Julie Bolejack Wants To Save Chocolate

Step aside, Willy Wonka.

Back when Julie Bolejack operated her Carmel shop, Chocolate for the Spirit, few people walked in the door already speaking her language. Grand Cru single-origin cacao. Heirloom beans. Conching and seeding. A long finish. A nice snap. A visit was equal parts education and indulgence. Bolejack’s treats looked and tasted familiar, but they were far more refined than the chocolate customers knew. More refined, even, than the extra-dark boutique bars at the expensive end of the candy aisle. It wasn’t bitter or sweet, and it had distinct flavor notes, like wine. Customers would leave enlightened about the vast difference between this connoisseur chocolate and commercial candy, clued in to the dirty little secret that the stuff sold in grocery stores contains only a pitiful 11 percent cacao—barely chocolate at all.

One day, a man from the chocolate industry popped in. His father, who lived in Carmel, had told him about this place and thought his son should check it out on his next visit. Bolejack soon realized this guy was fluent in fine chocolate. He asked if she had tried “that wild Bolivian.” She hadn’t heard of this particular species of cacao, and it sounded like exactly the kind of ingredient she specializes in. She built Chocolate for the Spirit to showcase the most flavorful cacao in the world and explore the crop’s sophisticated potential. Most of the best cacao comes from the tropical regions of South America. This man raved about the Bolivian bean, growing wild on islands where locals have to harvest it by canoe, and told her where to find it. A while later, she included it in a tasting class at the store. “It has lemon notes, and grapefruit tinge, prune, vanilla,” she says. “There’s nothing added to it. All the flavor notes come from the cacao. I just love it.”

She also loves evangelizing about quality chocolate. Some of the most flavorful cacao beans aren’t available to consumers because they don’t yield enough (yet, at least) to supply a business, even a small one like Chocolate for the Spirit. But Bolejack has still found ways to bring this product to light. She gave up a lucrative career in corporate IT to pursue her passion for gourmet food, and she landed on chocolate because it’s wildly adored but gets little culinary respect. As a testament to her reputation as a skilled and serious chocolatier, Bolejack, despite being an obscure operation of one headquartered in a Shelbyville subdivision, gets her hands on a lot of special products. One of those is the most hallowed chocolate in the world, a strain that goes back more than 400 years. It was thought to be wiped out by disease in the early 1900s, yet was rediscovered, in Peru, in 2008. It’s so smooth and flavorful that it earned the approval even of chocolate-indifferent Anthony Bourdain. When the cacao became available, Bolejack was one of 18 chocolatiers in the world, and the only Hoosier, who got the call.

It sounds like hitting the jackpot, but Bolejack is swimming upstream in Willy Wonka’s river of over-processed chocolate—because that sugary stuff still tastes delicious, and it’s ubiquitous and cheap. If the extra mile is the length of the race in business, having a knockout product just gets you a bib. And once Bolejack found her stride in the industry, her finish line moved. Fine chocolate isn’t merely underappreciated. It might actually be endangered.

Cacao trees grow near the Equator and produce pods shaped like little football gourds. The beans inside are removed, dried, and fermented on the farm, then roasted elsewhere and pressed to separate the cacao butter and the cacao liqueur. Then the butter and liqueur are recombined in different proportions to create cacao mass, to which sugar and sometimes vanilla are added to produce dark chocolate, and other ingredients to create milk or white chocolate. The resulting mix is a high-butterfat “couverture” with a specified percentage of cacao mass. Chocolatiers buy couverture from suppliers. They temper it, seed it, add flavors if they choose, then mold it, pour it, or dip it.

A lot can go wrong before a sugar bomb hits your mouth. Chiefly, the cacao might lack flavor. It’s a finicky crop—highly susceptible to disease spread by wind, hard to pollinate. For those reasons, it doesn’t lend itself to industrial farming. Most cacao comes from farmers with a couple of acres in developing countries, and many of them don’t have the infrastructure to dry and ferment cacao correctly. They might even leave pods on the ground until they stink. At roasting facilities, the beans are often torched at high temperatures, not babied to preserve the flavor. The natural taste is irrelevant when only a fraction of it will end up in the final product and when oil will replace cocoa butter for a longer shelf life. If a couverture is shipped in humid conditions, it might bloom out, creating those dry-looking gray spots. And then chocolate-making techniques and preparation standards come into play. Yet none of this has ever mattered because mishandled chocolate tastes pretty good. As hard as cacao is to grow, it’s even harder to ruin.

