How Recchiuti Confections Balances Populism and the Avant-Garde

And it’s got the world’s best-smelling walk-in fridge.

However mild it might actually be, the combination of star anise and pink peppercorn in a ganache tends to surprise people accustomed to butterscotch and fleur de sel caramels.

“There’s a group of people who like it,” says Michael Recchiuti, founder of Recchiuti Confections. “It does sell, and I’ve kept it on. I refuse to let it go. But if you look at our top 10, it doesn’t make the top 10 at all.”

In the age of unusual or deliberately provocative dessert creations, from Humphry Slocombe’s prosciutto ice cream to the once-obscure kouign amanns that are suddenly everywhere, that’s surprising to hear. (And it is truly mild — especially compared to a fig-and-pink-peppercorn one-off that “tasted like dirt.”)

But Recchiuti, one of San Francisco’s premier handmade confectioners, has always plowed ahead by staying innovative. As one of the American companies to use fresh infusions of herbs like lemon verbena — as opposed to buying jars of flavoring or monkeying around with alcohols — Recchiuti built a name for himself with quote-unquote weird pieces, like Tarragon Grapefruit.

A panning machine. (Peter Lawrence Kane)
A panning machine. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

That one emerged from an intermezzo sorbet course during a previous career as a pastry chef. But figuring out how to incorporate it into chocolate wasn’t like reinventing the wheel, Recchiuti says.

“People in the south of France use things from the south of France,” he says. “Like lavender: It’s in chocolate, in soap, in salt. They’re smart, they use what’s in the area. Here, there was so much available because it’s such a breadbasket. We had a lot to integrate.”

Although there are plenty of cool pieces of equipment — a gearhead of sorts, Recchiuti is pleased to show off the cast-iron feet of the 70-year-old panning machine that coats nuts with thin layers of chocolate a little at a time, and which he restored — the production facility in Dogpatch isn’t much like Willy Wonka’s factory. I get a peek at the robing machines and a collection of vats in which lemons are brining in a salt solution, but here there are no Oompah-Loompahs moralizing in rhyming couplets, and no lickable wallpaper. Technically speaking, this is also because it’s not a chocolate factory: That largely comes from Valrhona, which produces two custom dark-milk chocolate blends that Recchiuti purchases 15 tons at a time.

Even though he tries to avoid single-origin chocolates, which can vary dramatically from lot to lot, standardization can be a challenge. Take the tarragon, for instance.

”The proportions and ratios are based on the intensity,” Recchuiti says. “The farmers will say ‘This is a really potent batch. You might want to cut back about 15 percent.’ They give recommendations based on the growing season, how hot it was, hydration.”

Not being a mass-market retailer gives him a bit more wiggle room than, say, Mars has when producing 3 Musketeers — and a little more room to play. He’s taken a new approach to macarons — which are typically made from egg white, meringue, almond flour, and confectioner’s sugar — by subtracting the almond flour and adding cocoa nibs. And for an event called Killed by Dessert, he once made a labor-intensive asparagus truffle, candying the asparagus, running it through a mill, and folding in crème fraîche. To keep it from graying out, he threw in some tarragon, and then some lemon peel “to drive the asparagus flavor.”

“Once you candy things, you can start to lose the flavor,” he says.

(Peter Lawrence Kane)
(Peter Lawrence Kane)

To hear Recchiuti talk, it can almost sound as though money is no object. (This is particularly true if you happen to be eating one of his Piemonte hazelnut pieces — from out of the world’s best-smelling walk-in refrigerator — as he speaks.)

“If it’s something that we want, we’ll just buy it,” he says. “I can get tarragon from any farm but I really like Mariquita Farm, so I buy it from them. Or I can buy boxes from China at 10 cents a box, but I’ll pay $2 a box because they’re in California. Same box. There’s an ethical piece to how I work, and I like to keep local businesses in business.”

When I ask if the world of confections operates like coffee, with a first, second, and third wave, Recchiuti agrees, categorizing his business as third-wave. And it’s in expansion mode: The company will open a new building on Fourth Street in Berkeley in 2017, and revamp its flagship store in the Ferry Building in the spring.

He has some kind words for long-standing players like Guittard — “they have really good ethics, and they haven’t strayed from what they believe in” — and peers like Christopher Elbow, who works out of Kansas City but who has a shop in Hayes Valley, but notes that the field has gotten considerably crowded since he got his start.

“When we got into it, 20 years ago, there was a lot of opportunity,” he says. “Now, I wouldn’t want to start a chocolate business — you’re stacked up against a lot of people. We’re trying not to make ourselves look like the Jurassic Chocolate Makers, but at the same time, I see that everybody’s trying to create weird flavors all the time. That gets lost, because the true craft is that you take the chocolate and not some weird flavor that masks the chocolate.”

If at first that sounds contradictory — what about that asparagus truffle? — it actually reveals something of a populist streak. Recchiuti makes cardamom nougat and cassis strata pieces, but also plays with variations of nostalgic candies. A Philadelphia native, he made his own version of Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews (which are likely only known to people who grew up in the Eastern Time Zone) as well as Junior Mints.

(Peter Lawrence Kane)
(Peter Lawrence Kane)

“We try not to go into the wackiness,” he says. “I just wanted to do things that people could relate to: marshmallows, peanut butter cups, s’mores. You can kind of see what people like.”

We’re still in the walk-in at this point, sampling with abandon. Recchiuti crosses out the number 198 and write 196 over it as we share two pieces of candied orange peel, and he starts extolling the virtues of that hazelnut again.

“There’s nothing like a Piemonte hazelnut,” he says. “They’re really small with a smoky, woody flavor. Oregon nuts I like, but they’re really fatty and a little more floral. I got into a big fight up in Oregon when I did a tasting. The guy who owned the store actually walked out. He was yelling at me: ‘All the other chocolate makers are using them.’ But I defended myself.”

“There’s too much fat migration, and it penetrated through the chocolate shell,” Recchiuti adds. “I didn’t want to say that mine are better than yours.”

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