Women We Admire: Lauren Pett

Women We Admire By Julia Burgi

Lauren Pett, of Rich Chocolates, is living her dream: she ditched the cubicle for pastry school and has created her own chocolate and candies company, where each piece is a hand-made piece of art! I received a box of these chocolates for my birthday this year and was inspired to share this delicious Chicago secret.

Lauren's creativity is clear - she originally went to art school before settling for office jobs that brought no lasting satisfaction. She attended the Kendall College and the French Pastry School in Chicago and even cooked at one of my personal favorites, Bleeding Heart Bakery, which specializes (though is not limited to) vegan baked goods.

The materials Lauren uses are top of the line, what she calls "the Lexus" of ingredients. This includes the best Swiss chocolate, real fruit, and real spices rather than artificial flavorings. Some of the chocolates that Rich Chocolates offer are in collections, such as the Chicago-inspired Windy City Collection, the cocktail-infused Barfly Collection, and the nostalgic Whimsy Collection. Lauren's artistic background is clearly expressed in these chocolates, in every one of which her talent and passion are visible.

I asked Lauren about the best parts of being a self-made chocolatier:

What is your favorite ingredient that you use?

I try to use as many local ingredients as possible, which can be tricky for a chocolatier in the Midwest. One of my absolute favorites is heavy cream from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, IL, a small family farm that raises pasture-fed Jersey cows. The cream is so rich and sweet, you'd almost want to drink it straight, but I manage to save it for my ganaches and caramels. My other favorite ingredient is my white chocolate. I use Felchlin's Edelweiss, which is a 36% white chocolate. I know that it can be a controversial chocolate- so many people think they hate white chocolate, because their experiences have been with overly sugary ones that have a cloying, almost sickening sweetness. The Edelweiss, because of it's high cocoa butter content, has much less sugar than most commercial white chocolates. I always tell people it tastes like a sweetened glass of milk- more rich and creamy than sweet. It's the perfect base for my Mint Chocolate Chip, Key Lime Pie, and Creamsicle ganaches, and goes perfectly with the tartness of the Lemon Pine Nut Toffee.

What is your favorite product or collection?

My absolute favorite product is the Honey Almond Toffee. I use Bron's Bees honey, which is from a local farm, and there's just something about the combination of the honey and butter in the toffee with roasted almonds and dark chocolate that just makes it addictive.

What are some of your flavor inspirations?

I am constantly inspired by so many things- food, music, travel. . . The Windy City Collection was born from my desire to thank Chicago for being so awesome. I moved here in 2002 and immediately felt at home, so the collection is what I call my "love letter" to the city.

Chicago is known for being a "city of neighborhoods," each with its own distinct culture and history, so I just figured out how they would translate to chocolate. I recently added a new flavor- the Bronzeville, which is a neighborhood on the south side that was once THE spot for jazz and blues. I mixed dark and milk chocolate with whiskey from Koval distillery (a local boutique distillery), and rolled it in chocolate shavings. It's dark, boozy and a little smokey. If that doesn't say jazz and blues, I don't know what does!

What is the best part about working in the kitchen (relative to being an office)?

I have nothing against offices in general, I've just never had any fulfilling office jobs. I spent my whole life training as an artist, so the idea of sitting behind a computer with no creative outlet is so stifling for me. I love working with my hands, and being able to see the progress I'm making through every stage of production. My absolute favorite part about what I do is the fact that the candies I make put smiles on people's faces. And that's something that never resulted from any spreadsheet I ever worked on.

Do you have any advice for others seeking to explore their culinary passions professionally, particularly those in office jobs?

Staging is a great way to get a feel for kitchen life. So many people think, I make cookies or candies at home, so I'm going to be a pastry chef! But then when they start working professionally, they see what a truly hard life it is. The work is physical, the hours are long, and let's be honest, the pay isn't so great. I truly do believe that if you love doing something, it makes all the pain and hard work worth it. But the reality of the food industry is very different from what we see on TV.

I think that pastry school is very important. For the culinary side of things, it's much easier to learn by doing, but pastry is such a science, I think it's very important to have that background before you go work in someone's kitchen. Many schools will offer continuing education programs, 2 or 3 day workshops that you can try before you commit to a full program. And then stage or shadow at a pastry shop for a day, so you can get more of a feel for it.

And of course. . . eat! For those who want to be in the culinary world, I think it's so, so important to explore food. Try new restaurants, new ethnic cuisines, new bakeries. . . Everywhere I travel, I always seek out a chocolate shop I've never tried, and I'm constantly amazed by the creativity that's out there!