Monica Passin: The Chocolate Show Interview
Monica Passin paints with oil on canvas, she teaches guitar lessons around New York City, she sings old-school honky-tonk with her band Li'l Mo and the Monicats, she raises money for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and she owns Painter Girl Chocolates (produced in Brooklyn, sold on the web). She also has the best Betty Boop laugh ever. At three o'clock last Sunday, I met Li'l Mo and her sweetheart, Eddie (a chocolate novice who's known Monica since grade school in Riverdale), at the back entrance to the New York Chocolate Show. By four, we'd had a sultry good time and discovered every secret in chocolate business.
Emily: I'm here at the Chocolate Show with Monica Passin of Painter Girl Chocolates. What are the conditions here, Monica?
Monica: Well, it looks crowded and happy. Mmmm.
Emily: What did you find?
Monica: Rose City Chocolatier. Reading the sign: "Traditional Chocolate Truffles." Just ganache dusted in chocolate. Just the way we like it.
Monica: We like it! Ooh, Knipschildt T-shirts. "Chocolate Lover!" Do you have that in a babydoll size? Giggles. Alright, let's look at pretty things!
Emily: I feel very positively about Oliver Kita's chocolate. Very, very positively.
Emily: Hi, How are you?
Oliver: Good, can I help you?
Emily: Yeah! That would be cool. Could I buy a couple of pieces of chocolate from you?
Oliver: Sure, it's two pieces for $3 or one for $2. It's better to get the two for $3. I'll put them in the sack for you and there you go. Also, we have a show special (we're basically giving these away): five candy bars for $10, they're normally $5 a piece. It's Valrhona, 72 percent. I work exclusively with Valrhona, so I said to them, "Give me something to sell cheap!"
Emily: Alright. I think we're going to start with just two pieces. Monica, should we pick them out?
Monica: Yeah. Hmmm. Espresso Double Shot… Cheeky Matcha Crunch, "green tea infused ganache" ... Scarlet Caramel, "bold, fruity undertone" ... What are you thinking?
Emily: Bold, fruity undertone sounds pretty good. Or Peaches and Cream, that's kind of hard to resist.
Monica: But I kinda like basic. What do you think?
Monica points at two bon bons: Espresso Double Shot and Brut. Monica and Emily giggle.
Monica: You get this one, I'll get the next one. Let me put my money in my pocket so I don't have to keep getting my wallet out. Sings: I got cash in pocket ...
Monica: Alright. Those are big chunks of espresso beans that it's rolled in. It's an espresso chocolate ganache. I don't think it's a chocolate coating so much as it's just rolled in the beans. You get a good crunch and a lot of cream, and it is definitely intense. We're going to have a lot of black specks in our teeth.
Emily: Eddie, what do you think of Monica's Frida Kahlo Bars?
Eddie: I haven't tasted them yet, but they look great. I like the ginger fudge.
Emily: What's the ginger fudge?
Monica: Well, I have a relationship with the local Japanese newspaper. And they wanted a recipe. But I didn't want to give a recipe where the chocolate had to be tempered, because it would just be too complicated. So I made ginger fudge. Three kinds of ginger: shredded ginger, crystallized ginger (I use Australian), and ginger powder. Fantastic! Dark chocolate. Really, really, really good. Oh! Look over here! New Tree Sexy.
Emily: How did you get started in the chocolate business?
Monica: The first thing I did was make halva. And it occurred to me that the halva would be fantastic dipped in chocolate.
Emily: Did you have any experience making chocolate?
Monica: I didn't know anything about it. The only thing I knew was that you cannot melt chocolate chips directly in a pot. Somehow I knew that you needed a double boiler for, which I completely invented using my own saucepans and fry pans. And I melted—what did I use?—I probably started with Hershey's semisweet chips. Literally, I made balls of halva, rolled them in my hands, and then stuck a toothpick in each side and rolled them in melted chocolate. Melted, mind you, because I didn't know anything else.
