Hundreds of peppermint gourmet chocolates were spread out in front of me at William Dean Chocolates in Largo on shiny, stainless-steel prep tables.
I always have to pinch myself at moments like this, when temptation confronts me head-on.
Nearby, Bill Brown (right) was enrobing more candies on a conveyer belt that took them through a flowing curtain of chocolate. Once they began to harden, he'd lay a clear transfer sheet adorned with green transferable cocoa butter designs across the top to decorate his minty "grasshopper" chocolates. They would join thousands of others he had already finished.
It's been like this for Brown since before Thanksgiving, when he began filling an order from the tea retail chain Teavana for 10,000 tea-infused chocolates for the holidays. The chocolates are being sold at all 84 locations this year.
In a small kitchen behind the showroom in Largo, Brown also creates custom wholesale orders for clients. (A Clearwater cardiologist, for example, wanted boxes of chocolates festooned with his company's logo.)
Brown's business, which opened in November 2007, took off earlier this year when comedian Whoopi Goldberg mentioned his chocolates on "The View" talk show. Since then, he's been sort of adopted by a Hollywood bodyguard who keeps passing his products to celebrities he protects. "E.R." actor John Stamos is reportedly a fan. They've also found their way to Ellen DeGeneres, Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith and to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (not that you'd know by looking at them).
Professional recognition is coming his way as well. In November, Brown, 48, won a People's Choice award in the prestigious Next Generation Chocolatier competition in New York City. The recognition was voted on by previous winners, chocolate manufacturers, buyers and chocolatiers. The contest usually is dominated by talent on the country's east and west coasts. That Brown won despite being located in the Southeast was a coup.
In September, he also won the award for best dessert at the All That Glitters charity fundraiser, besting some of the Tampa Bay area's best hotels and restaurants.
Brown walked me through the time-intensive techniques for creating the molded chocolates using such Teavana flavors as Aztec Fire, Blueberry Bliss and Roobios Lemon Chiffon. Watching the hand-painting of the molds with cocoa butter designs, the airbrushing and then multiple fills with ganache, I quickly understood why gourmet chocolates cost more than your regular Whitman's sampler box. You can taste the artistry in every bite.
I'd suggest a visit in person, if only to try the white chocolate macadamia popcorn he's just started making. Woof.
Dean's store is at 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Suite 1, in Largo. You also can order chocolate assortments, pate de fruit jellies and chocolate bars online at WilliamDeanChocolates.com.
To see a photo slideshow of my visit, go online to my blog, the Stew, at www.tinyurl.com/TheStew.
LUNCH IS SERVED
When the recession gets tough on restaurants, the tough get creative. Lots of eateries are trying to restore their eroding profit margins by breaking out, serving lunches, breakfasts or by doing catering gigs.
One of my favorite adjustments so far is the lunch served during the work week at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, 4342 W. Boy Scout Blvd. It's the first time Roy's has served lunch, and executive chef Kiel Lombardo has tweaked the menu to include a "box lunch" that features miso soup, a greens salad, fried rice and a protein. (The day I was there, it was a succulent serving of braised kalbi short rib.)
It's not exactly a bag-lunch price , but it is a relatively inexpensive way to enjoy eating at Roy's if you can't foot the pricy dinner menu.
A note about Lombardo: He returned to Tampa this year after working as executive sous chef at Roy's in Chicago and as exec chef at Roy's in his hometown of Philadelphia. His first gig after graduating from New Hampshire College was at Roy's in Tampa in 2002.
BEERS TO YOU
In October, I gave away a copy of "The Beer Book" by Sam Calagione and Tim Hampson to Tony Ferraro of Tampa, who penned a hilarious haiku poem about the demise of Zima beer.
Ferraro took the book along during a visit to Belgium in November with his wife, Bernadette.
"'The Beer Book' came in very handy," Ferraro reports. "We enjoyed many of the beers reviewed in it. It was fun to look them up each night (or, more likely, the next morning) after our quaffing adventures."
They also followed the beer tour the book provided for Brussels.
"Pure heaven," Ferraro says. "Ordering, pouring, serving and drinking beer in Belgium is a ritual like no other."
Anyone else take a food vacation recently? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your story and photos and I'll share them with readers.
We're living in a Renaissance, people.
OK, that's overstating things a bit, but if you love cooking and you love video games, you have a gold rush of new titles at your disposal.
I've already written in previous columns about the outstanding game "Order Up!" for Wii systems and "What's Cooking Jamie Oliver" for Nintendo DS handheld players.
Additional titles this holiday season include:
"Hell's Kitchen" ($39.99 for Wii, $29.99 Nintendo DS; $19.99 PC) Enduring chef Gordon Ramsay's insults not only improves your patience, it earns you access to his recipe for risotto and other dishes.
"Top Chef" ($19.99 PC) Players mimic the Bravo series' quick-fire and elimination challenges. Cooking with lots of ingredients magnifies the fun quotient. No fauxhawks necessary to play.
"Iron Chef America: Supreme Cuisine" ($39.99 Wii; $29.99 Nintendo DS) Wish you could duel with an Iron Chef? Here's your chance. Speed is the gold standard here when dealing with the secret ingredient. Originality helps, too. Yes, Alton Brown and the Chairman offer insightful and entertaining banter.
"Cooking Mama: World Kitchen" ($49.99 Wii, $19.99 Nintendo DS) Aimed at children, the game is a great way to introduce them to world cuisine.
"Personal Trainer: Cooking" ($19.99 for Nintendo DS) Not a game in the way Jamie Oliver's is, this recipe database offers tips and instructional tutorials that are voice-activated. Good for first-time cooks who want to expand their cooking repertoire.