Launching a career by winning a bunny

07/08/2010 12:00 AM |

Ambassadrice du Chocolat Ellen Schnepel of Greenport shows off her certificate from the Academie du Chocolat de Bayonne, which she earned in May.

It all started 10 years ago with a Ghirardelli chocolate recipe calendar, given as a gift, and a three-foot chocolate bunny — a melted one at that. But thanks to that calendar and that bunny, anthropologist Ellen Schnepel embarked on a new career as a chocolatier.

Thanks to her new interest, she went on to launcha business called Chocolate Connections that she runs out of her Greenport home. But she gets around. Her expertise in chocolate has taken her to Bayonne, France, where she was named Ambassadrice du Chocolat by the Academie du Chocolat de Bayonne in a ceremony in May.

Dr. Schnepel was in France in 2009 and 2010 because she’d won a Julia Child Fund scholarship to study cooking there. While she’s been working at her second career, she’s also taken up a cause, exploring unfair marketing practices in many cocoa-producing countries.

An anthropologist who splits her time between Greenport and Brooklyn Heights, Dr. Schnepel won the life-defining bunny in a raffle sponsored by Aldo’s in Greenport a decade ago. A delay in getting to the shop to pick it up, combined with hot weather and the heat of roasting coffee beans, melted the hollow bunny.

Aldo Maiorana offered to make her another one, but Dr. Schnepel said she had been thinking of using the bunny as a source of chocolate for cooking. She had just received, as a gift from her sister, a Ghirardelli chocolate recipe calendar and it had started her thinking.

Hearing that, Mr. Maiorana gave her an 11-pound block of dark chocolate as her prize.

No, she hasn’t entirely abandoned anthropology for cooking and baking. She still does her research and consulting work. And she’s managed to combine her interests by exploring the origins and history of cocoa beans, as well as the economics and politics of their cultivation and sale.

“Aldo got me started on something,” she said.

She took samples of her first chocolate creations to him for his critique. “He was very severe with me,” she said. It was her chocolate chip cookies that finally won his applause.

She became a regular at the New York Chocolate Show each fall. She gutted the kitchen in her 19th century Greenport house to create the right space for her newfound passion.

On weekends she baked pastries that Howard Leshaw sold at his Orient Ice Cream Parlor. The plan was to split profits 40-60 with Mr. Leshaw and “we literally ate our losses.” By that summer’s end, any plan to defray costs of the kitchen makeover had vanished. Dr. Schnepel netted only $38. No matter. Chocolate Connections was born and it’s still a work in progress today.

“My accountant declared my chocolate interest a new business venture, not a hobby, that had sustained heavy capital expenditures and losses during its first year,” Dr. Schnepel said.

Undeterred, she kept baking. She also started exploring what she calls “the dark side of this sweet commodity” — child labor used in the production and exportation of cocoa.

Academic studies and research have long been a part of her life. She’s a senior research associate at Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study in New York City, a principal of Schnepel Consulting and has conducted extensive research in the French West Indies, Mauritius and Andorra. She has written about language and nationalism, identity and education and also gender relations and changing patterns of food marketing and consumption.

Baking as only an scientist could, she began experimenting early in her new career with unusual varieties of cocoa, testing for texture, aroma, taste and quality.

“Valrhona, El Rey, Santander and Green and Black were soon substituted for Ghirardelli [and] Hershey’s Mars and Nestle’s were banished from my kitchen,” she said.

During her travels in France in 2009 and 2010, supported by the Julia Child Fund Scholarship, Dr. Schnepel spent time interviewing chocolatiers and came to the attention of officials at Academie du Chocolat de Bayonne. Bayonne is striving to develop its reputation for fine chocolates, she said. She was one of three honorees at the ceremony in May.

“I think they saw me sort of like the reincarnation of Susan Terrio,” she said. Ms. Terrio was a Georgetown University professor of anthropology and French studies.

For the ceremony, Dr. Schnepel donned a dress purchased at Basketworks in Greenport and wore a dark chocolate-colored/? scarf given her by a Brooklyn friend.

Wanting to be humorous in her acceptance speech, she told her audience she felt a little like President Barack Obama said he felt when he accepted the Nobel Prize: “What have I done to deserve this?”

Oh, and about that chocolate bunny — Dr. Schnepel won a second one two years after the first, but swears Mr. Maiorana fixed that raffle to make up for the melted bunny in 2000.

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