Monica: I stuck them on a piece of tin foil and put them in the refrigerator. And when I took them out of the refrigerator, they sure tasted good but the chocolate melted right in my hand. So I said to myself, "there's a secret about chocolate that I don't know." Eddie!
Eddie: I'm here—don't worry.
Monica: Oh, hi, Eddie. So I called my cousin who's a caterer and I asked her, "How do you do chocolate so it doesn't melt in your hand?" And she said, "That's a thousand-dollar secret, Monica." And she told me about tempering, and she said I could get myself a machine for a thousand dollars. So I got myself the machine, and that was it. I went crazy at that point.
Emily: What year was that?
Monica: I don't know. Four or five years ago. Ohhh, Joan Coukos! This is great! OK, here we are at Chocolat Moderne. The lovely Joan Coukos who created this company was a guitar student of mine years ago.
Emily: No way!
Monica: Way. And I have the photographs to prove it. And we gotta say about Joan: the sexiest chocolate on the planet!
Joan: How are you doing?
Monica: She's interviewing me from a chocolate blog. How's it going?
Monica: Fantastic. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful things. Aren't they? I think that loving couples need to share this chocolate and discover themselves and their desires. Emily, can I buy you something? This round's on me.
Emily: That would be delightful but, I have to tell you, I tried some of this yesterday.
Monica: What did you try?
Emily: This little squares in the Greek collection.
Monica: That's like a Greek key design.
Emily: Yeah, a little, you know, geometric thing.
Monica: What is this one?
Emily: That round thing with a gooey white center? There's some serious sheen on that one.
Monica: Oh, I know, I know. Joan, what is this? It's so shiny and beautiful.
Joan: It's lychee pâte de fruit and underneath it's a toasted coconut ganache.
Monica: Whoa. Coconut. And what's in the stars?
Joan: The stars are banana caramel with liqueur.
Monica: We're going to get all liquored up.
Joan: Not much alcohol.
Monica: Eddie, she uses gold dust. She uses actual gold dust. Isn't that amazing? Joan, what do you want to push on us today?
Joan: Oh, I'm not that pushy. It sells itself.
Monica: It does indeed.
Joan: I think it would be nice to put together a box.
Monica: But we want to taste some things right away.
Joan: You can do some loose pieces for $2 each. Whatever you want.
Monica: What do you want to taste, Emily? You pick one and I'll pick one. Let's sample one of those—the shiny-beautiful-toasted-coconut-whatever-you-call-it. And what else? What's in the Greek keydesign thingy?
Joan: Oh! This is a white sesame halva.
Emily: I think the halava is speaking.
Monica: Yeah, the halva is speaking.
Emily: Do you think I could ask Joan what kind of chocolate couverture she uses?
Monica: I think you could. I think it's Valrhona.
Emily: Joan, could I ask, do you use Valrhona chocolate?
Joan: Yes, I use the whole Valrhona line.
Monica: Serious. Alright! Thank you. Oh, coconut, you really have to taste that, Eddie. Careful, leave some for Emily. Did you get all the flavors? I think the lemon or something else is in the cream and there's toasted coconut underneath it. Eddie, where did you get that hot chocolate? Is that the good one Joan hasThe Madame X'tasty?
Eddie: I'm starting to feel it.
Monica: Joan, He's my honey, so anything you can do, to, you know.... The world's sexiest chocolate, right here.
Emily: I want to see what happens to you when you eat that halva.
Monica: Alright, it's Monica eating Chocolat Moderne's new Greek halva type thing. So, here we go. I'll tell you, this woman can create chocolates that are not sweet at all. This one is not sweet. Her halva is very, um, what's the… tahini. It has more of the tahini kind of flavor than my halva. It's good. Taste it.
Emily: I had one yesterday.
Monica: You had one yesterday? Eddie, you want to taste this? You don't want to taste it? Oh! Oh!
Eddie: Alright, save me that last piece. Is it worth tasting?
Monica: Mm-hm! What's in there that's crunchy? It must be the sesame seeds. It's very tahini-like.
