When I think of chocolate I think of pulling tin-wrapped chocolate santas from my stocking at Christmas or finding an oversized chocolate bunny in my Easter basket. The chocolate itself was not particularly memorable, but the celebrations and family traditions formed around it certainly were. Kara VanderLeest, owner and chocolatier at DC Chocolate Design, has always been drawn to chocolate for that very reason.
“What I love about chocolate is the happy memories associated with it,” said Kara, “I even joke that you can’t make chocolate when you’re mad because it can influence the process.” Kara must be in a happy mood often, as the commercial kitchen in her home is brimming with all things chocolate: chocolate molds, tempering chocolate, chocolate packaging and trays of fresh made truffles awaiting a weekend wedding celebration. DC Chocolate Design, her wholesale chocolate and custom chocolate specialties company, is still in its first season, but clearly keeping busy.
Kara’s affinity for chocolate began at a young age and she was able to nurture that interest through a degree in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Champaign. Still, it wasn’t until she found an internship at a “big chocolate” corporation that she realized she could turn chocolate into a career. The internship took her to Singapore where she discovered the wide array of applications and uses of cocoa as well as learning how to prepare high-quality chocolate candies.
Post-college she filled a role in product development that allowed her to work with food brands to find the exact type of chocolate product needed to provide the right texture, flavor, aesthetic and mouthfeel. “When your cereal turns your milk brown, that’s a specific type of chocolate,” explained Kara. “At the grocery store you can only buy a few varieties of cocoa, but our company had a variety and would even develop new ones to fit a client need.”
Armed with the technical chocolatier skills and cocoa knowledge, she was prepared to build her own brand of chocolate when the opportunity arose. That moment came when a career move by her husband, Cole VanderLeest, brought them both to Door County. As they searched for their new home, they intentionally sought a house that could also contain a commercial kitchen. In spring 2018 the commercial kitchen became a reality, allowing DC Chocolate Design to make its debut.
Milk and dark chocolate bars molded to depict the peninsula alongside the words “Door County” were the first products to sell via wholesale. Now Kara’s chocolates can be found at 12 retail locations around the peninsula. You will also find her selling chocolate bars and truffles at the Sturgeon Bay, Baileys Harbor and Jacksonport Farmers Markets.
Custom orders for weddings, special events and gifts are another area of focus. A large order of truffles can be customized with the choice of chocolate, filling flavor and color of tinted cocoa butter to add a splash of color. During the winter Kara plans to test new flavors, including a lavender, which I was able to sample. Floral notes were noticeable, but not overwhelming. “It’s a tricky flavor to balance; some people love the strong lavender taste and some like it to be subtle.”
It is clear that the creation of quality chocolates takes a fine combination of heart and science. Not to mention, an upfront investment in a commercial kitchen and smart distribution planning. Kara is already looking ahead to 2019, noting that the busy season in Door County falls between the traditional busy season for chocolate (Valentine’s Day and the holidays) making planning in advance that much more essential. Find more information and where to buy DC Chocolate Designs at DCChocolateDesign.com.