The chocolate lab

Switching careers midstream has brought sweet success to confectioner Aliza Siekierski.

aliza siekierski 88 224 (photo credit: Shira Teger)
aliza siekierski 88 224
(photo credit: Shira Teger)
There are no Oompa Loompas or nut-sorting squirrels at the O' Chocolat factory in Modi'in - just one hard-working woman who may occasionally sing to herself. Aliza Siekierski opened her chocolate lab just one year ago, but she's gotten her bearings in the business rather quickly. It all began when Uzi Landau didn't make it into the 17th Knesset in the March 2006 elections. Siekierski, a bright and clear-spoken woman, had been working in the Knesset for 13 years as his parliamentary aide. But her government career had actually begun while she was in her second year of National Service; because she spoke English, she was hired as a tour guide at the Knesset. She stayed on a few more months to fill in for women who were on maternity leave. Siekierski then went on to study history at university. While in school, she came across an ad Landau had put out for an aide. She answered it and got the job. Siekierski notes how lucky she was to get a civil service job without any connections. As the daughter of North American immigrants, she was at a disadvantage. Her Hebrew was not as good as other people's since she didn't hear it at home. And she had "no uncle pulling [her] in," no parents' army buddies to put in a good word for her, no "friend of a friend of a relative of a nephew." Siekierski says that at least now she has a few connections to pass on to her children, should they require the help. While she had never dreamed of working in politics - she had never even been to the Knesset before her tour-guiding gig - she enjoyed her years with Landau. She got to meet important politicians and travel to the US. "It was an interesting job," Siekierski says, but by the time Landau lost his seat, she was ready to go. When she began as an aide, she was single. Thirteen years later, she was married and had five children. So now an unemployed mother, Siekierski decided to take a break and look around. "It was a bit startling," she admits. "I decided that I wouldn't try to find another job." There were offers from other Knesset members looking to hire a veteran aide, but she rejected them. Half a year later, she was taking a course in patisserie and headed toward chocolate. It had seemed like figuring things out was taking forever, but in retrospect, she realizes, it didn't. Siekierski gives a lot of credit to her French-born husband for pushing her toward chocolate. "Growing up here, we had one kind of chocolate: that was [Elite's] shokolad para. Either you liked it or you didn't, but that's what there was." She had never given a thought to the art of chocolate or the various kinds of chocolate. Even when her husband met someone who sold homemade chocolate and came to her with the idea, she took it in a commercial direction, looking for places where she could sell someone else's chocolate. The idea to make it herself never crossed her mind. "It seemed so far-fetched," she recalls from behind dark sunglasses. While she was looking into the business, she found a chocolate-maker who was interested in expanding. They met, and they were very close to agreeing on a franchise option. Before the final deal, Siekierski asked if she could see where he produced his chocolate. Once she saw his operation, she realized that if he could do it, she could do it too. "And at that point, there was a big change in how I saw things," Siekierski explained one sunny afternoon while sitting on her patio, succa remnants still visible. "I was looking into how to train myself. Courses and classes." She had a hunger to understand the whole chocolate process, from beginning to end. Siekierski began a course in Givat Shmuel's Estella Kitat Oman confectionery school. And along with her dessert education came a business education. "I had no idea [about business]... All my adult life I've been a civil servant," explains Siekierski. "You work, you don't; you're sick, you're healthy; you get your salary." But the lessons came quickly. "I didn't even know how to deposit the checks. I didn't know I was supposed to sign them on the back. It's been a long year of learning. I haven't totally gotten it straight, but I think I'm doing a bit better." Before devising her business plan, Siekierski had a look at the local market to try to find her niche. "Looking through the Internet, I saw there was no [halav Yisrael fine] chocolate... All the chocolate that exists is rabbinate, if it's kosher, and halav akum [milk processed by a non-Jew]." Siekierski, who is modern Orthodox, explains that Israelis are not very familiar with the term "halav Yisrael," but people who come from outside Israel are. She gives the example of many French people who have been forced to overlook their halav Yisrael preferences - especially when it comes to cheeses. Plus, there was the location factor. "There are very few chocolate makers from Modi'in and south; most of them are further up north, like Ra'anana, Herzliya, Hod Hasharon." Thus, Siekierski found her place in the mehadrin artisan chocolate market and began to work. She hired a contractor to convert her family's secure room into a chocolate factory. He was so excited by her project that he was also her first customer. The "shelter" now has its own air conditioner - which makes the artisan very happy. She hates the heat, and wonders whether she was meant to remain in Canada instead of leaving at two months old. "Chocolate is perfect for me because it has to be air conditioned all the time." The lab has a very heavy scent of chocolate in the air. There is a long stainless-steel counter against one wall with shelves above it. On the counter is a big metal heater with a layer of water at the bottom used for melting and tempering the chocolate; there's also a microwave and a decorative bag of cocoa beans. The shelves house all kinds of equipment, including clear plastic molds and little white scales. On the walls are laminated photos of the cocoa harvesting process and of various chocolates Siekierski has created. Below the counter are marble-topped wheeled islands - one for preparing parve chocolate and one for dairy. On each end of the room is a sink, one of which has a library of books about chocolate suspended above it. Opposite the entrance is a special glass-doored refrigerator for keeping chocolate chilled. Next to it is a regular mini-fridge for other ingredients. On the remaining wall is a stainless-steel shelving unit with gift-wrapped bags and boxes of chocolate at eye level. Above that shelf are packaging materials and ingredients. Below it are massive bags of Belgian chocolate discs and other raw materials. There is also a shelf with ingredients to fill the various chocolates: bottles of rum and whiskey, a jar of peanut butter, nuts, honey, raisins and other fixings. Finding all the right ingredients with the right kashrut certifications proved a complicated task. Siekierski knew she wanted to use Belgian chocolate "because