For Antoine Amrani, as a young boy in Paris, the dream was about making chocolate. He appears to have realized that dream, having just opened up his own chocolate factory in East Norriton, just outside of Norristown.
Some children dream about becoming astronauts when they grow up. Others dream about becoming firefighters. For Antoine Amrani, as a young boy in Paris, the dream was about making chocolate. And after nine years in the kitchen at Le Bec Fin, most recently as head pastry chef, he appears to have realized that dream, having just opened up his own chocolate factory in East Norriton, just outside of Norristown.
The soft-spoken Amrani, a boyish looking 41, attributes his passion for chocolate to his experience as one of seven children. When his mother would bring home chocolates, there was no way for each child, Antoine included, to have one of each. Luckily the siblings got along well enough and rather than horde their individual candies, they’d trade bits of one for tastes of another.
By opening a factory of his own back in May, Amrani seems to have found another strategy for ensuring he gets all the chocolate he wants: just make it himself.
According to business partner Fred Potok, who befriended him through the course of many trips to Le Bec Fin, Amrani is fanatical about the conditions in the over 7,000-square foot space. "We run it like a hospital," says Potok. "Any dampness, any humidity will cause a serious problem in the chocolate-making process."
The site itself—consisting primarily of a kitchen, enrobing room, and special, "off-limits" space for crystallization—is spacious and pristine, but otherwise unremarkable, once you get past the small retail and tasting area in the front room. No matter; the serious attention to design appears to have been saved for the chocolates themselves, in addition to their packaging.
The custom chocolate molds, which impart a distinguishing pattern upon each Bon Bon, were designed specifically for Amrani by Smith Design, then manufactured in Italy. And these interlocking swirls are certainly striking. But the real test for any chocolate maker isn't the impression his efforts make on the eyes, but rather how they hit the palate.
Evaluated through this metric, Amrani is indeed a star. One characteristic unites the six types of Bon Bons and six types of Paletes he produces: a layered intensity that seems in no hurry to go anywhere. You could have a mouth the size of Mick Jagger's, and the slowly releasing flavors in these chocolates would expand to fill it.
Standouts include the intense creaminess of the Pistachio Bon Bons, and the exceptional smoothness of the Cinnamon Honey Paletes, made with honey sourced from a Montgomery County beekeeper just down the road. Indeed, Amrani aims to get his ingredients from small farms and local producers whenever possible: Philadelphia's esteemed La Colombe coffee goes into two chocolates: the Coffee Sour Cherry and rich, intense Duo Cafe, made with two different roasts.
The commitment to local extends to the attractive carbon-neutral packaging for the chocolates. "Rather than rely on China" says Amrani, "We have a place right here in Philadelphia—Northern Liberties—who provides it."
Now the chocolates are becoming increasingly available in the region as well. In addition to the factory, they can be found at DiBruno Brothers in Center City and they'll be on the shelves on Green Aisle Grocery in South Philly as soon as it opens up. Landing in Dean & Deluca in New York and Washington didn't hurt either.
Talking with Amrani, one quality becomes especially clear: his delight to be where in the position he's in. There's a sense that the years of training and hard work, first in school at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris, then Le Bec Fin, working for the legendarily demanding George Perrier, have finally paid off. "I work long hours here," says Amrani, "but it's for myself."
Antoine Amrani Chocolates: 550 Foundry Rd., East Norriton. 877.AMRANI.4. aachocolates.com
Dinner with Luke Palladino