By Claire Harlin
Fortunately for North County chocolate lovers, Del Mar, Carmel Valley and Solana Beach happen to be home to a few of the most coveted chocolatiers in San Diego — and nationwide.
As people become more aware and more adventurous when it comes to the finer things in life — sweets, cheese, wine, beer and so on — specialty gourmet chocolate shops like Dallmann Confections, Jer’s Chocolates and Chuao Chocolatiers are leading a movement that’s sweeping the nation and making indulgence more a part of people’s lives. And their owners, albeit completely different from one another, exude passion strong enough to inspire executives to trade their business suits for chef coats and join the movement.
After all, that’s what Jerry Swain, owner of Jer’s, and Michael Antonorsi, owner of Chuao, did. Both men worked for years in the telecommunications field before they followed their passion. For Antonorsi, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and native Venezuelan, that meant picking up and moving his family from Venezuela to Paris to attend a gourmet culinary school. For Swain, a Solana Beach resident of more than 15 years, that meant revisiting his interests and making a courageous career change based on a yearning to build something innovative from the ground up.
Swain will tell you his success “happened by accident,” but don’t believe him — his talent, popularity and business savvy was apparent early on. He wowed his peers in college at the University of California, Riverside — where he served as student body president — with peanut butter balls that acquired the name “Jer’s Balls.” His specialty became the focus of annual potlucks, which also grew to the point that he started renting out venues for the event. That gave rise to the “Jer’s Ball” fundraiser event, which raised money for the local food bank for nine years.
It was still years before he noticed that 85 percent of mainstream chocolate candies somehow incorporate the peanut flavor, and decided to build a business that would cater to the peanut butter chocolate addicts of the world.
Unlike Dallmann and Chuao, which are constantly at the forefront of chocolate innovation, Jer’s isn’t trendy — this is, unless you consider flavor a trend.
“We’re not trying to incite the ‘wow’ factor or intrigue,” said Swain. “We’re just offering a good natural product that people will continue to buy over and over.”
Isabella Valencia, on the other hand, knows how to intrigue her loyal followers — who not only love her chocolates but they love her, too. The owner of Dallmann Confections, located in the Flower Hill Promenade, makes herself a vital part of her customers’ chocolate experience with her weekly in-store tastings, in which she strategically pairs her confections with cheese, wine, salt, tapas, scotch, beer and other fine foods.
Each of her chocolates is a work of art, hand painted and uniquely flavored, and she seeks to heighten appreciation of her product through her educational events, which highlight the diversity and versatility of her medium.
Valencia learned her craft in Austria, where her family operates a successful pastry shop, but she doesn’t keep her skills a secret — she holds hand-on classes in the kitchen to show people what goes into the making of each piece.
Both Valencia and Antonorsi said their most popular flavors at the moment combine sweet with salty. Valencia can hardly keep her sea salt and carmel chocolate on the shelves, and Antonorsi just came out with a potato chip and chocolate candy bar.
Both shops have also made chocolate fanatics out of their spicy treats. Dallmann offers chile and cayenne chocolates, and Chuao’s popular “firecracker” chocolate (caramel fudge with chipotle chile and salt, rolled in popping candy and enrobed in dark chocolate) has been featured on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.
“It makes everyone feel like a child,” said Antonorsi. “Even my 70-year mom, who’s very traditional and formal, gets the giggles when she eats it.”