it's the best." "People don't know that when you make chocolate you don't actually make it from cocoa beans," she says. "The equivalent is someone that bakes doesn't do it from the wheat, he uses flour." As in other markets, tastes work in fads. Now, Belgian chocolate has overtaken much of the world, as most of the big factories in Europe are in Belgium or are Belgian-owned. The difference between chocolates is in the flavor, explains Siekierski. "In Switzerland, they eat very sweet chocolate, milk chocolate." She notes that Hershey brought his milk chocolate to the US. "But mainly, chocolate is bittersweet chocolate; it's closer to the natural way of chocolate." Siekierski found mehadrin Belgian dark chocolate, but the halav Yisrael Belgian milk chocolate only made it here about two months ago. At first, she would spend hours scouring the supermarkets in Mea She'arim and Kiryat Sefer in order to gain an understanding of what mehadrin products were readily available. She acquainted herself with the various labels and makes. Siekierski notes that in the past year many products have been receiving better certification and that many of the big companies have been getting interested in the haredim. "There are some things that I started off not having and now I do." With the various ingredients Siekierski has found, she has created an impressive chocolate repertoire of about 30 varieties. Meanwhile, she is constantly working on devising new flavors. American taste buds will be pleased to know she makes a fantastic dark chocolate-peanut butter combo, while the British can take great satisfaction in her version of an After Eight. On the way is a coconut treat which may remind chocolate lovers of the non-mehadrin Bounty. Siekierski's eventual goal is to provide large catered events with chocolate desserts, instead of the overused creamy parve cakes. She would like to enlarge her number of clients, although she admits it will be tough working as a one-man show. There are hopes to expand Ô Chocolat into a medium-sized family business, assuming her children are interested. In the meantime, her eldest is only 11. Originally, Siekierski figured she would be selling chocolates to stores. "My concept of how I saw things has changed totally. When I started off I thought that the best thing that I could do was sell wonderful little boxes. And now I came to the conclusion that with me having a factory and not a store, selling one box is not what I want to do. I want to get a big amount of chocolate out to people who will eat it immediately." Luckily, Siekierski elaborates, since her chocolates are appropriate for the haredi community and her clientele are always celebrating something, she should be in good shape. Someday, Siekierski thinks she will export her chocolates, probably to France. "There are plenty of Jewish communities that would be interested in Israeli-produced, kosher l'mehadrin, halav Yisrael chocolate." But for now, she does not feel ready to expand that far. She is, however, interested in expanding further within the country. To that end, she is part of Business Network International, an American organization that has spread globally to help small-medium businesses network. Siekierski is currently finishing up a half-year term as chairwoman of the Modi'in chapter, even though she has not yet been a BNI member for a year. "Each group wants its chairman to be confident and inviting, because the goal is to get more members and more visitors." She explains that the organization works mostly by word of mouth. "It's been very helpful. You are exposing yourself in front of 20 other members, and they each have between 20 and 200 clients." Siekierski has realized that she can take BNI a notch further by visiting other local chapters and using the opportunity to market herself. She admits, though, that chocolate has the advantage that the product speaks for itself. She is a rather unusual member of BNI, as most of the other small business owners provide services as realtors, computer technicians, insurance agents and accountants. Siekierski recently met with the international chair of BNI, who provided O' Chocolat as an example of a small company that can - and probably will - expand abroad through the BNI system. She smiles and says, "From his mouth to God's ears." Food of the gods These days, chocolate is a special treat for children and adults alike. But originally, chocolate was a consumed solely as a drink; it was associated with Aztec and Maya gods as early as 400 CE, and traces were found in pottery from nearly 1,000 years before that. Chocolate is produced from cocoa beans, which grow only in tropical areas between 20° north and 20° south of the equator. Preparing chocolate is a very complex and intensive process. First, the beans must be harvested and removed from their pods. They are left to ferment for about a week, and then quickly dried in the sun to prevent molding. At a chocolate processing factory, the beans are cleaned and ground, and then refined into liquor, powder or cocoa butter. There are three types of chocolate: dark, milk and white. The differences in their composition hinge on cocoa mass, sugar content and milk content. Dark chocolate has the most cocoa mass and the least sugar, while milk chocolate has a bit less cocoa and contains milk powder, and white chocolate has no cocoa mass - just cocoa butter - and milk powder. Aliza Siekierski explained the way she makes her chocolates. She begins with the processed chocolate disks that she imports from Belgium. To create the pretty little chocolates that often come in assortments, a chocolate shell must be formed through tempering. The chocolate is melted in a carefully controlled environment. For dark chocolate, this means raising it to 45°-50°, then lowering the melted chocolate to 30° and then back up to 32°. This ensures that the chocolate crystals form correctly and produce a stable product. The melted chocolate is then poured into a mold. After it hardens, it is filled with whatever Siekierski chooses, and more tempered chocolate is used to close it off. The process can take a number of days. Different molds are used to indicate the various fillings; some chocolates come out with rosettes, some have curlicues and some have geometric patterns. Those that are wrapped in foil contain liquor, which is a universal rule of chocolate, says Siekierski. The other common chocolate candy production method is called "enrobing." As opposed to molding, enrobing requires a more firm filling, which is then encased in the molten chocolate; it must be handled with a special chocolate fork so as to create an aesthetic final product - which is usually square or rectangular. Siekierski offers hour-long chocolate workshops in which participants can make truffles, which are easier chocolates to produce. Basically, a chocolate center is rolled in various toppings to create the final product. Chocolate has to be stored in a controlled environment in order to maintain its form, which means cool, dark places, ideally between 15°-17°, with a relative humidity of less than 50%.