Steven Lambeth’s obsession with chocolate began as a romantic rebound.
About two years ago, Lambeth was working through a particularly rough breakup with a woman who had loved chocolate. After the split, he began to eat his feelings, picking one of her favorite foods as a tribute to the person he’d lost.
“I fell in love with this woman who loved chocolate,” Lambeth remembers. “But I still didn’t eat it. It wasn’t until after we broke up that I started dumping chocolate into the big, gaping hole she left.”
When Lambeth finally started, he couldn’t stop. He began craving chocolate to the point where he was spending more money on it than on actual meals. Lambeth knew the lifestyle wasn’t sustainable, either for his physical or financial health.
“That’s when I decided to start making chocolate myself,” he remembers, “instead of curtailing my consumption.”
The idea had been for Lambeth, a private chef by trade, to make only what he intended to eat, but he started sharing his creations with family and friends. He soon learned there was a market for this new hobbyvegan, largely raw confections made by hand and flavored by an unlikely assortment of additions. He uses only organic ingredients to create uncanny chocolate flavors, plus a blend of herbs, spices and flowers to give his confections very specific roles. Rather than push the limits of cocoa darkness or truffles that cram caramel or booze into tiny spaces, Lambeth is attempting to differentiate himself in the Triangle’s increasingly crowded chocolate scene with a near new-age approach to flavor and functionality.
And it appears to be working: The upstart chocolatier now makes three standard flavors of bars (and has just launched his first holiday bar) and sells them throughout the Triangle in spots like the Saxapahaw General Store and Carrboro’s Oasis Cafe. His two-year-old company, Raw Chocolate for the Soul, hopes to expand into larger grocery chains next year and perhaps hire a full-time employee, too. For now, though, he does it all alone, fitting for someone who describes chocolate making as his “spiritual journey.” His creations reflect his own personality and ideology.
“This endeavor to create chocolate has been a part of my own journey and spiritual path,” says Lambeth. “And I hope whoever eats it also feels that support.”
Steven Lambeth always listens to music when he makes his chocolatessometimes classical, sometimes rap. Today, he picks a folk-and-bluegrass play list and slips a hairnet over his head, taming his curly brown locks. He begins laying out his materials as “One More Day” by The Wood Brothers plays.
Since February, Lambeth has been working in the kitchen of Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream in Graham, partly owned by his father, to produce his herbal chocolate bars. He begins to measure ingredients on a scale, preparing to make a batch of “Heart” bars.
The Heart bar features hawthorn berries, rose petals and rose hips, meant as a “heartwarming” treat, he says. Each of the three flavors employs a different concept, with corresponding herbs and ingredients meant to fulfill its theme. The “Love” bar, for instance, incorporates codonopsis, kava and shatavari with a touch of cinnamon and cayenne to create an aphrodisiac effect. “Vitality” includes maca, tulsi and schisandra berries to help center and balance consumers.
Lambeth is not shy about the spiritual sensibility of his treats. When the cacao first arrives at his home, he even performs a blessing ceremony. During the process, Lambeth stores three crystals inside the container of cacao to “anchor his intention.” This is where his spiritual self, he hopes, connects with his creative half.
“I spend an hour over the cacao, praying,” explains Lambeth. “I pray that the cacao helps everyone who comes into contact with it. People say they feel the love in the chocolate.”
While actually producing the product, however, the meticulous Lambeth makes sure those same crystals don’t fall into the mixing bowl with the cacao powder. Instead, he adds coconut oil and powdered herbs. As the mixer turns on, the beater starts to spin, and small, brown clouds of cacao float out of the bowl and into the air like smoke. The bluegrass play list has yielded to Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty,” the beat straining the speakers of his nearby Macbook.
As the cacao combines with the oil and herbs, it slowly transforms into a unified mixture. Lambeth turns off the machine and brings over a tray of water and an induction cooktop.
“It’s a makeshift tempering machine,” he explains, grinning. “I was really happy when I figured out this could work.”
Like he’s putting together a puzzle, Lambeth slides the tray of water on top of the heating cooktop and then positions the mixer above the tray. The simmering water heats the bottom inch of the mixing bowl, allowing the chocolate-based paste to warm up just enough to melt into a viscous cream. The mixer continues to stir.
“This is my favorite part,” says Lambeth, who wears a colorful patchwork apron, black slacks and sandals. “This is the part where the ingredients become my product. It’s when the magic happens.”
Lambeth adds coconut sugar, Himalayan pink salt and maple syrup. The new components completely transform the consistency of the chocolate into a deep, dark brown pool that looks so smooth you could bathe in it.
At this point, Lambeth prepares for what he considers the hardest part, especially since this is a one-chocolatier operation: spreading the chocolate into the silicone forms.
Each grid includes tiny squares patterned inside of it, meant to make the resulting chocolate bars look a little like delicious miniature French doors. Lambeth begins scooping the chocolate paste out of the bowl with a spatula, measuring the mix into 24 4.2-ounce molds, each of which ideally yields two bars. He rounds off the edges with a spoon, like an artist smoothing out paint against a new canvas.
For the customer, this is where the handmade aspect of Lambeth’s craft becomes most evident. Lambeth leans in closely to clean the edges of the bars, but they are never as straight as those made by machine. Each bar is slightly different from the last. Though Lambeth says this part of the process is his least favorite, he’s remedied that by adding another layer to the tedium, rather than trying to make it easier. Using the Alexander technique, a 19th-century system indented to limit inefficient movements and tension, he tries to avoid unnecessary muscular strain by feeling the whole process from his wrists down to his heels. Even making chocolate has become a therapy of sorts.
“I make spreading the chocolate into a game,” explains Lambeth. “I try to feel the energy throughout my body. It makes it more enjoyable.”
At last, all that remains is refrigerating the bars until they harden. He’ll then cut the bars and package them. The whole process takes close to three hours and yields about 47 pieces. It’s a time-consuming part-time occupation, but Lambeth says it’s about more than his own hours: He hopes his creations help people reframe what they imagine chocolate can be by showing them that confections can have a larger purpose than sheer sweetness.
Not bad for a rebound.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Chocolate hearts”