CINCINNATI -- Master chocolatier Jean-Philippe Solnom wants to give you every reason to fall in love this Valentine's Day.
To set the mood, Solnom, head pastry chef at French Crust Cafe and Bistro, is putting the fine lineage of Parisian chocolate on full display. French Crust is offering an assortment of chocolate for Valentine's Day, including ornate heart-shaped "boxes" made out of chocolate in two sizes, small ($25) and large ($38).
Each of the boxes takes him approximately an hour to complete.
"The small size will have four pieces of chocolate inside and the big one will have eight pieces," Solnom said. "Don't forget, the heart-shaped box is also edible."
The chocolate pieces are a variety of dark chocolate, caramel sea salt and raspberry, along with chocolate truffle. The same assortment of truffles and chocolates also will be offered in non-edible boxes in varying counts: four ($8), 16 ($25), 25 ($35) and 50 pieces ($70).
Originally from Lyon, France, Solnom has crafted this silky decadence for a long time. He went to four years of school in Lausanne, Switzerland, to formally train in the meticulous craft of chocolate-making. Solnom subsequently worked in Paris at La Maison du Chocolat, an international company known for its artisan quality and luxury chocolates.
"I've been making chocolate for 20-plus years," he said.
Solnom said the cafe's location at Findlay Market has the kitchen space and proper climate control for chocolate-making. (The kitchen at the former location on Vine Street was tiny and constantly overheated as a result of faulty air-conditioning.)
"A temperature of 65°F is perfect for chocolate," Solnom said. If the kitchen gets too hot, the chocolate will not form, he said, adding, "I cannot do anything."
"You cannot have any humidity; 5 to 10 percent humidity is ideal," Solnom said. "(If the humidity is too high), instead of getting an even, deep color with a nice sheen, the chocolate is going to end up looking dull with white streaks."
The work surface matters, too.
"You cannot work on wood or stainless steel," he said. "You want to work on marble or granite. It stays cold and makes it easy to work with."
Solnom said he also is very particular about his ingredients.
"I buy chocolate from Valrhona. It's one of the most expensive chocolates in France," he said. "It has very good content of cocoa and cocoa butter, always around 64 percent to 76 percent cocoa."
Valrhona is a longtime top-tier chocolate producer based in Tain L'Hermitage, France, with direct partnerships with its growers in various countries. Following Valrhona's lead, Solnom said the chocolate he makes is not as sweet as mainstream brands and instead emphasizes the nuance of the chocolate flavor.
The chef uses a temperature-controlled heating well in which he keeps a pan of chocolate at a temperature between 29.5°C to 31°C. "If you pass 31°C, the chocolate will develop white streaks and lose its shine," he said. "I cannot sell it."
Solnom said he has been doing this long enough that, even without the high-tech temperature readout, he can tell if the chocolate is at the right temperature just by dabbing a little of it to his bottom lip.
"I can tell if it's between 29°C and 31°C," he said, adding that once the chocolate is in that temperature range, it must be used within five hours. "Then I have to change it out," he said.
As Solnom fashioned liquid chocolate into fanciful shapes and flavors, he offered a tip on chocolate shelf life.
"Chocolate will keep six to eight months at room temperature," he said. He cautioned against refrigeration, which brings on a white "bloom" on the chocolate. It's a sign of fat crystallization; while unsightly, it is still safe to eat, he said.
For those wondering, Solnom offered this "secret" to making good chocolate: "You have to be very patient. If you want to learn correctly, you need to go to school."
French Crust Cafe and Bistro
The Valentine's Day chocolates are available for ordering now, with the last pickup on Valentine's Day itself. There also will be some selections in the cafe for walk-in customers.
Cafe entrance: 202 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine. (Bistro entrance: 801 Elm St.)
Information: 513-621-2013 or online.
Cafe: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Bistro: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; dinner: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Open on Valentine's Day for dinner. (Call to confirm.)
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO.com. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.