First I notice her boots: slightly scuffed, trimmed in orange, barely grazing above her heel. “Ostrich leather,” she says proudly. Purchased in Berlin. Custom-tailored herself. The boots are the bold exclamation point to a handcrafted outfit, from the leather hat atop her head to the rust-colored scarf around her neck to the leather satchel from which she peddles her handmade chocolates.
“I love leather,” Roma Hernandez says. “I like things that last; things that were hand-crafted.”
Hernandez handcrafts candy bars for her start-up Roma Chocolates. Right now, she sells one variety, LA Luxe: Valrhona chocolate filled with nougat and caramel and peanuts topped with the slightest sprinkling of sea salt, that when bitten into, offer a bold burst of flavor before softly melting into the palate and lingering on the tongue.
“I was really going for a classic, Snickers experience,” she says. “I like classic American flavor profiles, the kind we’re used to because we were kids growing up in America trick or treating or hitting up the local corner store and buying Snickers and Twix. I’ve had a lot of chocolate in its own right or truffles, ganaches–the sort of elevated things you buy in little balls–and that’s great and that’s it’s own thing, but I’m trying to do something different. I’m trying to recreate our childhood memories but updated to what we can eat now or what we would eat now as adults.”
Hernandez’s voice is soft and warm and slightly musical, and when she speaks it’s like magic. When we sat down at Handsome Coffee Roasters on Thursday, she immediately began sharing her progress with a second candy bar, a shortbread, and beer-infused caramel mix she hasn’t quite mastered yet.
“Maybe I’ll keep the beer, maybe not. I was striving for a classic Twix profile, but at the same time I wanted to play around with the caramel and incorporate the beer because I really like beer. Maybe I need to have someone else taste it? I’ve been tasting beer caramel for the past couple of weeks!” she said.
She refuses to let me sample it yet, though; like a true chef, she prefers the recipe to be flawless first.
“I want it to be perfect, like, ‘this is it!’”
Despite her masterful attention to detail that suggests years of experience, Hernandez began chocolate-making completely by accident. The philosopher, back from a year living abroad in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, took a reprieve from her studies when she had a daughter, Hieronymus, with her partner Christopher Lay last September. To pass the time as a stay-at-home parent, Hernandez began baking cakes. She devoured recipes and food blogs and baking blogs for five months when her oven broke.
“The igniter down below ‘gave up the ghost,’” she says. “Then I’m left with a bunch of sugar and looking for something to do, so then I make caramel for the first time … and it turned out really well … then I melted chocolate over it and enrobed the caramel and took it over to my friends in Laurel Canyon and they said, ‘This is amazing did you make this? Did you make the caramel?’ They loved it.”
Hernandez explains that the positive response to the chocolate coupled with the broken oven and her need to keep busy led to “more experimentation, more candy-making, more pounds of chocolate, more types of chocolate, figuring out what I wanted to create, and lots of playtime in the kitchen.”
During this process she learned the art of tempering, the meticulous process of heating and reheating chocolate that makes it resistant to body temperature (so that it can be handled without immediate melting), among a host of other properties. To explain, Hernandez selects a chocolate from her satchel and deftly unwraps it.
“See that?” She rubs a finger along the top of the bar. “That sheen, that glossiness is from tempering.” She breaks the chocolate in half and hands me a piece. “Tempered chocolate also has a characteristic snap, a snap between your teeth.” We both take bites. She nods, satisfied. “That’s good chocolate.”
After settling on her first recipe, Hernandez went about designing a label. She worked on a variety of typefaces and label designers, learned which materials would be safe for food and what size they needed to be, and strove to capture her personal aesthetic. The result is classic with a touch of vintage–beige paper with circular text that surrounds a gold foil wrapper that reminds me delightfully of a Wonka bar from the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
“Actually, I’ve always been a huge fan of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that Gene Wilder starred in. When I was a kid, I watched it dozens and dozens and dozens of times,” Hernandez smiles.
It is at this point I notice the camera propped up against her satchel. From a non-expert’s point of view, all I can discern is that it’s silver and antique-looking and definitely not a Canon 5D.
“It’s a Leica M2,” Hernandez picks it up and shows it off; but what she really wants is a medium format Hasselblad, the kind of camera you hold at your middle and snap. “It’s really cool to hold things like that … Instagram is great; it’s its own medium, but it’s really cool to be able to touch a photograph.”
I ask her if it’s the same with her chocolatiering.
“That’s the thing…the artisan’s movement is one person’s way,” Hernandez says thoughtfully. “For a long time, corporations–soulless machines– made much of what we consume, and now here is something made with real hands, with real ingredients, with real thought. The soulless machines have their place and that’s fine, but the artisanal movement … is one person’s way of saying here I am, recreating what we’ve always known.”
Roma Chocolates is artisan in every sense of the word, from Hernandez’s attention to well-made, local ingredients to the way she sells most of her chocolate bars by street peddling. It’s this authenticity, this hand-made devotion (down to the date stamped on every chocolate bar, each of which are personally wrapped and taped by Hernandez), which make her chocolate bars transcend the ordinary.
“I hope it’s better than how we remember,” Hernandez says of her chocolate bars. “Really, when I taste a Snickers, the memory is better. It just doesn’t taste good, and I remember it tasting magnificent. It’s like when we were kids running through the neighborhood, and we saw the ice cream man, and we’d bolt in and beg mom for a dollar. We’d come back out and what were we going to get? Something delicious! Sometimes, every once and a while, I’ll buy something like that, but it’s never the same innocent experience. I hope to give that innocent experience back.”
Though Hernandez will return to school to finish her doctorate when her partner, her daughter, and she move to Houston at the end of the summer, she doesn’t plan to stop making chocolate.
“I try to live my life asking what kind of meaning do I want to create? What is my own small little meaning I want to give the world?” Hernandez says. “I hope someone can appreciate that. Philosophy is like that. Chocolate is like that, too.”