I met Julie at a holiday event in the Willis Tower. We were both setting up our tables and enjoying the great views of the city when I noticed her chocolates. I must admit I didn’t know these beautiful creations were bonbons at first. I was just mesmerized by the colors and patterns. I asked Julie how she made them and she told me she was hand painting each and every one of them. Wait. “Hand painting? As in these are tiny edible original works of art? I’ve got to see how you do that!” And just like that, I planted the seed for a future collaboration. Months later, I invited Julie to my studio for a “how to” session where she walked me through her process.
Inspired by her beautiful creations, I designed a limited edition collection that launched at Chicago Artisans Market—an event where we specifically requested to be placed next to each other to be neighbors again.
This is Julie’s story, as sweet and intriguing as her strawberry balsamic flavor, and as layered as her lemon olive oil bonbon…
Can you tell me a little bit about your company and how you got started?
I worked in IT consulting for seven years. Towards the end of 2013 I had been traveling back and forth to Portland every week for a year while still living in Chicago. I was burned out and needed a breather. I remember my last project ended just before Thanksgiving, and I thought, “I need some time to figure out what’s right for me.”
I spent a lot of time in the kitchen that holiday weekend. I made a lot of cookies and treats that I would bring to family gatherings. It was fun! I would get in the kitchen and loose track of time and stay up cooking until three in the morning. And I thought, “this makes me really happy.” I went to Le Cordon Bleu in London for a nine months condensed intensive program on patisserie and cuisine in 2014. I would have loved to do it in Paris, but I don't speak French. They did offer a program in Ottawa Canada, but that's just like going to Iowa, it’s right around the corner. I thought it would be more exciting if I moved to London, so I did.
How did you go from culinary school to starting Julie’s Chocolates?
Chocolate was a very small part of the curriculum, but it was something that I continued to enjoy and explore after school. I learned how to temper chocolate, the different types of chocolate and how to work with molded chocolates. It was appealing to me because it was unique. The painting and coloring was a self-taught exercise. We did use some color in school, but just as a little detail here and there. I wanted to push that use of color in my chocolates, so I started to explore and experiment different techniques. Initially, I used family and friends as my testers.
Tell me more about experimenting with your family, and how did you transitioned from your family and friends to a larger audience.
My first test was the Fourth of July, 2016. I brought samples to a family gathering and asked for feedback. I said, “What do you guys think? Is this interesting? Is this unique? Would you buy it?” I made six different flavors and they were all well received, although some of colors were not that great. At the time, my airbrush wasn’t good and I didn’t really know how to use it properly. I wasn’t tempering the colors or the cocoa butter properly. I had the wrong needle size. It was really humid in Chicago in the Summer, which through the temperatures off. Everything about it was wrong.
Between July and the end of October, I was completely focused on trying to find packaging, figuring out the molds I wanted to use, the colors I want to order, and the recipes I was going to use. It was a whirlwind of trying to get everything together. It was a lot more than I realized it would be. Julie's Chocolate launched in the Fall of 2016. It was one tiny step above selling to family and friends. Then I launched the website and I was really excited. I got some orders right away and I panicked because I didn't know if I could fulfill them. I guess I could have waited to launch the website, but I was just too excited! I did send all my orders, but it was a bit stressful at first.
Your love for painting and cooking seems to have found the perfect fit in your bonbons. I don’t think people know you have background in the visual arts.
I do have an extensive background in the visual arts. Growing up, I went to art camp when I was about six years old. I remember it was called “Make It, Wear It” and we did mostly jewelry, making our own beads out of clay and painting them. Later on, I went to and acrylic painting camp at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I was a double major and one of them was in visual arts (painting, drawing, photography, printmaking and pottery). My emphasis was oil painting with a minor in print making, so it was very color based.
I have always been drawn to color and when I started my business, I knew I wanted to use it in a unique way. I learned via Google about the different colors you can use in chocolate making and how the process of using color in bonbons works. It was definitely a learning experience to get to the product I wanted. But once I figured out the methodology it was kin of a natural progression. My curiosity took me to trying different colors, different designs and different painting techniques and it kind of naturally led to the next step and the next step after that.
What is your favorite part of the creative process?
My favorite part is adding color. I like having a diverse lineup in my menus, with different techniques represented. I play with a different color combinations and develop different techniques, so that when someone looks at one of my bonbons they think, “I have no idea how she did that”. It’s a fun design challenge for me. I also like the different color combination, because I don't want all of my chocolates to be blue or green, that’s just boring. I want to have a wide variety of colors but also make sure that they present well next to each other. It's almost the same as a fashion designer creating a collection.
I am particularly fond of the Chi Latte because it’s a nod to the Chicago flag. It was a fun play on words and I like how the color combination turned out. Usually I think about the color combination I want first, and then I play with it. I knew I wanted red and blue for Chi Latte, but I must have ten different reds and blues, so it’s a matter of narrowing it down to the ones that go together the best. A lot of time is spent it's just playing around until you get it right, and a lot of things happen by chance or by mistake. It’s kind of a test kitchen for art.
Photography by Stephen Santiago