Properly handled chocolate, though, tastes complex and nuanced, in the vein of coffee and wine. Cacao has more than 400 flavor notes that fall into seven categories: spicy, nutty, fruity, floral, vegetable, roasted, and miscellaneous. (Coffee has 140 flavor notes.) Those tastes develop and change on your tongue. Connoisseur chocolate isn’t for satisfying cravings. It’s for savoring, with your full attention. You don’t eat it while you’re doing something else.

The chocolate should be glossy. A truffle shell should be thin and even, and there shouldn’t be a little foot at the bottom revealing that the chocolate was poured too heavily and puddled. It should snap cleanly when you break it. Dark varieties don’t have to taste bitter. A bar should be identified by the source of the cacao and the percentage of chocolate in the final product. The list of ingredients is short and does not include dairy. “In dark chocolate, you should see cocoa mass or cocoa liqueur, sugar, cocoa butter, and maybe vanilla,” Bolejack says. “If you’re seeing something else, I’d like to know why.”

Bolejack uses couverture that costs at least twice as much as its candy-grade counterpart. Most of hers is Grand Cru single-origin, among the best 1 percent of chocolate in the world. Occasionally, she gets her hands on cacao designated as heirloom by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, meaning the flavor is special and worth preserving. She has a dedicated machine for tempering the rare Peruvian chocolate she gets to work with. The other types each have their own stirring paddle in the tempering machine and their own mold, to avoid the mingling of flavors. “Other chocolatiers can’t believe the lengths I go to to keep different varieties separate,” she says. She polishes the molds without chemicals, which would dull the chocolate’s shine.

Connoisseur chocolate is the fastest-growing segment of the industry, up from 2 percent to 8 percent in the last decade. The suppliers of Bolejack’s rare Peruvian say there were 11 craft chocolatiers in the United States eight years ago, when they entered the market, and now there are 183.

Not many of those are in Indiana, though. There’s a bean-to-bar guy in Mishawaka now. The Hoosier brands you might be aware of don’t make connoisseur chocolate. “She has challenges in her market. It’s a less progressive part of the country,” says Melanie Boudar, a chocolatier in New Mexico and one of Bolejack’s closest colleagues. “They are not as educated or open to fine chocolate. I think I would have moved. It’s hard when you know you have a great product, and people don’t understand the difference between that and candy.” For Bolejack, the hole in the market was an opportunity. Over the holidays, orders from Hoosiers outnumbered those from out of state two to one.

Buddha-shaped bonbons dusted with golden glitter.
Buddha bonbons dusted with golden glitter are the sweetest way to enlightenment.

Of all things, auto-racing brought Bolejack into the chocolate world. As a family of westsiders, her mom and dad had jobs at Allison Transmission, and Parnelli Jones, an Indianapolis 500 legend, was a family friend. When Bolejack’s relatives would visit the Joneses in California, they would bring back chocolate from See’s Candies, a premium brand, which was unavailable in Indy at the time. They made a contact there, and at the holidays, they would place a wholesale order for themselves, friends, and colleagues. Each December, a truck would back into their driveway, and they would move furniture out of their living room to bring in all of the boxes.

Back then, Allison closed for two weeks over the holidays. This was Bolejack’s family time—and the only quality time the family was guaranteed to have each year, thanks to her parents’ long hours at the plant. Bolejack had a special relationship with her Grandma Beaulah, who wore her hair in white braids wound around her head. “I wear mine long and untinted in her memory,” Bolejack says. “She was the only grandparent I knew. I can remember as young as 5 her serving me coffee with milk and sugar in little nursery rhyme mugs. Many holidays, family members packed into her tiny house for traditional food—and her fudge and persimmon pudding. She made a brown-sugar fudge-like log that was rolled in cinnamon, and that was my favorite.”

As the oldest sibling, Bolejack cooked a lot for her younger sisters. Otherwise, she was at the Brownsburg public library. “I was always checking out the maximum number of books. Just reading all kinds of subjects,” she says. “For years, my library card was my most prized possession. When my dad died, I put it in his casket.”

