to succeed, you’re going to achieve your goals,” he reflects.

As demand grew, Turoni knew there was a retail market for his wares. After years of bartending in between gigs, he finally amassed the capital to open his dream shop. He signed the lease a few days before his 22nd birthday, and his grandma was there on opening day, wrapping caramels and tying ribbons.

“I spent two years doing wholesale and that gave me time to build the brand,” Turoni says, pointing out a shimmery piece of almond bark in the shape of a lion’s head, a mold he created from an antique doorknob. “I’ve worked so hard, there was nothing to be scared about.”

Longtime Savannah tastemaker Alexandra Trujillo de Taylor (who designs under the nom de guerre Duchess of State) helped him choose clean gray walls and empty frames, setting off the space with green turf grass and a chimerical grandfather clock. It evokes at once a vibrant modernity and the elegant air of a classic French salon, what might have transpired if Willy Wonka had been a Brooklyn hipster.

As the holidays approach, he’s been logging late nights in the shop to keep the antique cabinets filled with seasonal delights like the Spiked Eggnog, a tiny white chocolate cup filled with mousse and sprinkled with fresh–grated nutmeg, finished with a tiny chocolate straw. There are also the perennial favorites to stock, including his ever–popular roasted fig–and–cognac truffles. And no matter what the foodies in New York sniff about bacon being “over,” no one can seem to get enough of his Bacon Butter Pecan Toffee.

But Turoni is young and full of energy for chocolate, buzzing to keep pushing Savannah’s sweet tooth forward. While not every experiment goes well (a root beer truffle remains elusive), he hopes to perfect a champagne treat that retains its flavor. And though his speedy success has already spawned requests for expansion, he remains level–headed.

“I’m not trying to be a millionaire. Maybe I’ll open another store someday, but it’s not about the money,” he says thoughtfully, stirring his chocolate spoon in a china teacup.

“It’s about keeping up with people’s demand for instant gratification — and giving it to them.”

 

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