Katherine Clapner will go through somewhere between five to six hundred pounds of chocolate this week. Orders come in through internet and phone, with walk-ins consistently making their way through the doors of her small shop in Bishop Arts. Their temperament will collectively escalate over the coming days as last-minute panic sets in, but one thing is common throughout – they all want chocolate. It is the week before Valentine’s Day, and Clapner’s time and products are in high demand – she is an owner and the Head Chef of Dude, Sweet Chocolate, and her creations aren’t merely changing how Dallasites view last minute Valentine’s shopping. Clapner’s creations are changing the perceptions of chocolate as a whole.
“I think a lot of people pigeonhole chocolate as a sweet only, and if that’s how they like it, then that’s fine for them, but making them that sweet just is not really my style. Chocolate has in and of itself a very clean, strong taste that allows you to go as savory as you like just as much as it does sweet,” says Clapner, who started up Dude, Sweet Chocolate two years ago with business partner Redding May. “We’ll have a lot of people come in and ask for things like chocolate-dipped strawberries and things like that, and it’s not that I don’t like those things; I just think you should do what you really like.”
What Clapner really likes, it seems, is to throw things into chocolate that others may have previously considered not only out of bounds, but out of the realm of reason. At Dude, Sweet, chocolate finds itself in the company of the likes of whiskey, wine, peppers and porcinis. To wit: their Fungus Amongus is a chocolate toffee with porcini mushrooms and pumpkin seeds, while their Breakup Potion is a chocolate sauce fortified with bourbon. Their Kampot Chocolate Bar icorporates black pepper, and there are several chiles that make their way into other products.
But with whatever whimsey it may seem that Clapner creates, she does so with a trained hand – a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and veteran of the Savoy in London as well a former Pastry Chef at Stephan Pyles, she knows exactly what she’s doing, even if no one’s really done it before.
“Chocolate is a carrier, more than anything else. I’ll add blue cheese, or garlic, or beets, and it takes them all. It’s actually very complementary, especially since a lot of fruits and vegetables have a lot of natural sugars. They really come through as something with a lot more depth to it than just sugar,” she says. “But you do have to have some of the stuff that, like I said, is a little more familiar – you just have to do it on your own terms.
“For example, one of our longest-running ones we’ve made, and one of our first truffles that we made, was the Yerba Mate Tea. It’s made with the Yerba Mate, Zipcode Honey,and fresh lemon. It’s very clean, and very soft. It’s kind of our go-to when people don’t know what exactly to buy someone. It works from four-year-olds to eighty-year-olds.”
Even with the more ‘familiar’ styles, Dude, Sweet Chocolate is a unique style that Clapner has brought to Dallas (and now to Fort Worth, where they have recently opened a store inside Avoca Coffee on Magnolia), but while the approach may seem novel to many of her new customers, Clapner observes that the Dallas consumer was far less hesitant to try out her innovations than might otherwise be expected.
“Since the first day, we haven’t found anything but receptiveness – You know, there are those people will come in and say they don’t like dark chocolate, but they’ll almost always end up leaving with something,” she says. “Usually, those customers come in associating dark chocolate only with bitterness; they haven’t had it when it’s properly done.”
And for the return customer, it’s likely that Clapner will always ensure that something new is on the shelf. She insists that as a flavor medium, chocolate still has a long way to go, and she’s intent on taking it as far as she can.
“There’s such a multitude of different kinds, and different origins, and percentages, and each one of them has its own personality. For instance, I can get a sixty-five percent – which is a bit of a base, and is easy to work with – from three different countries, and even two different companies from one country, and they’re all going to have a completely different flavor profile,” she says. “I don’t think that there’s a single thing I’ve thrown at it that it doesn’t take, and I’m certainly not done yet.”
It’s a perspective on chocolate that opens a world of possibilities, and Clapner is engaging it all from her 375 square-foot store in the Bishop Arts. It is indeed a daunting task – especially when February rolls around.
“You know, Valentine’s is different than all the other holidays; people just wait until the last minute and then it all hits at once,” she says. “And the guys are hilarious – they just come in a hurry and get a whole bunch of stuff at once.”
That seems like a pretty good strategy at Dude, Sweet Chocolate. No matter what season it is.