Her parents didn’t expect her to go to college—they were blue-collar and doing just fine. By 21, she was a single mom living in Chicago and estranged from her parents over a relationship they didn’t approve of. Money was tight, so for entertainment, she turned to Julia Child on PBS. “With my limited financial means, I still had money to buy a whole chicken,” she says. “I learned about roasting the chicken to a level I’d never had anyone do for me. The switch was flipped at that point.”

When Bolejack moved home, she worked as a hairdresser—making good money, she says. But she always knew she would continue her education. In her mid-20s, while working full time, she got an associate degree in business administration. The program allowed her to intern at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and that turned into a job and an opportunity to go back to school for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. By the early ’90s, she was the director of national accounting business for a Fortune 500 company, leading major projects developing the e-commerce side of insurance. “My job every year was to deliver something that didn’t exist to some of the top businesses in the country. I invented healthcare savings accounts,” she says, referring to an assignment for Chase Bank.

She traveled a lot for work and used the opportunity to further her interest in gourmet food. The Chase project took her to New York on and off for six months. Since those days with Julia Child on PBS, she would read cookbooks like other people read novels, and she followed the chef scene. She knew who was who before cable TV made them household names. At Chez Panisse in Napa, she had the most delicious bite of her life, an heirloom tomato dish. “We grew up in the garden with a salt shaker and ate tomatoes, and as good as they were, I have never tasted a tomato like that one,” she says. In New York City, she dined at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. In Indianapolis, she and her husband often enjoyed going to Oakleys Bistro. Her career was lucrative. She could afford the tabs. 

And when the stress of corporate life wore her down, she could afford to leave.

At 56, she was confident that she could make a career change because above all, Bolejack knew how to learn and how to teach herself. The first thing she had to learn was what she truly wanted to do. She went to a seminar in Sedona, Arizona, led by Julia Cameron, the best-selling author of The Artist’s Way. Cameron had parlayed the book’s success into a brand focused on self-discovery. Bolejack realized she associated chocolate with her warmest childhood memories—those two weeks around the holidays when Allison Transmission closed and her family spent the time cooking. Her grandmother’s fudge was one favorite. When her mother died, the only family heirloom Bolejack wanted was Grandma Beaulah’s wooden spoon.

After Dan Pearson graduated from Indiana University, he was admitted to the Navy’s officer-training program and got stationed in San Diego. That Christmas, when he called home to Fort Wayne, it was minus 18 degrees, so cold his parents’ car wouldn’t start. He didn’t move back.

In 2002, he had some time off work as an investment banker. An old friend was an executive at a big gold mine in Peru. Pearson headed down there for a week, intending to just take it easy. But he got to talking to the mine’s maintenance director about industrial equipment. “He said he needed hydraulic hoses, nuts, and bolts, and asked if I could help. I said sure,” Pearson says. “I knew nothing about them. But I had $6 million in contracts.”

Eventually, he was asked to arrange deliveries of fruits and vegetables to the remote site for the workers to eat. Those crops didn’t grow at the mine’s 13,000-foot elevation. That’s how Pearson and his stepson, a business partner, ended up on Don Fortunato’s banana farm in a jungle valley along Peru’s Marañón River, a place with no electricity, open flames for cooking, and muddy roads that often flooded out.

Young banana trees shaded cacao plants, one of the leading crops in this part of South America. Pearson didn’t even know where chocolate came from, but he was curious about those football-shaped cacao pods stuck to tree trunks.

They cut one open. It was white. He thought, Chocolate is dark. Why are these white? So he Googled it.

What he learned made him get in touch with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Maryland. They have access to a database with more than 5,000 types of cacao plants. They matched the Fortunato cacao to a prized but extinct specimen called Nacional. It had been the standard-bearer for fine chocolate in Europe and the U.S. after the Swiss encountered it in Ecuador in the early 1800s. Scientists also found shavings of the same plant in bowls from the region dating back 400 years. It is actually a freak of nature. Cacao plants are supposed to be pollinated by bugs called midges, but the pests couldn’t cross the Marañón River, so the cacao trees there pollinated themselves. They were basically inbred, like chocolate royalty. It just so happened that the pure bloodline of Nacional cacao was exceptionally delicious—floral, and smoother than any other breed. It fell prey to disease around 1916.

