If you happen to be wandering down one of those faceless Chelsea cross streets with no particular purpose in mind, you might stumble upon a sidewalk sign standing outside an equally nondescript office building: “Chocolat Moderne [27 West 20th Street, between Fifth and Sixth]. C’mon up!”
One industrial-elevator ride later, there exists a chocolate wonder world: silver molds, copper pots, wooden spoons, giant whisks, candy boxes in shades of coral, tissue paper, ribbons — and everywhere, the pervasive scent of deep, dark chocolate.
Presiding over the three-room suite — office, packing room, and kitchen — is Joan Coukos, an ex-banker turned award-winning chocolatier, with a ready welcome and a free sample.
“You’re not disturbing me at all!” Coukos assures a visitor. “Whenever I’m around working, or my husband’s around, we’ve taken to setting out the sign. I usually aim for noon through six Monday through Saturday, but that’s not set in stone. So if you see the sign, come on up!”
For Coukos, the journey from finance to confections was prompted by a trip to Brussels. “This was a huge passion project for me. In the Nineties, I was on a flight to Brussels, back when I worked in finance, and I read about an artisan chocolatier called Pierre Marcolini in the in-flight magazine. It suddenly hit me that chocolate could be more than all these faceless corporations; it could be about a person with a vision. I thought, I have to seriously look into this.
“The next day, I was walking through the market at Place du Grand Sablon, which is where Marcolini’s shop is, and I saw a stall filled with cooking antiques — I’d always loved cooking, and I taught myself from Julia Child — so I thought, that’s interesting, and went to have a closer look. And there I found these beautiful old chocolate molds.”
“So I bought them, and when I went back to my little studio in Manhattan, I began to teach myself how to make chocolates. I’d bring in small batches of bonbons to work and use my colleagues as guinea pigs. Three years later, I signed the lease on my first room here, and opened my business.”
Chocolat Moderne is known for luxurious quality, avant-garde fillings, and strikingly modern design. “I knew from the start that I wanted to make chocolates that showcased non-traditional flavors,” says Coukos. “I pair this beautiful Valrhona French chocolate with Belgian-inspired techniques, and I create chocolates that, hopefully, are surprising and delicious.
“One of our most popular bars was inspired by the cooking I was doing in the summer of 2011. It was so hot out, and all I wanted to do was eat tomato salads and pastas dressed with sharp citrus. I started experimenting, and I found that a buttery, creamy caramel was the perfect foil for the acidity of tomatoes and lemon. This year, the tomato lemon caramel bar [a dark chocolate shell with an oozy caramel filling] was a finalist in the Specialty Food Association Awards.”
Chocolat Moderne’s creations have been nominated five years in a row. “In 2012, we won with a lime-infused toffee bar,” Coukos notes, “and in 2013 we won with a dark-chocolate bar filled with blood orange bergamot caramel.” Both are for sale at the counter, and come beautifully wrapped with coral ribbons.
You can also find Chocolat Moderne chocolates in specialty food stores like Dean & DeLuca, where their vivid boxes and Jackson Pollock–esque styling help them stand out in a booming era of artisanal chocolate. They’ve been featured on the Cooking Channel (“It’s been a long time since, but people still say, ‘Oh, I saw you, I know that chocolate, I saw it on TV!’ I think they must rerun the episode.”)
Back in the office, the phone rings, and Coukos must get back to work. I head out into the day with a bag of purchases, leaving her to her studio, where glistening rows of chocolates dry in ordered ranks, each one a perfect jewel of taste and imagination.