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February 12, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Fine dining chef is a sweet addition to Fran’s Chocolates

Photo by Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times

Photo by Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times

It’s not the most typical Valentine’s Day story. Yes, it’s about love — a
love for chocolate. And there’s passion — for pure ingredients and
hands-on attention. The business relationship is built on
mutual respect and a shared curiosity about how to make a good thing
better.

So maybe it isn’t so strange that the queen of flavor and the king of
savor, Fran Bigelow and Scott Carsberg, are preparing inventive treats
for Valentine’s and beyond together at the Fran’s Chocolate factory on
Capitol Hill, a family-run business also led by Fran’s daughter
Andrina Bigelow and son Dylan Bigelow.

Carsberg, one of Seattle’s most respected and formidable fine-dining chefs, joined on
to help oversee the kitchen and develop new products at Fran’s, one of the pioneers of
fine chocolates in the U.S. (The salt caramels preferred at The White
House? They’re hers.) All the family members say that pristine
ingredients, simplicity and uncompromising attention are as relevant
to their candies and confections as it would be to the Dungeness crab
“cannelloni” or celery root veloute Carsberg worked with at his former
Belltown restaurants, Lampreia and then Bisato. Andrina Bigelow, the
company CEO, earned an MBA at Cornell University. Dylan Bigelow, the
company Director of Chocolate, trained at the Culinary Institute of
America in the Napa Valley and was an early employee at the
then-independent Scharffen Berger chocolate company.

With Carsberg, “his aesthetic is similar to ours,” Andrina Bigelow
said at the factory where workers were arranging hand-dipped
Valentine’s chocolates in heart-shaped boxes and neatly tying each
individual satin bow. In the next room, workers set fruits and nuts in
patterns on a new Mendiant bar, one of Carsberg’s creations, studding
a thin rectangle of chocolate with toppings like jewels on a bracelet.
A dried cherry started the row, then diamonds of tender confited
orange peel, a signature Carsberg flavor, prepared so precisely
they could have been machine-stamped.

“Scott is actually cutting each piece of fruit,” Bigelow said, leading
the way to a production room where Carsberg was scattering handfuls of
apricot and cherry and other ingredients over a new Palermo bar, while
a colleague noted the spot or two where an extra pinch was needed for
an exacting pattern.

Chocolate is “a great foil,” Carsberg said of his new daily focus. “It
has no borders. You can be creative with it… it’s a cuisine in
motion.”

It also requires care. “Chocolate is really unforgiving. It’s time,
it’s patience,” Bigelow said.

“Every day things have to look beautiful,” Bigelow began — “and taste
delicious,” Carsberg finished.

The new position — he’s Chef de Cuisine at Fran’s – is actually
Carsberg’s second time working for Bigelow. As a young chef preparing
to open Lampreia in the early 1990s, he remembers admiring the window
displays of Fran’s first shop in Madison Valley. “It reminded me of
Europe,” said the chef, whose training included stints in Germany and Italy, maintaining
a Michelin star during his tenure at an Italian restaurant. Fran’s
father, who did the displays, suggested he go in and ask his daughter
for a job.

At the shop, a young Carsberg did “all the mundane tasks,” said Fran
Bigelow, from stuffing plump figs with ganache to coming in early to
start melting chocolate. They kept in touch in the years since, with
Bigelow dining at his restaurants regularly as he earned accolades
like a James Beard Award as the Northwest’s best chef and she became
known for quality and creative indulgences. Fran’s now has three
retail stores and a broad mail-order business, with some products sold
in Northwest supermarkets. Despite the small-batch work, it’s a large
enough organization that people are still surprised to hear there is a
real Fran in the kitchen.

At 70, Bigelow is committed to staying involved in her namesake
company, but wanted to spend more time on the creative work and less
on the day-to-day commitments. It was also a time of significant
change: After 22 years on Capitol Hill, Fran’s is preparing for a move
to the original Rainier Brewery building in Georgetown later this
year, allowing more room for experimentation and new products aimed at
the retail shops. Carsberg has been learning the processes and adding
offerings like a smooth cylinder of pistachio marzipan dipped in dark
chocolate. Other experiments are still in the works, like Carsberg’s
thought of a confited tomato enrobed in chocolate. He’s imagining
savories like gravlax with cocoa, or burnt chocolate flavors, or a hot
chocolate muddled with aged beer.

The intense chef “elevates the staff,” Fran Bigelow said. “He’s a
great teacher.” For himself, Carsberg said he’s been hanging out in
Fran’s retail stores to listen to customer reactions to the
chocolates, and has respect for the factory employees, who average
some 10 years of service.

He came to the job, he said, after doing consulting work for Andrina’s
husband at The Pine Box bar on Capitol Hill, one of a few pursuits he
took on after closing Bisato.

“He took me out for coffee one morning and said ‘What do you want to
do next?” Carsberg recalled. To Fran Bigelow, that was “an opportunity
that presented itself.” It’s not the sort of job that the company
advertised, or that they could have predicted someone would be able to
fit.

The New York Times once wrote that Lampreia, “often considered the
best in the city,” had “the kind of feel that can only come when a
chef dominates every detail.”

Can it work, connecting a chef with that hallmark of independence with
a business that’s been entirely led by one family? Carsberg had an
immediate reply:

“I feel like I’m part of the family.”

And every day, he said, he’s still learning — his goal no matter what
the medium or where the place.

“There something to be said for one simple bite,” he said. “One perfect flavor.”

0 Comments | Topics: Andrina Bigelow, Dylan Bigelow, Fran Bigelow

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