Eddie: It's sesame, she said? I thought it was crunchy peanut butter.
Monica: I don't think so. It tasted like delicate crunch and sesame.
Emily: So we agree Joan has mastered the thousand-dollar secret? The coating is well-tempered?
Monica: I tell you what, Joan can sure make a shiny tempered chocolate.
Emily: So this one wasn't stuck in the fridge on a piece of tin foil with toothpicks?
Monica: Noooo way!
Emily: So when are you going to do this show? Are you going to do it?
Monica: I'm going to do it. In a couple of years, I hope. I have to say, I'm just learning how far in advance you have to do anything to be ready for anything, and it's like a whole new lifestyle for me to even think like that.
Emily: Oh, I haven't looked at these chocolate books yet. What's all this about?
Monica: Ooh, Retro Desserts. Chocolate on the Brain, yummy. This is a fun book: The Art of Chocolate by Elaine Gonzalez, and you can go with her down to Oaxaca on chocolate trips. Someday I'm going to have to do that. Oh, look, they have a new cover for this book—The True History of Chocolate—mine is different.
Emily: Yeah, it's new! It's the second edition, and it has new information about the ancient Maya and their chocolate-trading routes.
Monica: Lillie Belle Farms! Hey, Lillie Belle Farms, there's a rumor about chocolate-covered pears here.
Fred at Lillie Belle counter, gleefully chopping chocolate with an oversized plastic knife: The last of it just left.
Monica: How do you like that? What are you cutting up now?
Fred: The 68 percent Bolivian. Really great finish. Very smooth—it's not chalky. As I've been told, it's one of the rarest chocolates in the world. It's from the wild cacao they pick out of the rain forest. Hey Emily, how are you doing?
Emily: I'm doing alright. How are you doing?
Fred: I'm going nuts! Here, try this.
Monica: What do you have here, babe?
Fred: That's what's left of the smoky blue.
Monica: What do you mean blue?
Fred: Smoky blue cheese, milk chocolate.
Monica: I don't like blue cheese, will I like this?
Fred: Yeah, you'll like it.
Monica: Do you change the whole personality of blue cheese by making it into chocolate?
Fred: Yeah, that's what we do.
Monica: Alright, OK, I'll do it, but I'll probably hate myself in the morning.
Fred: Close your eyes, fall back in my arms, trust me.
Monica tastes the smoky blue.
Fred: We've lost her.
Monica: Surprisingly, it has fruity overtones.
Monica: In fact, I think I'm going to change my name to Fruity Overtones!
Emily: This woman has a chocolate company. You know what it's called?
Emily: It's called Painter Girl Chocolates. Hey, Monica, these guys are chocolate painters.
Monica: Oh, you had the chocolate paintings last year!
Belle, founder Jeff's wife, looking comfortable in her position as company namesake: This year we have the Christmas ornaments. Jeff made these.
Belle: These are edible.
Monica: Gee whiz! Is that air-brushing?
Fred: He just paints them by hand.
Monica: What are you doing now, Lillie Belle? Giggling: Are you Lillie Belle?
Fred: I'm one of the belles. Don't I look like one?
Monica: You do.
Fred: Thank you.
Monica: You're the Belle of the ball. What have you got over there?
Fred: Do you want a straight 74 percent?
Fred: Go in, enjoy yourself. We call it the Dark Star, it's a new product. And the Wild Thing—the Bolivian—is new.
Monica: I've never had Bolivian chocolate before.
Emily: This tastes like Bolivia. Bolivia, here I come.
Monica: Have you been there?
Emily: No, ma'am.
Monica: Well, you're going. Thank you, my dear!
Fred: Thanks, guys.
Emily: Eddie, what were you looking at?
Eddie: The bark.
