Doctor, Mom, Chocolatier!
You might say that Elaine Hsieh of EHChocolatier in Somerville, Massachusetts took at 180 degree turn in her career, going from medicine to chocolate. Her decision to pursue her passion is one that many people might find inspiring, so here is her story, and her gorgeous chocolates.
On life before chocolate: Elaine always loved food, starting with her EZ bake oven. Her mother is a wonderful cook and many of her fondest childhood memories focused around food. But in her household, food was not considered a vocation, and so Elaine pursued a degree in medicine and became a doctor specializing in internal medicine and women’s health. But she never forgot her love for food, and longed to return to this passion.
On switching gears: Elaine completed the professional chef’s program at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts, but knew that she didn’t want to work in a commercial kitchen. She had an inspiring pastry teacher who told her that she had a good eye, and Elaine decided to start a high end dessert catering business out of her home. This while still practicing medicine and doing some medical consulting. Thinking about starting a family, and knowing that she would soon need to make a decision to move the business out of her home, Elaine decided that it wasn’t the right time to grow her dessert business, and focused on medicine. And start a family she did – times two, with the arrival of her twins!
The Aha moment: Elaine met Catharine Sweeney in 1999 when a mutual friend asked them to make her wedding cake. But she didn’t want just any wedding cake, she wanted a wedding cake from the cover of a magazine. A wedding cake from the cover of a magazine with seashells cascading down the side. And she wanted it delivered to Martha’s Vineyard in the middle of the summer. It was figuring out how to make these seashells out of molded white chocolate that first drew Elaine into the world of chocolate. “I loved the design aspects of making cakes and desserts, the beauty of it. Chocolate is such a great medium to work with, there are so many different ways to approach it.” Elaine and Catharine became friends and stayed in touch over the years, getting together to make large batches of sought after chocolates and confections for friends and family over the holidays. Finally, in 2008, Catharine was ready to retire from her career in academic administration at Harvard, and Elaine felt her family was at a good place to take the risk of starting her own business. Elaine took the Professional Chocolatier program with Ecole Chocolat that same year, and in 2010, she and Catharine launched EHChocolatier.
On her business: Elaine and Catharine make all of their products buy hand in small batches using the highest quality ingredients. Elaine summarizes their philosophy perfectly “Attention to detail, maintaining a consistent aesthetic and quality, execution and follow through are a large part, as is nurturing strong relationships with each other, our staff, neighbors, customers and other businesses”. When they launched their business in 2010, they decided to keep things small, first selling their chocolates through a “friends and family” program that eventually became their chocolate club. Then they sold their products online and to wholesale customers instead of opening up a brick and mortar retail store. Their business is currently about 60% wholesale and 40% retail (mostly online and at markets). A quick scan of the press page on their website clearly shows the multitude of praise they’ve received, including most recently in Martha Stewart Living (they were also nominees for Martha Stewart – American Made in 2014). Elaine and Catharine’s partnership is a remarkable one – they are “yin and yang” in terms of complementing each other’s strengths. Catharine’s children were older, and she kept a different schedule. Elaine does more of the business side of operations. It took three years for them to be comfortable enough financially to hire some staff. Without any support from outside investors, they own 100% of the company themselves.
On being a chocolatier-ing Mompreneur: Elaine’s twins are now 11, and soon to be teens. They were just six years old when she started her business – “I didn’t have babysitters or a nanny. I would take my kids to school and then I would be in the kitchen until it was time to pick them up. I took them to activities, and then I was back to work in the evenings.” Having her own business has definitely given Elaine more flexibility in terms of being in charge of her own schedule. But of course the demands of starting a new business while raising a young family was very challenging. “You’re fully committed to your business and making it successful, profitable, and highly regarded in your field. That takes a lot of time. But you also want to be there for your family. You never feel like you’re doing anything completely right, and I’ve had to learn to be okay with that.” A perfect illustration for this story, Elaine and I had the conversation that informed this post while she was watching her kids swimming lessons on a Saturday morning.
Advice to would-be chocolatiers: “Go find someone that you respect in the chocolate business, and work for them for 6 months to a year – work for them for free if you have to! This will give you the best window into the business so that you can decide if it’s a good fit.”
Congratulations to Elaine and Catharine, and best wishes for your future success!