Have you ever smelled chocolate instead of pluff mud when crossing the Stono River bridge? If so, you can thank two longtime friends and business partners who churn out the chocolate in a small James Island kitchen for people to enjoy all over the country.
Mark Gray and David Vagasky are chefs who have known each other for 31 years. Gray once was the culinary chief at the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia. Vagasky was a student in the resort kitchen and now teaches in the pastry department at the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College.
Their business is called Cacao’s Artisan Chocolates. A cacao is a South American evergreen tree whose beans are used to make cocoa, chocolate and cocoa butter.
Gray says what they do is “sling chocolate.” The products are all handmade. And earlier this week, there were chocolate rabbits in every corner of the kitchen.
Easter caps off the busy season here at the chocolate factory. The two confectioners and their interns made more than 1,000 rabbits. The smallest are barely 2 inches high. The tallest measures more than a foot. That’s a pretty sweet rabbit’s foot.
Some are hollow, some solid.
What they do in this little shop is try to bring an old-world, traditional approach to the making of the chocolate. An old marble slab still serves as the primary work area. That same marble slab once was used at the Greenbriar.
Some days, temperature and humidity can affect the product, so attempts are made to keep the kitchen between 60 and 65 degrees.
When is the chocolate season? From October to Easter. It’s true, they make chocolate turkeys and pumpkins in the fall long before they start wondering if the rabbits’ ears will fall off in the spring.
Around town, they provide chocolate products for a variety of food and gift retailers.
For the past few weeks, lights in the kitchen have been coming on at 6 a.m. Many days, the ovens and mixing bowls were in full service for up to 12 hours.
What Gray and Vagasky try to supply is personalized customer service. It matters that the chocolate is smooth and tasty. What seems to bring back the most repeat business, though, is the way the customer is treated.
One client this particular Easter is requesting a rather over-the-top order to make an apparent large family feel important. The order calls for 35 rabbits. Each is individually wrapped and personalized with a family member’s name.
That package was shipped to the Northeast in time to arrive for the big family gathering. Let’s hope all those bunnies didn’t spend too much time in the hot belly of a cargo plane waiting on the tarmac.
Chocolate is a product that seems to touch all the senses. Taste, though, is where the payoff is delivered.
Gray considers himself to be part artist and part scientist. Getting all the mixtures to come together just right is the all-consuming challenge.
Whether making caramels, toffee, truffles or bon bons, these guys love the process. The mixing, the molding and the melting are all important, but how it eventually tastes is what matters.
If the wind’s right, you might just catch a whiff of their next batch.
Reach Warren Peper at email@example.com.