Living the Sweet Life: What It's Really Like to Be a Chocolatier

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what their job entails. This week, chef Sandra Abballe, founder of Succulent Chocolates and Sweets, tells us about her path to becoming a chocolatier

Becoming a chocolatier: Sandra Abballe, owner of Succulent Chocolates

Age: 30

Education: Bachelor of technology in graphic communications management from Toronto’s Ryerson University and diploma in L’Art de la Pâtisserie from The French Pastry School in Chicago

Length of time as a professional chocolatier: I worked as a pastry chef since 2011 and I started my business, Succulent Chocolates, in 2012 [the same year that she was chosen to compete at the Canadian pre-selection for the World Chocolate Masters, where she won Canada’s Best Bonbon for her “The Crunchy Apple” chocolate]

A lot of people love candy, but what made you realize that you wanted to make chocolate professionally?

I’ve always been a bit obsessed with chocolate. I used to hide it under my bed when I was a kid because I didn’t want my mom to find it—which of course she always did. But I remember growing up and being fascinated with chocolate and the feeling that it provides to people. After I went through pastry school—and being exposed to a lot of different mediums, like bread, ice cream and gelato—I realized that I wanted to specialize in chocolate.

Why did you originally start out in graphic communications?

I wanted to take more of a traditional path. Arts and graphic design, photography, layout—all of that is my second passion, my first of course being in the kitchen. I figured I was still doing something creative that I loved.

What made you decide to switch gears and go to school for pastry-making?

After I graduated from Ryerson, I was working in marketing and I got that itch. I thought, Can I really see myself doing this for the rest of my life? Since I still had a passion for the kitchen, I decided to go and volunteer once a week at a bakery. That is probably the best decision I ever made at that point in my life because I was exposed to what the life of a professional pastry chef would be. The Food Network glamourizes that life. Loving to bake is one thing, but you don’t realize how much work and how exhausting it is and how much repetition there is in a kitchen until you’re there doing it. It’s one thing to make cookies at home and you’re making a couple of batches for your family, and it’s another thing to make cookies for 12 hours straight. I quickly realized that, but I loved it. Working at the bakery was the highlight of my week. It was exhausting, it was a lot of hard work, especially coming from a desk job, but it was invigorating.

Why baking versus cooking?

I grew up in an Italian household, so I would often bake with my grandmother when I was young. I learned alongside her. I just find something calming about being in a kitchen, following a recipe and a couple hours later you have a creation to show for it, and that creation brings joy and happiness to the people that you’re sharing it with.

Becoming a Chocolatier: Sandra Abballe Succulent Chocolates bonbons

What does a typical work day at the chocolate lab entail for you?

When I come in, I look at the production board to see what we’re making that day. I have a fantastic team, and they’re able to facilitate the production. I step in and help them, taste test and I do the R&D but they’re handling the majority of the day-to-day structure. My goal right now is to just expand our market and increase our branding and sales.

What are your hours like?

My production teams works 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. I’m an entrepreneur so I work a little bit longer than that. I don’t think I have a typical day. Sometimes I’ll stay until 10 p.m. to meet a bride or a client for a special event because they can’t meet during work hours. My hours are all over the place—and that’s okay. I get to choose when I want to work.

Do you have a favourite chocolate?

That’s like asking someone to pick their favourite child! It depends on what I’m feeling that day. If I want something a bit more fruity then I will go for our black currant, also known as cassis. If I want something a bit more sweet and savoury, I will go for a salted caramel, and then we’re always coming up with new flavours. We just launched maple syrup, icewine and apple pie for Canada day. I can’t choose just one.

What’s your most popular chocolate?

Salted caramel.

How do you keep your chocolates modern and different?

We pack a lot of flavour into a really small bite. You know those old school boxes of chocolate? We wanted to take that concept and blow it completely out of the water. We want you to really bite into it and have your senses be awakened with a natural flavour. We also hand-paint our chocolates and infuse colour into the pops and the bars, so they’re really quite vibrant.

Do you ever get sick of chocolate? 

The beautiful thing about chocolate, which is why I chose this specific medium of pastry to work with, is that it’s so versatile. We’re always doing something a little bit different and then it just depends on the occasion. I just launched a new line specifically for weddings and special event favours which includes brand-new chocolate lollipops. They’re really beautiful. We’re infusing them with red fruits and herbs, and beautiful gold accents, that have a vintage flare to them, so there’s always something fun and exciting to work on. We never get bored of chocolates.

You’ve been recognized as a trailblazer in this industry, but as a woman, did you ever face any challenges?

Yes absolutely. In the world of chocolate, there is not an equal platform just yet for women and we’re still seeing a big shift in that capacity. For example, after I won Canada’s Best Bonbon, I went to Paris to watch the World Chocolate Masters in 2013. Out of the ten countries that were being represented across the world, only two countries were being represented by females. So there is still a very big gender gap, and a lot of more room for improvement in this industry, whether it’s in chocolate or the grander scheme of just pastry and culinary. Now that being said, there are some amazing women in my field that are really leading the way and we’re starting to see the shift with more magazines honouring women in food and focusing on female chefs. However, there is still work that needs to get done.

What advice do you have for women who want to consider this as a career path?

First and foremost make sure you love it. You have to live and breathe it to be in the hospitality industry in any capacity, and specifically in the kitchen. And secondly, be your true authentic self. A lot of times, food is a reflection of who we are. That’s why it’s so personal. I often want to put out a dish or a chocolate because of someone’s advice, but I also like to put a little twist on it. You have to be true to yourself and how you view that dish or that chocolate or that flavour.

How do you unwind at the end of the day?

It’s really important to have a balance of work to life, but as an entrepreneur, I don’t think you’ll ever find a true balance. There’s going to be some insane weeks and other weeks where you have a little bit more flexibility and can focus on other aspects of your life. That being said, on a day-to-day basis it’s nice to have a little bit of time to unplug. With our phones, it’s so easy to continue working , check your emails and Instagram. There’s always a million and one things to do, so how do I unwind after a day like that? I go home where I have a fantastic family that supports me. I am very fortunate because my future husband loves to cook so he spoils me by cooking me dinner often. In the morning, I carve out some time for myself to meditate and remind myself what my goals are.

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