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Adam Kavalier is a stickler about his beans. The Undone Chocolate co-founder says he pays about $500 over the market price per ton for his organic farm-direct cocoa beans to get a premium product. And if they’re not up to snuff, he’ll sometimes send them back. Then, in every 150-pound sack of cocoa beans, he sorts out the small ones and the cracked ones by hand.
“These are looking real good. They’re uniform in size,” Kavalier says, scooping up a handful and letting them fall through his fingers. If you lean in, they smell acidic. “The cocoa beans are fermented,” he explains.
Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair” is playing in the background of the Union Kitchen workspace, where Kavalier is working on a recent Thursday afternoon next to a dog biscuit maker and a chickpea chip producer—a few of the 50 or so artisans who use the food incubator. Kavalier launched Undone Chocolate with his wife Kristen Kavalier in December, and they now produce 2,000 chocolate bars a month in D.C.
Kavalier spreads the beans out on pans and demonstrates how he roasts them in the oven. When they’re done, he’ll use a vacuum-powered machine called a winnower to separate the shells from the cocoa nibs. The shell will be packaged up and sold as an herbal-earthy tea. But the nibs will be combined with organic cane sugar—the only other ingredient in the chocolate—and ground for three days.
Kavalier lifts the red lid off the cylindrical grinder, which can hold up to 65 pounds of chocolate. It looks like a giant stock pot with two big wheels inside turning in opposite directions—fast, then slow, fast, then slow. It takes a day or two to get the chocolate smooth and another day or two to decrease the bitterness. “A lot of flavor development happens here,” he says.
The chocolate will then be poured in pans and aged for between a week and two months, depending on the origin of the beans. As with wine, aging chocolate brings out complexity and develops the subtle fruit and nut flavors that hide underneath the bitterness.
The chocolate is then chopped into chunks, melted down, and tempered, which gives the product its “shine, snap, and buttery mouthfeel,” before it’s filled in molds, wrapped, and labeled.
“People make Willy Wonka jokes,” Kavalier admits. “I feel like an Oompa Loompa sometimes. It’s a lot of work.”
This isn’t just some whimsical pastime for Kavalier. He has a Ph.D. in biology with a focus in phytochemistry and was headed toward a career in cancer pharmacology before he and his wife decided to start their own chocolate company. While D.C. has chocolatiers like Co. Co. Sala, who create confections and truffles but don’t make bars from the bean, Undone is the District’s first chocolate manufacturer. (The suburbs, however, are home to chocolate makers like Woodbridge’s Potomac Chocolate and Gaithersburg’s SPAGnVOLA.) Later this year, Undone will be joined by Concept C, another bean-to-bar operation opening next to DC Brau on Bladensburg Road NE from couple Colin and Sarah Hartman. She’s a São Paulo, Brazil, native who’s worked for Valrhona and San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate, and he’s a Wharton MBA who served in the U.S. Marines.
Both companies see themselves not just as producers of a delicious treat, but as sources for social and environmental good. Concept C will specialize in bars made with cocoa beans from Brazil’s Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, where fungal infestations devastated the cocoa industry several decades ago. As a result, many farmers cut down their cocoa plantations inside the rainforest canopy and converted them into things like cattle pastures. The Hartmans hope to help restore the rainforest, which has a symbiotic relationship with cacao trees, by supporting the region’s chocolate industry. They plan to donate a yet-undetermined portion of their sales to a Brazilian NGO that purchases deforested, unproductive farmland and helps bring back the native plants and wildlife.
“We’re not just a chocolate company,” says Colin Hartman. “We want to be seen as a company that also actualizes rainforest conservation.”
Undone Chocolate is likewise interested in sustainable sourcing, but the Kavaliers are especially touting the health benefits of their chocolate. The bars come with labels like “replenish” and “nourish” and a cardiogram symbol. Whereas most chocolate bars advertise what they contain, Undone wanted to do something different: “It’s kind of similar to vitamin water where you’re actually trying to name a feeling that it provokes,” says Kristen Kavalier.
Adam Kavalier came across cacao, the plant used to make chocolate, while he was studying plant biochemistry and how plants make medicinal compounds in graduate school at the City University of New York. (He then got a post-doctorate degree at Weill Cornell Medical College.) He started making chocolate at home and bringing it into the lab to test its antioxidant levels. He became obsessed with finding beans to craft the most antioxidant-rich chocolate possible.
“It sort of started as this analytical processing thing,” Adam Kavalier says. “Making chocolate takes several steps and involves making some of your own machinery. I love to build things and love to make things … So it filled a lot of different passions for me, both on the science side and the artistic side.”
Meanwhile, Kristen Kavalier had her own lifelong tie to chocolate. She says when her mom found out she was pregnant with her, she ate tons and tons of chocolate. “The joke was I came out as a chocolate baby instead of a crack baby,” she says. “Growing up, I had all the really funny chocolate sweatshirts or pillows.” It seemed meant to be when Adam Kavalier gave her four homemade chocolate bars on their first date.
Adam Kavalier spent about five years experimenting with recipes in their 700-square-foot New York apartment. The couple had to put an acoustic sound barrier wall over their kitchen door because they’d often have two or three noisy chocolate grinders going at once. Then, because they were worrie about the vibrations disturbing their neighbors downstairs, they stacked up yoga mats. The entire space was filled with huge containers of beans, and nibs, ginders, a temperer, a fan, and other equipment. “It just took up the entire apartment,” Kristen Kavalier says. “The only room that never had chocolate in it was the bedroom, and actually at one point I think it did.”
The Kavaliers started Undone Chocolate on a small scale while they were still in New York, selling some bars to friends and hosting chocolate fondue parties. Then Kristen Kavalier got a job in D.C. with a social analytics startup called NewBrand, where she continues to work full time. Adam Kavalier, who grew up in Chevy Chase, eventually moved the operation here with plans to move into a professional kitchen and build the business.
Concept C’s Sarah Hartman had a very different path to a career in chocolate. She went to culinary school in Brazil and worked briefly in restaurants. She knew she wanted to be in the food industry, but she didn’t know where. Her mother-in-law gave her a book on chocolate while she was still in school, and she started researching chocolate-making and its history. “I kind of fell in love,” she says. She went to an online school called Ecole Chocolat to learn more about the craft before going on to work in corporate sales for Valrhona.
Both chocolate makers saw an unfilled niche for their products in D.C.: Many major cities have a chocolate factory. “We were surprised when we got here that there was no factory,” Adam Kavalier says.
Undone Chocolate currently sells three 70 percent dark chocolate bars, including one with pink Himalayan salt and another with cinnamon, cardamom, and chili. The bars are available at Glen’s Garden Market, Yes! Organic Market on 14th Street NW and in Petworth, Smucker Farms, and Compass Coffee, among others. The Kavaliers have national ambitions eventually, as do the Hartmans. When they launch, Concept C will make Atlantic and Amazon rainforest dark chocolate bars plus dark and milk “pure Brazilian” chocolates that blend the two. Later, they’d like to make bars that incorporate Brazilian fruits like cashew fruit and guava. Concept C’s factory will also host tours, tastings, and workshops.
As Kavalier sees it, the competition is welcome. Both are creating high-end products that don’t come cheap given the quality of the ingredients.
“It’s good for all of us to have more chocolate here,” Adam Kavalier says, “because it raises people’s awareness of what’s behind the $7 or $8 bar on the shelf.”
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery