1943 State Street
Tim Kellogg is a Meeteetse ranch hand and bronc rider who is building an international reputation as a maker of fine chocolates. His chocolate shop is on Meeteetse’s rustic main drag in the old Broken Spoke Café building. Our correspondent caught up with Kellogg in Paris, where he was attending the prestigious Salon du Chocolat.
Story by Gene Tempest
Photographs by Brad Christensen and Gene Tempest
PARIS— “You can’t have a poker face when you’re eating,” Tim Kellogg told me expressively over an excellent raspberry-filled chocolate. “What’s the point of eating if you can’t show emotion? That’s why I love the Parisian cab drivers.”
I first met Kellogg on October 16 in a café above a busy roundabout—Place Edmond Rostand—adjacent to the Luxembourg Gardens. We sat by the window upstairs in the Dalloyau tea room, where I ordered an espresso and Kellogg hot chocolate (he doesn’t like coffee), and we shared a few chocolate samples from downstairs. It was a busy, grey autumn day and below us were plenty of furious taxis to watch.
Kellogg, who had once hoped to become a celebrated rodeo bronc rider, is Meeteetse’s lone, and increasingly famous, chocolatier. He began selling chocolates to buy a coveted saddle, and the rodeo community is supportive; his riding coach lives by the credo, “You do what you have to do to rodeo.”
“I am a terrible bronc rider,” Kellogg admitted. Instead, he is known all over the West for his chocolates. At one time, he had imagined rodeo fans seeking his autograph; today, customers sometimes ask him to sign the boxes of truffles they have purchased. He also ships his creations internationally– mostly to Army Post Offices in the Middle East, but also to Britain and, once, to France.
The chocolatier was breathing hard. He had walked from the Courtyard Marriott in Neuilly, some 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) away from the Luxembourg Gardens. In Meeteetse, where he has worked eight years (he has the least seniority) as a hand on the 11,000-acre M.C. Land and Cattle Ranch, he routinely walks from the ranch to his State Street chocolaterie.
“The ranch is eight miles away if you follow the creek, twelve miles if you take the road,” he said. “People think I’m crazy because I walk places.” But in Paris, he observed, walking is the best way to get to know the city.
Kellogg is a trim, neat man, whose youthful grin is popular with female customers. He looks a bit like a taller Tom Cruise who has spent time working in the sun and in the kitchen, and whose fanatical beliefs relate to excellent chocolate, responsible ranching and consuming, and, above all, to quality.
This was Kellogg’s second trip to Paris. His first was in 2000 after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder with degrees in business and environmental economics. This time, he came at the invitation of the Salon du Chocolat, an international conference for chocolatiers held in Paris in October.
The Salon comes in two flavors, one professional and one public, and occupies two floors in the exposition center at the Porte de Versailles in southern Paris. The location is particularly appropriate: the building itself looks like an enormous opéra—an extremely stylish, rectangular pastry composed of an almond biscuit base layered with ganache and mocha buttercream and thinly glazed with bittersweet chocolate.
Though invited to display, Kellogg attended as a scholar.
“I am taking ideas and chocolate home from the Salon,” he said, “but mostly ideas.”
Superior chocolate-making– even in the vast halls of the Parisian exposition center, sometimes home to car shows– still feels like a guild craft. During our interview, Kellogg took out his Blackberry and showed me some photographs he had taken of the Chocolate Masters’ competition in the professional Salon.
“I am not in the same league with these people, but I see myself as on the path to getting there,” he said.
When he first started five years ago, he needed five to six pounds of chocolate to make two dozen truffles. “I don’t think they were edible,” he adds.
Chocolate-making is famous for its unforgiving learning curve. Kellogg jokes that when he started his business, if he’d taken all the bets against him at the Meeteetse bar, he could retire today.
“I know who I am. If I’m passionate about something I’ll make it work,” he said. “It’s great that so many doubted me. My mom says that success is the best revenge. They doubted me, but who could have known? I would have bet against me.”
Today, Kellogg can make 800 chocolates in a couple of hours. Some of his many customers think he’s outgrown the town of 351 in northwest Wyoming. Occasionally, they kindly tell him that he needs to move to the city.
“Who says Denver is the only place allowed to have good dessert?” he responds, “Part of the charm of the store is location. It’s a complete package. I make chocolate in an old saloon.
The public Salon du Chocolat in Paris was crowded on the Friday evening I visited. Hundreds of vendors– from small, provincial French chocolatiers to industrial behemoths like Nestlé (anxiously rebranding in an attempt to capitalize on the growing international luxury chocolate market)– exhibited all types of chocolates, some traditional, some not.
