“I feel like I do what I want — and that is really a good thing and really a bad thing.” JWU Providence’s 179th Distinguished Visiting Chef Melissa Coppel is describing to a packed auditorium of rapt baking & pastry students the ways that doing what you love has its rewards as well as its drawbacks: “If you are critical of the world, you must also be critical of yourself, and be willing to dig deep.”
After high school, the Cacao Barry Ambassador and 2016 Dessert Professional Top 10 Chocolatier in North America left her home country of Colombia to study at The French Pastry School in Chicago.
Upon graduating, she found herself in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she began as a pastry cook at the 3-Michelin-starred kitchen of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. She worked hard and moved to Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio, where she focused on refining her skills in chocolate arts. She stayed at the resort until 2014, when she decided to open her own outlet for confections, Atelier Melissa Coppel.
As Coppel masterfully painted cocoa butter into chocolate molds, she stressed how important it is for pastry chefs to use and master their senses. She joked about the stereotypes surrounding pastry professionals: “Everyone wants us to be robotic, come in early, do everything clean and leave before the main kitchen starts.”
Not a day goes by where I don’t expect to push myself further than yesterday.”
She explains, “We really need to turn it around and embrace ourselves as true creative entities.” While owner and lead production manager of her atelier, Coppel teaches classes on pastry arts and chocolate, using her keen eye for aesthetics to help introduce interested students to new ideas.
As Coppel carefully sealed bonbons with tempered chocolate and deftly filled truffles, she described her sources of inspiration: “There’s a point in your career where you really need to find inspiration from within, flavors that you grew up with, flavors from people you love, and flavors from where you come from.”
While discussing her life in the world of competitions, she exclaimed, “Second place was hard! It’s something that sticks with you and it was something I would obsess over. When I went back the next year, I got first place and immediately forgot about it.” It was the drive to be better that kept her going and striving; she was in it to observe her own personal growth.
The chocolate presented to the crowd of JWU baking & pastry students and faculty was a “Coco-Nut,” a dark chocolate molded bonbon with a dark coconut lime caramel, and a black sesame praline. The fine shine on the chocolate gave a satisfying snap in the mouth, with the bright flavors of lime and coconut balanced with a dark caramel, brought together with the unexpected-yet surprisingly well paired black sesame crunch.
Each one of Coppels finished chocolates have “Chocolatier Melissa Coppel” stamped in bright red cocoa butter on the bottom. As she explains, “I do fancy things, so I like to put my name everywhere, as it’s very important to build your brand.”
It’s evident that Coppel puts her whole mind and body into the work she does — to the point of becoming a master of the medium of chocolates and confections. “Being a chocolatier was never my dream, but I got into a position where it became important, and I put my whole heart into it to get where I am today. Not a day goes by where I don’t expect to push myself further than yesterday.”
Follow Melissa Coppel on Instagram.
PHOTOS BY MIKE COHEA