"I don't like sugar all that much," David Briggs announces.
Now, I'm a certifiable sugar addict, so I don't have much trust in those who disdain my drug of choice, nor do I truly believe them. And Briggs, a sous chef at Park Kitchen by day and candymaker by night (or sometimes the other way around), cannot truly be a sugar hater.
When not preparing pork belly in an apple-and-matsutake mushroom broth for diners at the Northwest Portland restaurant, he can be found concocting chocolates and confections that, at first glance, look no different from those found in a box of See's Candies. Briggs' creations, however, challenge the common candy definition. By cooking his caramel to an "almost burnt" stage or adding fleur de sel to enhance flavor, he adds a complexity that does not exist in most sweets.
So perhaps what Briggs means is not so much that sugar tastes bad, but that there are so many other flavors—lavender, honey, Earl Grey, bacon —that bring out the complexity of chocolate and caramel, and that too much sugar can often upstage the subtleties of these ingredients.
Briggs' unconventional flavor pairings have led him to create Xocolatl de Davíd, a line of chocolates and caramels that includes, yes, a bacon-infused truffle. WW spoke with him about living life outside the typical box of chocolates.
WW : How did you start making truffles?
David Briggs: I started making them as Christmas gifts in 2005. I decided to take a few into Tea Chai Te (a tea house) simply because I thought they might appreciate the tea flavors and infusions that I had used, such as Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong and Kashmiri Chai. The owners loved them and asked if I would make more to sell in their shop. In February of '06, I started making boxes of six, using infusions like Robiola and Camembert that were sold at Steve's Cheese. I would bring my flavor experiments in to work [at Park Kitchen] in order to get feedback from my co-workers. The ones that met with approval were eventually passed out as "check treats" to customers.
What were the first flavor infusions you attempted?
When I began thinking of flavor ideas, I simply looked in my own cabinet. I've traveled extensively in Asia and spent a great deal of time there during my childhood and beyond. Hence, Asian cuisine is what I know; it is my frame of reference, my comfort food. The ingredients that I had in my kitchen were, of course, Asian-influenced: anise, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, etc. My first infusion was orange cardamom, which was successful and one that I continue to make.
Do you have any other new items?
A pork satay chocolate, which is a traditional Thai Massaman curry-based peanut sauce with bacon, infused with coconut cream ganache to create a truffle. It sounds really weird, but it is quite good. It is speared onto a wooden skewer and coated in crushed peanuts, just like a traditional pork satay.
[Also,] Oregon strawberries with a 20-year balsamic vinegar chocolate, and River's Edge Chèvre chocolate. River's Edge is a small farm in Logsden, Ore., where the farmer feeds pumpkin to the goats. It is the best chèvre I have ever eaten. Not too "goaty."
Have you had any failed attempts or chocolate catastrophes?
Uh, the hijiki seaweed truffle didn't work out so well. Oh yeah, and the Camembert truffles that I made for Steve's Cheese didn't go over big, either. If he doesn't like it, he can't sell it.
What led you to pairing less traditional ingredients, such as bacon and salt and pepper, with chocolate?
I am a savory chef by profession, so my thoughts rest primarily on things like bacon, cheese, salt and pepper (fleur de sel —a hand-harvested sea salt—and Sichuan peppercorn) and Chinese five-spice. But I also love chocolate, so these combinations made sense and I decided to start experimenting.
What about the bacon? I heard this started as some kind of a dare.
I was at a big, lavish hotel brunch in San Francisco with my entire family. My cousins asked me, "David, if you had to choose between a plate of perfectly cooked bacon or a bowl of the best ice cream"—another great love of mine—"which would you choose?" I answered, "Bacon," with only a slight pause, and then one of my cousins appeared from the buffet carrying a crème brûlée topped with a few strips of bacon. This planted the seed for a not entirely successful attempt at creating bacon ice cream (while a student at the Culinary Institute of America), and then, of course, the bacon truffles that I'm making today.
What would you say to skeptics who raise their eyebrows at your flavors?
I'll give them a salted caramel—that usually convinces them. From there, we can move into the bacon and the [goat] cheese. I'm also a huge fan of nougat. I love the flavor of honey, and my Cacaomiel is like a grown-up version of a Milky Way bar: honey nougat with cacao nibs, enrobed in bittersweet chocolate. I am also making a peanut butter honey nougat and a honey nougat with hazelnuts.
The Cacaomiel is unbelievably addictive. The full-bodied sweetness set against the serious chocolate depth and flaky sea salt truly sent shivers down my spine. Speaking of Milky Ways, is there ever a moment when a mainstream candy bar crosses your lips?
My favorite, hands-down, as far as those go is a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Oh yeah, and Baby Ruths. I love a Baby Ruth.
Says the man who doesn't like sugar all that much.
See Briggs' entire collection of chocolates and confections and a full list of local shops that sell Xocolatl de Davíd at xocolatldedavid.com. The chef will host a Chocolate and Salt presentation at The Meadow, 3731 N Mississippi Ave. at 7 pm Tuesday, Nov. 6
7 pm Sunday, Nov. 11. $10. The events include the debut of a new "Meadow chocolate bar" that owners Mark and Jennifer Bitterman commissioned Briggs to craft. Due to the overwhelming interest the last Briggs presentation garnered, the Meadow will post the reservation-line phone number for the events on its website, atthemeadow.com, at 9 am Thursday, Nov. 1. to ensure that as many people as possible get a fair shot at seats.