This year, a big presence was the chocolate-dipped spoon for home-made “true” hot chocolate drinks. A bloc of chocolate is melted, then allowed to solidify on the bowl of a wooden spoon, something like a chocolate lollipop. Meticulous (and often illustrated) instructions explain how a consumer should first microwave a glass of milk and then stir the chocolate-dipped spoon therein. One model featured an attached vial of rum.
Another newcomer to the Salon is a pseudo-chocolate called Whif, a chocolate inhaler (“inhalateur de chocolat”), essentially chocolate-flavored air in a complex plastic cigarette. A sales representative who was dressed like a 1960s stewardess explained that you puff on the chocolate in little drags (“petites bouffées”). The vendors did not comment on whether being a smoker was an advantage in using a Whif. Asked if children under a certain age should be kept away from the chocolate inhalation device, representatives responded that it is not recommended for children under two.
Nestlé won the 2009 Design and Innovation Prize, for its chocolate tablet shaped like a single side of a skateboard park’s half-pipe. Nestlé officials claim that this shape “better dissolves the cacao in the mouth.”
For some of the larger vendors, the Salon can be a stage on which to test the appeal of new products. It is therefore also a good place to study chocolate’s new directions.
Kellogg was especially interested in researching organic chocolates. In the future, he would like to move to an organic line.
“That’s the next step,” he says. “It’s nice to make contacts. If they do ship internationally then I could get it later.” Right now he uses Callebaut chocolate from Belgium, which he gets through a distributor in Cody. “Their stuff is stable and consistent, and that’s very important.”
Kellogg likens chocolate to wine: “There are different varietals, like Burgundy, Cabernet, Merlot.” He talks about “flavor profiles” and explains that milk chocolate is almost like caramel in flavor, while Swiss is “very milky.”
These subtleties are best appreciated in high-quality chocolates. American chocolate-maker Hershey produces chocolates with an unimpressive cacao content of 20 to 35
percent. Kellogg’s milk chocolate has a higher cacao content than average Nestlé chocolates. His chocolates also have no preservatives; while commercial chocolates can last six to eight months, Kellogg’s are meant to be eaten within a week.
The Meeteetse chocolatier explained some other differences between his truffles and mass-produced commercial variants. A truffle, named for the elusive and expensive mushroom, is by definition hand made and hand dipped, is not just any rounded, filled chocolate confection. A Kellogg truffle is the real thing, which means it’s made with dark chocolate and filled with ganache (dark chocolate melted in hot, heavy cream, cooled and whipped). Mass manufacturers may add corn syrup to their “truffles” to increase shelf life, and American chocolate houses often add sugar as well.
A few decades ago, it would have been harder for Kellogg to specialize in European-style chocolate. Americans for a long time did not like their chocolate to taste like chocolate. Today, this is changing, and Kellogg is both a missionary and a beneficiary. He admits to “converting people [to] darker and darker [chocolate].”
Kellogg’s passion for traditional methods and quality ingredients is well-timed, with “slow” and local food movements gaining in popularity here. Kellogg does not rush his chocolate products, even the seemingly simplest.
It takes Kellogg a full six minutes to make a single hot chocolate drink. He uses organic milk and melted chocolate, and produces something remarkably different from what is normally available in the instant economy.
Kellogg is also trying to make his business environmentally responsible, aiming at “zero waste.” He told me that he produces only one bag of trash every seven to nine days.
Kellogg’s works are personal creations, reflecting their maker even in the fact that there are no nuts in any of them (he is allergic to nuts). The Meeteetse Chocolatier is an intensely local business, and celebrates this in sage, huckleberry, Coors, and Jack Daniels truffles.
Kellogg also works with a Meeteetse Master Gardener, who grows many of the herbs he uses in his chocolates. Recently, Kellogg has started to make his own butter.
“Godiva is fantastic, but you can get that anywhere,” Kellogg says. “What could be more Western or more Wyoming? That’s what makes the business.”
Kellogg strives for an overt connection to place, even in his packaging. His truffle boxes are tied with baling twine: “Every ranch has it,” he laughs. People have told him that seeing his signature plain, brown, corrugated- paper chocolate box on the table is like spotting a Tiffany’s turquoise jewelry box. “It’s like the blue box–that kind of anticipation,” customers say.
Kellogg’s chocolates are seasonal. For the Meeteetse Chocolatier, this means no holiday chocolates appear before the calendar permits, despite customers’ pleas. In February, many beg, “Come on, it’s after Valentine’s Day, where are the eggs?” His is a sales policy out of an older tradition.
In France, though this is sadly beginning to change, the beautiful displays in the vitrines of the chocolateries used to be perfect indicators of the season and even the date: chocolate chestnuts meant autumn; bells, Christmas; fish were for April Fool’s Day, and eggs announced Easter Sunday. This leads to a different relationship to time, as well as to consumption. Instead of stock-piling Christmas chocolate at the end of October, customers buy their treats a few days before the holiday.
