Chocolatá Artisanal Chocolatier, Birmingham
The Maker: Kathy D’Agostino
This Valentine’s Day, Brian Midkiff is spreading the love by surprising his wife and daughters with the sweetness of bonbons from his favorite chocolate shop in downtown Birmingham.
Midkiff has become a familiar face at Chocolatá since owner and chocolatier Kathy D’Agostino opened the store last fall. Midkiff often stops by Chocolatá during his lunch break or brings out-of-town friends and business associates to the shop to sample D’Agostino’s latest creations.
“It’s a cool place and reminds me of being in Europe,” said Midkiff. “It’s a local artisanal shop where the proprietor actually makes the chocolate, and you get to interact with her and ask her questions. Kathy has a passion for her product. It’s hard to resist her chocolate.”
D’Agostino creates chocolates from start to finish in her elegant 450-square-foot store, which includes a kitchen and showroom.
D’Agostino starts the candy-making process with a small disc of high-quality chocolate, which she places in a melter to begin the tempering process. The chocolate is brought to a high-enough temperature to break down the crystals in the cocoa butter, which ensures a product that melts smoothly and has the best texture and shine. D’Agostino then hand-dips the chocolate or uses molds to shape the candies.
“The chocolate I use is made with a higher percentage of cocoa butter called couverture. It ultimately makes the texture and shine superior to compound chocolate, which usually has fillers in it and is not suitable for professional, high-quality chocolates,” D’Agostino said.
There’s nothing like D’Agostino’s “boutique-style” chocolates on grocery store shelves. She gets those unforgettable flavors by pairing chocolate with everything from ginger, cantaloupes and strawberries to sea salt, nuts and green tea.
Often the season of the year, a holiday or a favorite dish will spark an idea for a new flavor, D’Agostino said. An example is her new Blue Moon Bar. Inspired by the historic super blue blood moon that appeared on Jan. 31, this white chocolate bar features dried blueberries, candied lemons, rose petals and pistachios.
D’Agostino also designs unique, eye-catching packaging, such as a red and gold gift box perfect for holding Valentine treats, and a glass lightbulb jar tagged with “you light up my life” and filled with cocoa mix for winter nights.
“Kathy’s enthusiasm and creativity keep bringing us back,” said Linda Kennedy, who often visits the store on Friday evenings with her husband, John. “It is a treat after a long week of work to see what new creations she has for us to taste.”
D’Agostino proudly said she uses only high-quality, single-origin chocolate, which means the cocoa beans, sugar cane and other ingredients are grown and processed in the same region. Most of her chocolate is sourced in Ecuador.
Last fall, D’Agostino traveled to that country to get a firsthand look at the bean-to-bar process of making chocolate. Along with touring a processing plant, she visited farms where the cocoa beans and sugar cane are grown and harvested. At the dairy farms, cows are grass-fed and hand-milked. That was of particular interest, D’Agostino said, because the milk from those cows is used in her white chocolate.
“It was really great to meet the farmers and see the farms that are the source of the products I am selling,” D’Agostino said. “It made me feel more connected to my product and have an even greater appreciation for single-origin chocolate. Now I know where those beans are coming from that make that chocolate. To me, it makes all the difference.”
From student to business owner
D’Agostino was introduced to chocolate-making when she got her first job at age 15. She learned the skill while working for four years at a family-owned chocolate shop in Jacksonville, Fla.
Although she later became an interior designer, D’Agostino never lost her taste for chocolate-making.
“I loved working in the chocolate shop, and I always thought it would be fun to have my own business,” D’Agostino said. “Now that I have reached midlife and my kids are older, I was ready for a new challenge. I wanted a way to be creative and be my own boss without having to rely on other people to succeed.”
With a long-time bent toward astrology, D’Agostino’s first step was to check her chart to see if it was in the stars for her to open a business. “The astrologer who advised me said the sound ‘ta’ would be important for me and bring success to the shop, so that’s how I got the name Chocolatá,” she said.
Now, 18 months later, Chocolatà has become a hot spot among the new restaurants and businesses popping up in downtown Birmingham.
“It’s quite amazing to see the changes that have been taking place downtown,” D’Agostino said. “It’s a thriving city again. It feels like we have our city back.”
D’Agostino is debuting several new products just in time for Valentine’s Day. With romance in the air, she has added heart-shaped bonbons filled with rose-infused ganache, Marsala wine-infused ganache and limoncello-infused ganache, as well as chocolate-dipped fruit.
D’Agostino is encouraging customers to preorder their gifts. The store is normally closed on Monday and Tuesday for production, but D’Agostino said Chocolatà will be open Feb. 12 and 13 for Valentine’s Day.
The product: Hand-made artisanal chocolate bars, bonbons and other confections.
Take home: An 18-piece assortment of chocolates ($58).
Chocolatá Artisanal Chocolatier
1927 Second Ave. North, Birmingham