Next week, chocolatier Julian Helman is flying to France to learn even more about making the world's most loved confectionery.

"I'm constantly doing courses and updating," said the 36-year-old owner of Kelowna-based Karat Chocolate.

"And what better place to do it than Hermitage, France, the home of Valrhona, the maker of the best chocolate in the world."

Helman also happens to have been using Valrhona chocolate in his creations for years, first as pastry chef at Quails' Gate Winery in West Kelowna and now with his own company.

Valrhona's home town of Hermitage is also in the Rhone wine-making region and the company has learned a thing or two about pairing chocolate with wine.

Such expertise has come in handy as Helman crafts chocolates to sell at wineries, chocolate that incorporates wine-grape ingredients and chocolate to pair with wine.

"The old-school rule is your chocolate should be less sweet than the wine, which means a chocolate that's 70 per cent cacao with a big red wine," said Helman.

"But we also make The Terroir chocolate bar, which is infused with dried crush (the pulp left after grapes are crushed for wine) and is literally like eating wine in a chocolate bar. Plus, many of our 50 retailers are wineries."

In fact, the list of wineries that sell Karat boxed chocolates and chocolate bars is extensive, from Arrowleaf, Ex Nihilo, Intrigue and 50th Parallel in Lake Country to Sandhill and Tantalus in Kelowna, Therapy in Naramata and Quails' Gate in West Kelowna.

Other retailers include Arlo's Honey Farm, which also supplies honey for Karat's popular salted caramel and wildflower honey chocolates, Olive & Elle in Kelowna and Public Liquor.

Karat now also has a small shop at its commercial kitchen on High Road beside Canoe Coffee Roasters.

"We had to," said Helman.

"Because when we didn't have a store there, people were dropping by anyway and banging on the door to buy chocolate."

Having Canoe Coffee Roasters next door has also led to easily inspired collaboration.

The Canoe espresso and brown sugar chocolate is a hit.

So are the chocolates made with peanut butter and jelly, Earl Grey tea and lavender, strawberry and red pepper, cilantro and Japanese fruit, blackcurrant, cherry and apricot.

Individual chocolates sell in boxes of 12, 6, 4 and 2 with a dozen going to $20.

"I think that's an amazing prices for chocolate like nothing else in the city," said Helman.

"When I started out three years ago, I was underselling them for $15 a box."

The chocolate bars are $8 and the half-bars $5.

There's also a healthy wholesale business supplying caterers, weddings and other stores and wineries.

Despite the success, and the upcoming trip to France, Helman doesn't know if he'd do it all over again.

"Ugh, I don't know," he said.

"When I was launching Karat, I was working as a pastry chef 14 hours a day and then spending four or five more hours each day on Karat. It was a ton of work. I'm glad it all worked out."

While Valrhona chocolate from France has been integral to Helman's career and business, he has branched out to making his own chocolate from scratch.

He also buys fair-trade fermented cacao beans directly from farmers in Peru, Equador, Brazil and Ghana and cracks, roasts and makes them into chocolate himself.

Helman was born in Saskatoon, where he grew up helping his dad, Lee, a chef, with his French restaurant and later at the Banff Springs Hotel.

Family support comes full circle because Lee now helps Julian with Karat.

The younger Helman went to the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown before continuing on to French pastry school in Chicago.

With such a solid educational basis, he went on to jobs as a pastry chef in Germany, Hong Kong and Vancouver before following a friend to work at Burrowing Owl Winery's restaurant.

That led to West Kelowna and Quails' Gate and then his own business, Karat.

Helman eats copious amounts of chocolate and other fine foods, yet is slim and clear-skinned.

"I guess I'm blessed with a good metabolism," he said.

"But, I'm also burning calories being on my feet working 12 hours a day and hiking when I'm not working."

Helman's five-year plan is ambitious.

"There's no reason I can't be the premium chocolate maker in Canada," he said.

"We've already won a silver medal at the International Chocolate Awards last year and plan to win a gold medal this year. I also want to expand and open a store downtown and get back to my roots by doing more pastry with chocolate."

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