One morning in the winter of 2000, Kristen Hard stepped off the Maria Alba, a seventy-three-foot yacht docked on Dominica, the small Caribbean island between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Hard was the chef for a yearlong excursion on the boat, which was owned by the founder of a Spanish telecom company. On board, she cooked three elaborate meals for seven people daily: quiches and pastries, fresh pastas and pizza, bouillabaisse made from fish caught off the back of the yacht. Her unlimited food budget—she stockpiled foie gras—was a dream, but her drive to prove that a young, female American cook could continually wow the skeptical Europeans aboard consumed and exhausted her. On Dominica, she took a few rare hours off with two other crew members to hike into the rain forest with a guide. It was there she encountered the seeds of the passion that would come to define her life.
Photo by Audra Melton / To see more photos from Hard's trip to Trinidad and Tobago, click here.
Hard was only twenty-two, but she’d always been prone to disappearing into her fascinations. When she was six, she tried to make fudge and lollipops alone in her mom’s Dunwoody kitchen. (She didn’t use a candy thermometer, and the candies never hardened properly.) She aced science all through grade school and begged her dad for a chemistry set but never got one. In college, while studying philosophy at the University of South Carolina, she cooked at a Cuban restaurant. The owners saw her ambition and made her manager. She and the head cook fought so ferociously over recipe consistency that Hard fired him and took on that role, too. Her stint as a yacht chef began when she was backpacking in Europe and two men at a marina in Genoa randomly offered her a job. Hard often refers to an interior guiding voice that she’s trusted since she was little. She had stopped by the marina only to kill time while waiting for a train to Spain, but her intuition told her to take the cooking gig.
In Dominica’s rain forest, the guide stopped in front of a small tree—elfin, really, by the tropics’ lush standards, with a slim trunk and branches no thicker than a powerful man’s arms. Theobroma cacao (“food of the gods”) is an evergreen understory tree: It thrives beneath the shade of tall banana plants and other trees. Its pods, shaped like tapered melons, sprout right from the trunk and grow to roughly the size of a Nerf football. The color of the pods depends on the tree hybrid, but they run similar to the hues in a handful of Skittles. The guide picked up a yellowish-orange pod from the ground. “This,” she said, “is where chocolate comes from.”
Hard’s hiking partners nodded appreciatively, but she was mesmerized. Chocolate! She asked the guide if she could keep the pod. Later, at a market in Dominica, she found women selling a simple form of chocolate used mostly for making hot drinks. She asked them what she could do with the pod, and they gave her vague instructions. On the boat, she hacked open the pod to reveal beans surrounded by sticky, white pulp. She removed the beans and placed them in the window to dry in the sun. A few days later, after the beans grew brown and brittle, she roasted them and pried open the shells with her fingers to get at the nibs—fragmented pieces of pure seed that are the foundation of chocolate. She ground the nibs into a powder. The flavor was mild, but she was proud of her efforts and used the powder as a flavoring in recipes. In the six months that the boat lingered in the Caribbean, she kept seeking out markets that sold unrefined chocolate molded into baton shapes.
Hard longed to make elegant, smooth, European-style truffles, but the batons, still flecked with nibs, had a coarse texture. She took a rolling pin to the chocolate, pounded it in a mortar and pestle, then pressed it through a fine sieve. She melted it, mixed it with cream, and infused it with lavender and other fresh herbs, then molded the truffles by hand. “When I was working with chocolate that first time, I swear, I was under a spell,” Hard told me. She would later speak of the moment with the fervor of the converted: “God told me to make chocolate.” She served the truffles to the Europeans; they swooned.
Today, Hard is the owner of Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Co., a cozy Inman Park boutique with a one-room production facility where she and her small staff produce the most exquisite chocolate in the Southeast. This is indulgence on an intense new level, painstakingly crafted in ways that few artisans in the country even attempt. But craftsmanship, as Hard has learned, isn’t enough. Without the right bean, her skills are irrelevant. Since opening her shop in 2008, Hard has become a crusading force in the world of fine chocolate, traveling the globe to pinpoint the kind of beans that will not only sustain her business but also change the model for an industry that has been built on exploitation.