When she was younger, Elaine Hsieh and her brother would spend time demolishing their chocolate Easter bunnies with scientific precision, the former medical practitioner and co-founder of EHChocolatier says.
“Should you start with the ears? Should you pop the eyes out? Start shoving the pieces in so you have more of a solid chocolate by the time you finish?” she recalls of her process. “I spent a lot of time thinking about that. That was probably my first memory of chocolate.”
By contrast, her fellow chocolatier and business partner, Catharine Sweeney, had one simple aspiration regarding candy.
“When I was at home I used to say as soon as I move out I’m going to have a cupboard full of Almond Joy. Of course that never happened,” she says.
She got an entire kitchen full of chocolate instead.
Located in Somerville, on the second floor of an enormous and unassuming building, Elaine, Catharine, and their female-powered team at EHChocolatier are handcrafting some of the finest chocolates in the country. A lofty declaration, to be sure, but they have the votes of The New York Times, Food & Wine, and Boston magazine’s Best of Boston award. But unlike many master artisans, both Elaine and Catharine began their craft pretty late in the game.
Having studied medicine her whole life, Elaine was working in women’s health, and had even opened her own practice in Boston before realising that it wasn’t fulfilling her as she’d hoped. She was enjoying cooking in her spare time, “I think partly just to deal with the stress of practicing medicine,” she says. She eventually enrolled at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, where a pastry instructor encouraged her to pursue the sweeter side of things.
An avid amateur baker by contrast, Catharine was working at Harvard University’s admissions office, also searching for a new challenge, when the two women were introduced to each other at a party.
“We had a mutual friend who was getting married,” Catharine says, and they were asked if they’d make her wedding cake together.
The two continued cooking together, and would team up around the holidays to bake treats for family and friends. Almost a decade after the wedding, Catharine decided to leave her job, and Elaine followed suit.
“After we left our respective jobs we decided we’d test the waters a little bit and see if we could work together, so we started a family and friends ‘Chocolate Club’,” Catharine says. “Once a month, they would get a box of chocolate and some confections, and we did that for nine months.”
Working out of Elaine’s home, the pair were able to keep overhead costs quite low as they slowly expanded their fledgeling enterprise. “It was also like our own little Kickstarter in many ways,” Elaine says. “By the end of the nine months, we ended up with quite a little egg to start our business.”
Slowly and organically is the way Elaine and Catharine grew EHChocolatier, and it turns out it’s also the secret to making great chocolates. The ladies put a lot of focus on tempering; the delicate process of melting and setting to achieve the perfect amount of sheen, snap, and smoothness in the finished product.
“Chocolate is very finicky, and we find that when we run into problems it’s because we’ve disrespected that process,” Elaine says. “You can’t rush it, and you can’t wait. When it’s ready, you have to stop what you’re doing and use it, otherwise you’ve waited too long.”
The other, less secret parts of the puzzle are using the highest quality ingredients at every step, and attention to the details, and Elaine says it’s those details that set EHChocolatier apart.
“It has to be exceptional in how it tastes, it has to be exceptional in how the texture is, it has to be exceptional in how it looks,” she says. “It’s the whole package.”
The women wrestle with the idea of expanding, or opening a store, as they know they always want to be in the kitchen, ensuring that quality. As the company’s menu continues to expand, they know there will be a point where they have to make a choice between existing items and newness.
“We love our stuff and we love everything we make, but it would not be the same if we could not keep making more. It’s kind of a balance,” Elaine says.
Whatever decision they make, there’s one thing that Catharine assures definitely won’t change.
“There will always be lots of testing!”
Yelp connects people to great local businesses, and in our Boston Born series, we’re sharing the stories behind some of the highest-rated, locally-owned biz in and around the city. Features researched, written and photographed by Lloyd Mallison. To read what Yelpers have to say about the featured biz, download the Yelp app.