Monica: Actually, maybe we should look at Berkshire Bark. Me personally, I love the solid chocolate. With delicious things suspended in it, that's the way I travel—solid chocolate. Let's see what kind of combinations they have. "Dark chocolate, coffee, toffee, roasted almonds, caramelized almonds, cacao nibs, and crushed espresso beans." Ooh, now you're talking. Mmm. It's got everything in it. There's some sort of white bark. I gotta try it. "Cashews, crystallized ginger, and white chocolate." I would like to be in cahoots with this company to tell all the world that white chocolate is a good thing. Just accept white chocolate for what it is. Don't make expectations. It is not seventy percent dark chocolate. It is a thing unto itself. And a glorious thing if you do it up right.
Emily: Do you work in white chocolate?
Monica: Yes, I do. I use a Belgian white chocolate.
Eddie: I want the one that has pretzels in it.
Monica: Oh, OK.
Eddie: Why are you laughing?
Emily: I'm laughing out of happiness. Are they salted pretzels?
Eddie: "Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, pretzels, peanut butter, and sea salt."
Monica: Do you know why that's good? Salty and sweet. Do they have samples?
Eddie: They're sold out of Bark #1.
Emily: Sold out of Bark #1. Monica has been locked out of the bark purchase.
Monica: But that's OK. I'll buy it in the store, how about that? "Our bark is as good as our bite!" Got it.
Monica: Uh oh, what's going on over here? Macaron City. Mad Mac. Want to try them? Wow, so pretty, light and airy.
Mad Mac Shop Attendant, looking stern and official: They're made with egg whites and almond flour.
Monica: And these also have cocoa?
Attendant: Well, yes. These are chocolate orange and these are chestnut whiskey.
Monica: Chestnut whiskey. What should we try? Ooh, ooh, can have a taste? Then I can determine which flavor…
Attendant: And this one is plain chocolate. And this is peanut butter.
Monica: Hmm. Lovely texture, lovely, lovely, lovely texture. Do you have a taste of something that has white chocolate ganache in it?
Attendant: No, unfortunately, all we have is chocolate macaron right now to sample.
Emily: They're out of everything. We'll have to buy them online!
Monica: And you have madeleines as well. Let me take a card here.
Emily: Oh, the Christopher Norman booth. I think I know this gentleman. Hello, how are you? We met once.
Joe from Christopher Norman, looking like an elder statesman of chocolate: Did you move to Pittsburgh?
Joe: Oh, OK, how are you?
Emily: I'm OK. How's everything here?
Joe: John Down is doing a demo right now. It's right down there.
Emily: Oh, really? Maybe we should go check it out.
Joe: Chocolate painting.
Monica: I'd love to see that. I'm working toward a painter's box for Painter Girl Chocolates. I have the Frida Kahlo bar now, but I'm going to mold bars with portraits of other painters, and collect them all in a box. And I'm excited about that. What I don't need, though, is colors. I use the chocolate colors.
Emily: Different shades of chocolate?
Emily: And you have chocolate paints of something on your website, right?
Monica: I do, I have chocolate paint tubes, and they're filled with caramel. The chocolate is molded to look like a paint tube and if you bite off the so-called-cap then the homemade caramel is released in your mouth.
Emily: OK, Monica, here we are. We're watching John Down, owner of Christopher Norman Chocolates. He's painting in chocolate, wearing an insulated bag as a hat. That's a serious hat.
Emily: The man in front of us is eating M&Ms.
Monica: M&Ms! I came all the way to the chocolate show to get M&Ms! Of course, my aunt brought me those new Razzberry M&Ms the other day—they're quite nice.
Emily: Do you know Cosmic Chocolate?
Monica: I think I've heard the name.
Emily: They have a raspberry-flavored Oprah chocolate.
Emily: It has Oprah's face stamped on it.
Monica: On the chocolate?
Emily: On the chocolate.
Monica: Fascinating. Fascinating. Oh, the City Harvest booth. Raising money for City Harvest is OK with me. It's my favorite charity. Oh, it's a good charity. When you think about all the food that could go to waste for no reason, that's a terrible thing.
Eddie: What was that thing where we first came in? The guys who looked like sushi chefs?