The USDA’s discovery in 2008 was startling because the breed was now growing at a higher elevation and in a different country than the original Nacional. The USDA asked Pearson and his stepson to take more samples, from around 100 farms in the region. All came back as Nacional. And no one knew about it except the duo from San Diego. They left an established gold mine and started a potential new one.

The minister of agriculture in Peru gave them this piece of advice: Don’t tell anyone where the Fortunato farm is. So Pearson made up a name for the location: Marañón Valley, which isn’t a real place. It’s just one of the many valleys along the 1,000-mile river. You won’t find it on a map. They named their company Marañón Chocolate and their star bean Fortunato No. 4 to honor the farmer. And of the 18 original samples they had sent to the USDA, the fourth one tested was a 100 percent pure match.

Pearson’s stepson moved to the region to run their operations. High-quality cacao should ferment soon after it’s picked, but none of the farmers had the equipment. They built a processing plant and solved all kinds of problems along the way to launching production. The beans go to an elite Swiss chocolate-maker and are babied at a low temperature in a special 140-year-old machine. (Castoff beans are sold to commercial candy-makers, who, Pearson says, torch out all the flavor at 400 degrees before using a scant percentage of the product in their chocolate bars.)

Word that Nacional was back spread around the chocolate world, to labs in Switzerland where cacao purity is examined and to the kitchens of the most renowned pastry chefs. “The Rolex of chocolate,” one of them said. Another, Franz Ziegler of Switzerland, proclaimed it the best new chocolate in the world. “I have tasted the best, believe me,” he told an audience at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. “This blossoms. You walk out the door, and in an hour you go”—he closed his eyes and raised a hand to his mouth—“‘Oh, my God, it’s still there. It’s still beautiful.’” That enduring flavor is what chocolatiers call “the long finish.”

In 2013, Nacional got the Anthony Bourdain treatment when he and Eric Ripert trekked to the Fortunato farm to film an episode of Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown. “The raw, good stuff,” Bourdain called it, sipping cacao nibs in hot water from a chipped tin mug. “Just as the ancient kings drank it.”

Pearson had met Bolejack at the New York Chocolate Show in 2011. Hers was good chocolate, and he liked the name and the packaging (which Bolejack designs herself). It didn’t hurt that she was a fellow Hoosier. So when Pearson began selling Fortunato No. 4 couverture to chocolatiers, she made the list. Bourdain and Ripert invested in a craft-chocolate brand that used it, too.

But at the same time the chocolate world was celebrating the return of Nacional, it was contending with a new threat, a hybrid cacao tree called CCN-51. It’s less susceptible to disease, and the yield is high, so the big candy companies love it. An American-led international humanitarian agency called USAID introduced CCN-51 to farms in South America as part of an effort to help farmers there grow cacao instead of cocaine. It sounds noble, but it comes at a cost. “This particular hybrid is a freak. Huge pods. The amount it produces is almost obscene,” says Boudar, who owns cacao farms in Hawaii and Belize. “But in the long run, it’s just commodity chocolate. It’s flavorless.”

The spread of CCN-51 reminds Pearson—whose family owned restaurants in Fort Wayne for several generations—of the change in food when American agriculture moved to postwar industrial farming. “The only way to increase yield is to decrease flavor,” he says.

He and Boudar are among a group of chocolate-industry leaders fighting back. Pearson launched the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, part of the FCIA, in 2012 to raise the profile of cacao crops like Fortunato No. 4 and other special breeds with deep roots that have developed for centuries. They help farmers send samples of their cacao to an independent panel of tasters. So far, 16 breeds have earned the HCP designation, which lets the farmers charge more for their crop. Recently, the fund expanded its outreach to farming education in four countries, and in 2017, it began receiving private grants to further that mission. “It’s making a difference,” Pearson says.

He pays farmers 50 percent more than market rate for Fortunato No. 4, and that’s why Bolejack’s “world’s rarest” Forever Bar sells for $16—sticker shock to most people. But perhaps not as shocking as the headlines about the possibility of chocolate extinction that went viral a year ago. “CCN-51 is eating up the soil and putting the little guys out of business,” Pearson says. Of course, he has a financial interest in making customers feel ethically compromised about eating candy-aisle chocolate. In truth, not all chocolate is seriously in danger of disappearing; fine chocolate might be at risk, decades down the road. Those headlines are clickbait. Getting people to read about fine chocolate is like taking candy from a baby. Getting them to buy it is another story.

