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March 30, 2010

The Two Chocolateers

"Chocolate knows no mercy," says Jim Graham whose handmade Chocolats Le Français—created from top-of-the-line French Valrhôna chocolate—require meticulous attention to air currents, humidity, and temperature. The melt-in-the-mouth interiors of Graham's pricey perfections are a flavored ganache, an irresistible mixture of heavy sweet cream and chocolate, subtly infused with flavors like mint leaf, Earl Grey, and dozens of other herbs and spices not usually found in chocolate assortments.

Most confections imported to this country are made by inserting a filling into a pre-molded chocolate. Graham, an unyielding perfectionist, works in reverse—in the French style—making the centers first, then dipping them into a liquid chocolat de couverture, which has a higher percentage of cocoa-butter than ordinary chocolate. Instead of the glossy appearance of molded chocolates, Chocolats Le Français have a velvety sheen and, more important, an exceptional purity and delicacy of flavor.

These patrician chocolates are made solely by Graham and his assistant Laura Castillo in the back of Le Français, Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni's metro-Chicago restaurant. When the Liccionis bought Le Français in 1989, they hired Graham, who had worked in Paris with master chocolatier Robert Linxe, to develop desserts. "In the first few years it was frustrating," recalls Graham. "With chocolate-making, you can't let your attention stray even for a second. Melting and tempering are the first steps, and if you're off by even two degrees, you have to start all over again."

While mass-produced chocolates are made with sugary fondant centers dosed with chemical emulsifiers to extend their shelf life, Graham uses only organic cultured butter, homegrown herbs, and fresh ingredients. This lack of preservatives means that in warm weather the chocolates need to be shipped overnight in cold packs and eaten within a week.

Unsurprisingly, Chocolats Le Français have a passionate following. One CEO orders no less than 60 pounds every Christmas as client gifts. Massachusetts-based caterer Jane Lakatos ends formal dinners at the state capitol with silver trays of Le Français' palet d'or, a chocolate topped with a square of edible gold leaf. Another specialty that has helped to establish Graham's reputation as one of the best master chocolatiers in the country is nougat, which blends French honey-and-nut meringue with macadamias, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios, all in a sublime coating of bittersweet chocolate.

Chocolats Le Français come in 17 different flavored centers and may be ordered in large (46 pieces: $39), medium (23 pieces: $19.75), and small (11 pieces: $10.50) boxes. Also try a macadamia chocolate bar ($5.50), or an eight-piece box of cashew fleurons, with a creamy, bittersweet ganache, soft caramel, and roasted cashews ($19.75). A 32-ounce carton of Graham's ready-to-bake macadamia-nut cookie dough ($10.95) makes about 20 cookies.

Chocolats Le Français, 269 South Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling, Illinois. To place an order, call 847-541-1317.