Monica: Oh, Mary's. We have to experience Mary's. Mary's always gets the biggest crowd because I have to say the color of their green tea truffle is just it's so beautiful that I took their literature home and was thinking of painting a wall in the same color. It's not even like eating chocolate, this particular thing.
Emily: What is it like eating?
Monica: It's a whole new experience.
Emily: Let's experience it.
Monica: Well, if you walk a little farther down that way you'll see a whole tray of green tea truffles and I would say make a b-line for them.
Emily: OK, you go first. So what is it? It's bright green.
Monica: How they get they color, I know not, because green tea is not that color. It's just so unusual and it has this wacky perfume. And it just reminds you of—I don't know what it reminds you of—but it just reminds you of something you had as a kid, some sort of something. And it's chewy. And it's nothing like chocolate at all. But look at that color!
Emily: I'm looking at the color.
Monica: Wouldn't you like a pair of green suede shoes like that?
Eddie: If you don't look at the color, it has a chocolate taste to it. Don't look at the color. You first taste green tea, but then you taste chocolate.
Monica: That's interesting. I just have a whole other experience from that. Maybe I get some white chocolate… See Mary's doesn't sell anywhere in New York. This is the only time that they're here. So if you're interested, you gotta buy something here or have it shipped to you from Tokyo.
Emily: Jeez Louise!
Monica: Jeez Louise! That to me is the best part, to see the piping of the beautiful flowers. But I do see some more samples—it looks like a ganache..
Emily: It's like the green tea truffle but it's not green.
Monica takes a bite.
Emily: What's happening now?
Monica: Nice bitter cocoa powder on the outside. It has a jellyish consistency on the inside. This tastes like milk chocolate.
Eddie: It's not tempered.
Monica: Well, it's not a coated chocolate. It's just a ganache—cream and chocolate, and then dusted in powder, see? Hmmm. Let's watch the artistry, that would be great. They definitely consistently get the biggest crown, and I think that's because everything is so unusual and beautiful. The amazing thing here is to watch them piping the beautiful irises and flowers on each individual piece of chocolate.
Eddie: Is that all done by hand?
Monica: Yeah, the flowers are piped on by hand.
Eddie: They match so well. Well, they do it a thousand times everyday, probably.
Monica: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I mean, you get that technique down and that's it. Wow, look at the sparkles they're putting on that. I'm going to have to look at that up close. We're going to have to find out what those sparkles are made out of. I wonder if that's edible silver.
Emily: But you don't do colors at Painter Girl Chocolates?
Monica: I don't do colors. If the day comes that colors are absolutely natural and not made out of any kind of chemical, then I would consider using them. I just, I need to know. I need to be sure.
Eddie: What about vegetable colors?
Monica: If they're vegetable colors and they're absolutely natural, I would use them. I won't use food coloring and that sort of thing. But if I know that something is a vegetable color, that's fine with me. I'm just fascinated by those sparkles. I want to know what they are. I want to use that. That's so beautiful, I could see designing with that, not just sprinkling it on.
Eddie: But where does the silver color come from? That's not natural.
Monica: Well, that's what we're going to look into. But, we've already seen that there are edible metals. Joan uses edible gold dust.
Emily: Yeah, it's a mineral. That's all natural: vegetable, mineral. My aunt had to take gold pills once.
Monica: I've heard some weird stories about people eating silver, though.
Eddie: People eat clay, they eat mud.
Monica: Alright, let's go over here! John and Kira's, they have people from the neighborhood grow things that they use in their chocolates. It's a very communal experience. Look how pretty the lady bugs and pumpkins are!
Emily: Hey Naomi, I brought a friend.
Naomi, the Trusty John and Kira's Assistant: Great!
Monica: What's this pumpkin thing everybody's eating?
Naomi: It's a fig with a whiskey clove chocolate ganache center, white chocolate on the outside tinted like a pumpkin.
Naomi: And I have only three boxes left for sale.
Monica: Good thing this show is almost over.
Emily: They're selling out.
Monica: They're going like hotcakes.
