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Chocolate Intuition

Ventura’s Ex Voto chocolatiers persevere to sculpt unique treats.

By Chris O'Neal

Photo by T Christian Gapen

The dynamic mother-daughter duo of Jennifer Smith and Sophia Smith-Grunder in their Ventura shop. Together they put the “art” in artisanal chocolate.

 

or Jennifer Smith, working with chocolate came to her as a calling.

“Intuitively I saw the word chocolate repeatedly and I knew I needed to work with it,” said Jennifer. She is co-owner of Ex Voto Chocolates and Confections in midtown Ventura with her daughter Sophia Smith-Grunder, where the pair have worked to churn out truffles, confections and other sweets since 2017. Through tireless workdays stretching 12 to 15 hours during peak season, the pair has persevered through the good times and the challenging, carried by a passion for the product.

A love for food runs through the Smith family. Jennifer lived in Belgium for a while, a country renowned for its chocolate, and says that she expresses her love through food, a concept she instilled in Sophia in the kitchen. Both women attended Santa Barbara City College’s culinary program, where Jennifer received a personal chef certification, Sophia a baking and pastry certificate.

Following their stint in Santa Barbara, the duo attended the San Francisco Baking Institute where they studied chocolate and confections under master chocolatier Melissa Coppel. More than just an education, Jennifer says she achieved confirmation that she was on the right path and that her chocolate making skills were up to par.

In July of 2014, Jennifer and Sophia began producing chocolates together, completing their first big December order. The following year, in June, the pair began selling chocolates at the Ojai farmers market, where they began to collect regulars. In the summer of 2017, Jennifer and Sophia launched the first physical storefront for Ex Voto Chocolates and Confections, the culmination of what Jennifer says was a lot of hard work and determination.

With keys in hand, the pair began taking orders and were readily ramping up for the holiday season when tragedy struck.

On Dec. 4, 2017, Jennifer, Sophia and family watched as flames began creeping over the mountains toward Ojai.

“We could see pretty far away, and we were used to seeing the Ojai mountains. There were fires every now and then out there and we weren’t afraid when we saw the fire,” recalled Jennifer. “We just assumed that the fire department would come and put it out.”

As the winds picked up and the flames shifted, edging closer to Ventura, the lights went out. The family grabbed what they could and evacuated, staying with friends for the night.

The Smith house sat just above the Missionary Church in the Clearpoint neighborhood on the east side of Ventura, one of the hardest hit communities in the city during the Thomas Fire. Hundreds of homes were destroyed. The following day, a friend phoned and delivered the news: their home, too, was gone.

“A lot of people have been through this; it’s a journey,” said Jennifer. “You go through a lot of feelings and experiences through the year.”

The day after the fire took their home, Jennifer and Sophia returned to the store and posted about their experience on the Ex Voto Facebook page, assuring customers that they would be open.

“It was chocolate month,” said Jennifer, noting that December is traditionally the busiest month for a chocolatier.

Both Jennifer and Sophia said that the Ventura community came together to support them through the difficult holiday season. According to Jennifer, after a week and a half, a friend offered the family a home, where she would sleep for four hours before spending 15 hours a day in the shop making chocolates to fill orders. Without that support, Jennifer said that the store would have likely gone under.

“We had customers who came in and pledged to gain ten pounds in our shop to support us and that was the sweetest thing ever. We needed the support of our community,” said Jennifer.

With new customers and new friends, the duo entered 2018 with the same dedication to producing high-quality product that had propelled them through the years, and a particular motto that Sophia says her mom repeats regularly: “Fresh is best.”

Jennifer says her goal with Ex Voto is to produce chocolate from bean to bar, a feat that many chocolatiers avoid due to the extended process and work involved. Choosing to make the product as fresh as possible gives her chocolates a well-rounded taste, she says. The chocolatier also evinces an infatuation with capturing unique flavors as fresh as possible as well.

Take, for instance, a chocolate basic: the brandied cherry truffle. One might picture a cherry in brandy syrup coated in chocolate. But at Ex Voto, they do things a little differently.

“We make it with tart cherry juice, brandy, mala [ground cherry pit], cinnamon and pepper,” said Jennifer. “You don’t taste cinnamon or pepper; you taste a very well-rounded cherry.”

The creative inspiration extends to the artistry of the chocolates as well. Sophia, resident chocolate artist, uses several techniques to get the Ex Voto signature look onto truffles and other confections. The chocolatier’s signature includes up to five colors, all applied by hand and airbrush.

“That took me a long time to figure out,” said Sophia. “I do a lot of literal finger painting, and then we do the airbrush to get the solid colors on there. People always say they are surprised when they eat them and they actually taste as good as they look.”

As if chocolate weren’t enough, Ex Voto recently added ice cream in a variety of unusual flavors to the menu. Offerings include the beloved honey buttered toast (one of the shop’s bestsellers) to vegan options such as a mango sticky rice concoction made with coconut milk.

During the busy 2018 holiday season, Ex Voto added help via Jana Richardson, owner of Ventura’s Delicious Artistry. Richardson is a graduate of the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena who has been making specialty cakes and desserts since 2006. She intends to use her stint at Ex Voto to learn the fine art and craft of chocolate making.

A trio for now, the Ex Voto crew are in full swing ahead of the sweetheart holiday, Feb. 14, adding a new item to their gift options. This year’s Valentine’s Day special will be a heart-shaped salted caramel s’more. The Ex Voto take includes a layer of salted caramel and another of marshmallow cream made with eggs rather than gelatin, all covered in what Jennifer calls “a dark milk chocolate” — a 41 percent chocolate blend that’s darker than a traditional milk chocolate (which typically has less than 30 percent cacao), but lighter than what most of us consider dark chocolate. The hearts are painted by hand by Sophia, naturally. Also available will be champagne truffles (another top seller) made with Veuve Clicquot and a Valentine’s Day box featuring a variety of handpainted bonbons.

A box of Ex Voto chocolate bonbons is a thing of beauty, each piece artfully presented in an array of colors and gleaming with a mirrored surface. They’re almost too pretty to eat, but Jennifer has sound advice for those reluctant to take that first bite.

“Fresh is best,” said Jennifer. “Don’t be a chocolate hoarder. Eat your chocolate fresh.”

Ex Voto Chocolates and Confections
2646 East Main Street, Ventura
805.667.9228
www.exvotochocolates.com

SWEETHEART SERENADE: Freshly created for Valentine’s Day: charming chocolates in festive colors, guaranteed to melt hearts on Feb. 14.

01-01-2019

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