“I’m going to tell you how good I am,” Bolejack says in the middle of the holiday rush a couple of months ago. “Last week, I had to make 1,200 bonbons and truffles. It took four days. Only one single chocolate was a defect. When a professional chocolatier worked with me in Carmel, her error rate was consistently 25 percent.”

It’s a challenge to find help. She has tried a few times. Bolejack hired a chef once who screwed up 10 batches of toffee and created a greasy mess that had to be tossed. In a small food business, mistakes mean money in the trash can.

Dale, Bolejack’s husband of 40 years, is her only regular collaborator. “He’s a rapper,” Bolejack always deadpans to customers when they work their booth at gourmet food shows, one of her main sales vehicles since she closed her stores. “I wrap all of the bars,” he clarifies. Bolejack’s first big break came at the New York Chocolate Show in 2011. It was a stateside version of the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris. (“The Oscars, the Emmys, the Nobel Prize—the everything—of chocolate,” Bolejack says.) Dale showed up wearing a white lab coat with “Choc Doc” stitched on a breast pocket, and he would pull out a prescription pad and write orders for customers. Side effects may include extreme happiness, joy, and relaxation. Facebook me @ChocolateSpirit in the morning. Refill as needed. The Choc Doc attracted TV cameras and his own line of customers. Now he’s a fixture at the booth, and shoppers eat it up. They want a prescription even if they don’t buy anything.

It was Dale’s idea for Bolejack to make toffee, which she didn’t want to do. But he adores toffee, and even though he’s diabetic, he can have a bit of it now and then. It’s a good thing she loves her husband enough to oblige. At the New York show, her toffee—a thick slab of buttery, velvety caramel enrobed on both sides with single-origin chocolate—caught the attention of chef Florian Bellanger, a name Bolejack knew. “He has led U.S. culinary teams in international competitions. He started his career in the rigors of the French culinary world before coming to the United States,” she says. His response was “big-time validation” for her. “He called our toffee sex on a plate, purchased from us, and said he wasn’t sharing.”

Bolejack dutifully makes the toffee year after year, but she prefers to play with flavor combinations that work with a cacao’s natural notes. One of Bolejack’s signature recipes, the Mayan Spice bar, has won awards at the International Chocolate Salon and was named one of the top 100 chocolate bars in the world by the London department store Selfridges, which has a flashy “chocolate library” section of premium bars. Bolejack makes the Mayan Spice by spiking a 72-percent dark chocolate with cinnamon, chipotle, and chili spices and molding it in the form of a Mesoamerican symbol, as a tribute to cacao’s roots. She has made more than 1,000 flavors of bonbons, such as raspberry wasabi, cranberry jalapeño, strawberry balsamic black pepper, and pineapple coconut rum. “In our environment,” she says of Indiana, “people don’t think to work with black sesame seed paste. But I do.”

This year, her barks showed up in the Forbes gift guide. The author, who specializes in luxury travel and food, remembered tasting Chocolate for the Spirit several years before, when Hamilton County Tourism sent samples in a marketing kit. “Truly, you are as good as the best in the big cities,” the author emailed Bolejack when the gift guide came out. Bolejack doesn’t pursue press, like the writeup in Mental Floss a couple years ago; it comes to her. “For several years—particularly when Oprah was in Chicago—people have wanted to market my chocolates,” she says. “But I’ve known people who have gone through that. You have to want to scale up big. Each year, I keep getting a little older and scaling in the other direction.”

In doing so, she has found the sweet spot for Chocolate for the Spirit without retail and employees to manage. She can wake up and take an online class with cronut creator Dominique Ansel, spend a couple days practicing the technique he taught, then play around with flavors. Maybe find a colleague who has squirreled away some of that wild Bolivian and go crazy. Experiment with her first sugar-free bar. She leads tasting sessions at her studio—and sometimes in Indianapolis—to find new customers and is developing an online version with a tasting kit that she will mail. The education component helps overcome the sticker shock of $12 and $16 bars. She and Dale hand out samples at events, explain connoisseur cacao, and sell a lot of bars that way. Then those customers order online. She has corporate clients, too. And she has zero problem saying no to the wrong opportunities. Selfridges wanted to sell her bars in its chocolate library when they included her on its list, but she declined because exporting is a headache. The attention might have been a rush, but it’s cheap. Bolejack is after the long finish.