In the Chocolate Lab with Michelle Boykins
Michelle Boykins has a hearty chuckle that rings throughout her kitchen. In front of her are bags on bags of chocolate that she uses to create her truffles. The chocolate was made in Belgium, she told me, “They’ve been making chocolate since 1911, so I figured they might know what they’re doing.”
When Michelle talks about chocolate, you figure for yourself that she might know a thing or two about chocolate as well. She’s spouting off facts, percentage of dark vs. milk chocolate, the different texture vegan or white chocolate brings to the truffle.
“Chocolate can be any flavor you need it to be. Just like a lab, the periodic table is like that too. There are so many different elements that go into making a good truffle.”
While people have their preferences, one of Michelle’s goals is to inform others of the sweet treat. “People come in and say, ‘Oh I don’t like dark chocolate,’ no-“ Michelle firmly states, “you don’t like that generic dark chocolate. Real chocolate doesn’t leave an overwhelming bitter taste in your mouth.”
“Chocolate is kind of like money,” she says rubbing her two fingers together, as if two magic green bills are in her hands, “you smile when you talk about it.” Then she points to me and laughs, “see you did for a second when I brought it up.”
When Michelle talks about her culinary journey, she goes through the different levels of baking. “I’m not a baker,” she said, “I don’t do cakes, and I’m not big on bread. I don’t have the patience for bread. But this-(referring to the chocolate) this I temper by hand.” She doesn’t use machines or have multiple hands on deck. In the privacy of her kitchen, she measures, melts, shapes, and tempers her chocolate all by herself.
“It’s relaxing to work with, it’s a cool medium.” She says drizzling the sweet goodness up and down with her spoon, “I have more patience working with this than any other job I’ve had, but it kind of took a life of itself. I just woke up one day and thought, ‘alright, I’m doing this.”
Chocolate is universal. It’s something you could buy with your allowance as a kid, a Hersey bar or Snickers, whatever was in the front lines of the grocery checkout counter. But now chocolate has transformed itself into a luxury. One of Michelle’s favorite stories is of a woman who visited her table at Williams Sonoma at the Summit in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I have a lot of moms that are my regulars,” she says fondly. You can see the vision of a mother and her son, walking through the door of Williams Sonoma, peeping their head around the corner to see Michelle with her sign. “It’s chocolate,” the woman said before turning to her son and pointing to a spot at the back of the store, “go find your father.”
“Chocolate is kind of like money, you smile when you talk about it.”
Once she got her son to leave, she approached the table and peeked over her shoulder, “Are they gone?” she said as if she and Michelle were on a top-secret mission. Michelle nodded swiftly. As the mother completed the transaction she slipped the patty paper of chocolate truffles into her purse and patted the top of it, “This is for me,” and Michelle knew what she meant. Her children could have the dollar fifty bars at the local grocery store, but that chocolate that was handcrafted right here in Birmingham? That was her special treat, and no one would take it from her.
It’s been a year since Michelle crafted her chocolate-coated lab. As she looks back on all of the places she has been on her culinary journey, one place still comes to mind. It’s a fond memory, one she’s proud of, even if she didn’t get to fulfill that part of her dream.
When Michelle graduated from culinary school she had one career goal in mind, the one that would take her to the top. “Harrods department store in London,” she beams. If you’ve ever been to the infamous department store in the United Kingdom, you can understand why she would light up in such a way. Harrods defines luxury shopping. You walk the glimmering halls and see names like Alexander McQueen, Burberry, CHANEL, and more, then you reach the lower levels and you see the halls of specially handcrafted food prepared in the kitchen.
“I wanted to be a pastry chef there. So after I graduated I sent them my application. I got a letter back saying that they would love to interview me the next time I was in London,” she pauses for a moment, “It took two years for them to send me that letter.”
Although Michelle did not grace the kitchens of Harrods, she has found a home in Birmingham. She thinks of all of the women who helped her where she is today, running her own business, and finding an unexpected passion for chocolate.
As women in the South, we know that we have to do what we need to do, and take care of each other along the way
“There’s more synergy now with women in the South.” she said, “The synergy is there to help. Like, we just look at each other and go, ‘we’re doing this!’” She brings to mind a few of the women that move her forward, many of the restaurants she caters to are co-owned by women, “which wasn’t there when I initially went to culinary school. As women in the South, we know that we have to do what we need to do, and take care of each other along the way.”
When she thinks of a woman who has inspired her the most, she thinks of her mom. “She didn’t cook every day, but we had a home-cooked meal every day.” But Michelle wanted to emphasize that, “Saturdays were her day off, ‘I’m not cookin’ she’d say,” Michelle laughs, a glossy texture covers her eyes as she remembers those summer days in Florida where she grew up. Both of her parents have since passed away, but she likes to remember that her father had seen her get this far, “At first all I wanted was burgers, but then we got bored, and I was in that kitchen and I just wanted to do something, make something more than that.”
“I’d say, “well I want nachos, I want lasagna,’ and my mother would say, ‘well your father won’t eat that, but you can make it for us.’” So that became the routine.
Michelle and her mother would make their father a separate meal, one that fit his palette, and she would form her own tests for the rest of the family. “It was always a small dish,”
Michelle gestured with her hands as she’s ladling the chocolate with her spoon.
I’m watching the wavy chocolate swirl around in that silver bowl, the tempered dessert delectable enough to lick right off the spoon. “As soon as I was able to drive, mom would hand me the list and say, ‘here’s a check, get whatever you want.”
She spends what feels like hours talking about what she cooked up in the kitchen from her childhood home. Stir Fry, spaghetti, and in the summertime, “Oh man, in the summertime,” she said, “We wanted to grill. I want a barbecue. So I’m making my own, I seasoned it, marinated it, whatever we had, and it would be me out there on the grill.”
Michelle was just a kid then. Basking in that hundred-degree heat, doing what she wanted to do: cook.
Now chocolate is a bit different from Stir Fry or grilling. I had asked her what sparked her interest in making chocolate.
“It came from a dream,” she said, “One morning I just woke up and I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do.”
She remembered her lessons from culinary school, how it felt to wield that chocolate in her hand. Michelle also felt inspired by the new wave of people who emphasized the importance of buying local. She has orders from different local establishments across the Magic City, including Filter Coffee Parlor.
As she circled back around the table, fresh truffle in her hand, she smiles, “You can’t have a bad conversation over the chocolate. It relaxes people, and you can’t use your defenses when they are down.”
Michelle has a contagious smile, not just the one that graces her face, but the little chocolate truffles she makes by hand, come with one too, free of charge.