I’ve made a few chocolate sculptures. They make me uncomfortable. The entire time that I’m making them, I feel like a fraud. Like someone will come up behind me and whisper, “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, do you?” And the answer, usually, is no.
There are some pictures in this post about my time working as a chocolatier. And, in a bit of serendipity, when I googled for an image of “chocolate sculpture,” the first one took me to Rose Levy Berenbaum’s blog post about the 2007 James Beard Awards in New York City. I was at that awards show. I worked with the chefs of Le Cordon Bleu to prepare 1400 plated desserts. And I assisted as they created a candy apple sugar sculpture and the snarling jungle cat chocolate sculpture that is shown on Rose’s blog. It took three of us three days and 36 hours, but we did it.
So I have the utmost respect for people who make gorgeous chocolate sculptures. It’s a delicate balance of artistry and engineering. I think the artistry is pretty self-explanatory, but the engineering might be undervalued by most. Chocolate is heavy, and stacking chocolate on top of chocolate makes for a very heavy (and heavy-looking, as in clumsy) sculpture. At the same time, delicate pieces don’t provide much structural support, so you have to create something that’s still sturdy. Tricky.
I was fortunate to be a judge at the EAT! Vancouver chocolate competition a while back, and the winning sculpture just blew me away. Created by Suzannah Yeung of the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, it was hands-down my favourite of the competition. The entire piece is made of chocolate, without any extra supports. You know that someone has done a good job when you’re so entertained by it you don’t even notice the construction. I loved the level of detail, the execution and the cleanliness of the piece. The playfulness—the lizard’s face and tongue—just made it that much better.
From a technical standpoint, the sculpture was impressive. It was impeccably clean. Despite my eagle eyes looking for any signs of drippy chocolate, I didn’t find any. What I did find was shiny, tempered chocolate, smart use of colour, and a range of impressive techniques. That giant block of would-be granite that’s on the bottom of the piece? That’s not granite. That’s chocolate, all dolled up to look like rocks. The incredibly delicate flowers, so thin that I would have sworn they were made of pastillage? Nope. All chocolate. The air-brushed portrait, right down to the lines on the dragonfly—seriously impressive.
And, finally, I always look at the back of the sculpture. I was told when making a sculpture that it needs to be beautiful from all angles. That means that the back of it needs to be as clean, well-composed and aesthetically pleasing as the front of it.
This is the kind of work that comes from hours and hours of practice, years of experience and a natural knack for the stuff. I’m glad someone knows what they’re doing. I’m happy just to gawk.