“You’re not buying postage stamps, you’re buying chocolate,” Kellogg explains. Respecting his product, Kellogg also refuses to ship chocolates after Easter, when the heat could, in his opinion, render them unfit for consumption.
Kellogg’s American chocolate converts also initially needed to get used to paying European, artisanal prices. Kellogg remembers a telling incident in Cody a year ago: a woman picked up a coconut truffle from his booth and said, “$1.50 for this?” The chocolatier explained that the truffle was handmade–by him–with the finest ingredients, but she remained skeptical. Until she took a bite.
“Her eyes rolled into the back of her head,” Kellogg remembers. “I got her!” She left with half a dozen of his truffles.
Kellogg firmly believes that if he can get people to try his chocolate, they’ll love it.
“This is why I put up with the gimmicks, and the show-business part of the store,” he says.
Kellogg’s experience as a businessman is exemplary in an old-fashioned way. For example, he has never gone into debt. From the beginning, he used his profits to run the store. His first pans were from Target, and his first location, a rental, was “the size of a dorm room.” It took him almost three years to work up to opening six days a week. Only on Memorial Day weekend 2006, did he at last “decide to go all in.”
After renting two different spaces, Kellogg bought the building that formerly housed Meeteetse’s Broken Spoke Café, where his chocolaterie is today. He now has several employees, but he is the only one in the kitchen. “When people eat my stuff, it’s me on the line,” he acknowledges.
His front-of-the-store employees are essential, however, because some of his creations require constant attention. “You walk away from caramel and you’ll probably burn the building down,” he said.
Kellogg’s well-deserved success is of his own making, but is also due to family recipes. Unlike almost all the big names in international chocolate, Kellogg has no formal training, only “the school of trial and error,” but he did have a grandmother, Anna Hunchar.
Mrs. Hunchar did not think that her cooking was remarkable, Kellogg explained, “that’s just what she did.” He smiled as he remembered one Thanksgiving when she made a turkey, a ham, and a pot roast, so that there would be something for everyone. Her chocolates were family favorites.
But in the 1990s, Mrs. Hunchar developed Parkinson’s Disease and had to stop cooking. Kellogg was afraid that all her recipes and treats would disappear, so he began making chocolates for the family, usually around the holidays.
His grandmother died before he opened the Meeteetse Chocolatier, but Kellogg’s mother passed on to him, from her inheritance, Mrs. Hunchar’s recipes and her white Kitchen Aid standing mixer.
“There is no check in the world that could have equaled the value of that Kitchen Aid mixer,” Kellogg said. “It’s like my grandmother is in the kitchen with me.”
I asked Kellogg what it was like to be a chocolatier in a small town in Wyoming.
He said he does not feel isolated. He subscribes to Chocolatier Magazine (recently combined with Dessert Professionals), and the internet is his primary link to the cacao world: “I bookmark a lot of chocolatiers from around the world and see what they are doing.”
He also watches “a lot” of Food Network. He remembers an interview with a famous New York chocolatier. The man said, “It drives me nuts when people say ‘What nice candy.’ It’s not candy, it’s chocolate.” Kellogg was delighted. “That’s my soul brother,” he thought.
This time when Kellogg arrived in Paris, he “made a bee-line” to the nearest boulangerie.
“I have some ideas about how to make my pastries more European,” he confides. (He already offers customers pain chocolat, cheesecake, and brownies, among other treats.)
He believes that Americans dislike the French because they’re still French and still have a recognizable culture.
“What does it mean to be American anymore?” he mused.
The last time he visited Paris, he passed a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant with a line of American tourists out the door. Kellogg ate down the street at an “amazing” Italian bistro. “Open your eyes,” he thought. Kellogg said that his parents always told him “the world is your home, home is not your world.”
“When you travel you have to absorb this,” he says, “This is where you see the true Paris. Prada and Louis Vuitton on the Champs-Elysées: that’s Paris, but it’s not Paris–like 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive.”
“I like the outer areas more,” he said. “There, you’re left alone to do your own thing. That’s the fun of coming to a city like this. That’s why people come to Wyoming, too.”
Open Sunday 11AM-5PM; Tuesday -Thursday, 10AM-6PM; Friday & Saturday, 10AM-7PM. Closed Monday.
Gene Tempest is a graduate student in military and French history at Yale University and is in Paris researching her dissertation, “Horse Power on the Western Front: The Mobilization, Deployment and Treatment of Horses in the German, French and British Armies, 1914-1934.” Her favorite Meeteetse Chocolatier truffle is sage.
Photographs by Brad Christensen