It’s not every town that can boast its own independent chocolatier. Serenade Chocolatier at 5 Harvard Square in Brookline Village is a special shop that caters to all varieties of chocolate lover—from the traditionalist who craves milk chocolate-covered raisins to the trendy candy lover who prefers smoky salted caramels.
Owner and master chocolatier Nur Kilic, a petite, friendly woman whose family originates from Turkey, regularly experiments with new flavors, taking cues from what’s new in the chocolate industry. Her presentation is as artful as her flavor combinations and textures. Echoing popular artisanal chocolate makers like Vosges and Jacques Torres, many of Serenades’s chocolates are beautifully decorated and presented like precious jewels nestled in a candy box.
Kilic also knows what her repeat customers like—customers who, in some cases, had first come to her store when they were kids and pressed their noses against the glass display cases. A longtime favorite is the Viennese Trifle, consisting of a layer of hazelnut butter plus two other layers: one a blend of milk chocolate and hazelnut and the other of dark chocolate and hazelnut.
The Viennese Trifle has been a favorite variety since the eighties, when the shop was named Ambrosia and located on Beacon Street. The original owner, William Federer, sold the business to Kilic, who is a former mechanical engineer. She quit her job in 1987 to take a brief course in candy making at a culinary school in New York City before buying the 300-foot store in Coolidge Corner.
“Federer was a legend in the town,” recalled Kilic. She wanted him to be her consultant, a mentor to guide her in the business, but he was busy taking care of his wife who had Alzheimer’s. He told the inexperienced candy maker that she was on her own. At that point she had never even laid eyes on Federer—when the store was changing hands they conducted all business over the phone.
Meanwhile, Kilic was struggling to perfect the store favorite—the Viennese Trifle. The recipe just wasn’t working for her; the layers weren’t sticking together properly. One day a short stocky man with piercing blue eyes appeared in the store. He spoke rapidly. “I have one hour…what do you want to know?” It was William Federer.
From the day on, Kilic said, Federer came in daily and mentored her on the very precise craft of artisanal chocolate making, a craft that requires patience and a sense of timing.
“I learned everything from him,” she said. Federer passed away in 2007 at the age of 90.
A Seasonal Business
Serenade has a total of four employees—in addition to Kilic there is one other full-time employee and two part-timers. But Kilic is the heart and soul—or the sugar and spice—of the operation. The chocolate business is seasonal. During their busiest time—between Thanksgiving and Christmas—she often works between six to seven days a week and orders 2000 pounds of high-end chocolate every other week to keep up with the demand. In the summer heat, with many local residents away on vacation, she can take it easy, coming into the store four days a week and ordering chocolate once every two months.
Kilic—whose favorite commercial chocolate bars are Mounds and Butterfinger—prefers to buy her bulk milk and dark chocolate from Peter’s, a domestic brand owned by Cargill, Inc., while her white chocolate comes from a Belgian company.
Sweet Hits and Misses
In addition to the Viennese Trifle, another hot seller is the salted caramel, Kilic recently started experimenting with making chocolates inspired by cocktails. One popular flavor she introduced around Valentine’s Day, the St. Germaine Truffle, incorporates St. Elder, a natural Elderflower Liquor made in Somerville, MA, and passion fruit. At the suggestion of her customers, Kilic also created the Dark and Stormy, made with ginger and dark rum. It was such a hit at Valentine’s Day that she now makes it year-round.
Less successful new flavors were the peanut butter and jelly trifle and the Linzer trifle, with hazelnut and raspberry filling.
“People don’t seem to like the consistency of jelly.”
Another strong seller isn’t a truffle, but an entire “cake.” The Pinata cake is a round, hollow chocolate shell filled with Serenade’s artisanal chocolates. The outside shell is decorated with the customer’s special message and it comes with a small wooden mallet to crack open the shell to get to the candy inside.
Kilic said she was inspired to create the Pinata cake for her daughter’s 18th birthday. She got the idea from the oversized, hollow chocolate Easter eggs that are filled with chocolate bunnies that the store sells in the spring.
New flavors of chocolate bars will be coming this fall. She also hopes to expand her online business. Right now 20% of Serenade’s retail comes from their website.
Breaking into the industry
I asked Kilic what advice she would have for up-and-coming chocolatiers.
“Find a really good mentor,” she said, “That’s how you learn…hands-on.” Two of Kilic’s former employees have gone on to start their own businesses. Periodically people come into her shop offering to work for free. She never accepts these offers, but she does hire them for pay when she can. Some of them only end up staying for a short time.
“It’s hard work. It’s being on your feet.” She also explained how tricky it is to work with sugar, how you have to get it right the first time or the recipe fails. “You can’t rework sugar,” she said.
Surprisingly, her mechanical engineering background has served her well as a chocolatier. “I can fix all my own machines! And I’m good at solving problems.”
Kilic feels fortunate to make a living doing something she loves. “When you enjoy what you do it’s not work.”
—By Jennifer Campaniolo