Emily: They're selling out like pumpkins at 5 o'clock on Halloween.
Monica: That's right. Get your pumpkins while they last. Do you think we could get her to cut up another one? Could we cajole?
Emily: I think we can cajole.
Monica: Hooray! Thank you. Sings: We're going to sample a pumpkin!
Emily: The pumpkin is coming our way.
Monica: Everything is coming our way. Wowey-kazowey. Is it possible just to buy one of the pumpkin figgy things?
Naomi: Sure, it's $3.
Monica: Very good. You don't have to give me a bag because we're just going to eat it.
Emily: Hey, John.
John, a strapping chocolatier, looking a little exhausted: Hey, Emily.
Emily: You're selling pumpkins like...
John: Yeah, the pumpkins are doing great, thank you. We went back and made more last night.
Emily: You went to Philadelphia, made more, and came back? Monica, this gentleman over here went to Philadelphia last night, made more pumpkins, and came back. What do you think of that?
Monica: Bless your little heart. And then you came right back? That's how to do it, babe. Giggles.
Monica: Hey, did you read the article in the New Yorker recently?
Emily: Oh, yeah.
Monica: Yeah, some article! Oh, Charles Chocolates. It's their anniversary. I read that on your blog.
Emily: Hi Chuck, this is Monica Passin
Chuck Siegel, flanked by his parents, Milt and Gloria Siegel, looking like a poster for a family business: Hello, would you like to try something?
Monica: Sure, what have you got?
Chuck: We'll, do you like Mojitos?
Monica: Mojitos? Wow. And look at this pretty heart! Mmmmm. Emily, try this pretty heart Mojito chocolate.
Chuck: So Emily says you're the best singer in the chocolate business. What does that mean?
Monica: Well, I'm a musician, songwriter. I'm working towards my third album. I'm very excited about that.
Emily: That's the New Orleans album?
Monica: Well, I hope to do some recording down there. I'm going down there in January, mostly to hear other people's music, but also to talk to a producer down there, to see if I can get something going. I'm writing music in a variety of styles, rootsy American styles.
Chuck: Do you know a singer-songwriter in New York named Leah Siegel?
Monica: No, who's that?
Chuck: We'll my daughter's Leah Siegel, and she Googled her name and found the singer in New York with the same name, so we downloaded some of her music and listened to it.
Emily: Monica, who are you going to see tonight?
Monica: We're going to see Mose Allison for his 80th birthday, so we have to leave in about 15 minutes. I'd like to see something new and different before we go.
Emily: Should I take you to Oprah? They have a Bono Chocolate, a Snoop Dog chocolate, a Madonna chocolate, and an Al Roker chocolate.
Monica: An Al Roker chocolate? I gotta have it. Gotta have it.
Emily: Alright, this way.
Monica: Cosmic Chocolate!
Emily: Do you have something we can try?
Cosmic Girl: Those are the celebrity chocolates, and here we have a strawberry daiquiri, and a champagne peach.
Monica: Champagne peach, you say? Is this going to squirt me?
Cosmic Girl: It is, so I would suggest you put the whole thing in your mouth.
Monica: Reaaaly? So I can't share this?
Cosmic Girl: Probably not. The cosmic girl points to Eddie. Are you going to share it with him?
Monica giggles. She eats. She smiles.
Monica: Personally, I think I should have shared it, but maybe not here. You know?
Cosmic Girl: Yeah.
Monica: I think if you're naked…
Cosmic Girl: Oh, for sure, they're really sensual.
Monica: And you're with the one you love…
Cosmic Girl: Oh, yeah.
Monica: And you're in the mood to get completely dripped on, I think it's just right.
About the author: Emily Stone, proprietor of Chocolate in Context, is a chocolate enthusiast, itinerant traveler, and a lover of literature who lives in Pittsburgh. She's been a movie reviewer, a reproductive health researcher, and an independent bookstore owner. Her writing has appeared in the magazines Budget Travel, Travel + Leisure, and Time Out New York, as well as on the websites World Hum and Epicurious.