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Behind-the-Scenes Chocolate Making at XOCO

By Sarah Freeman
December 10, 2013
Photo by: Nick Murway

With all of the farm-to-table, garden-to-glass hoopla, only one restaurant in Chicago makes its own chocolate in-house with imported cocoa beans. That restaurant is XOCO, the fast-casual member of the Rick Bayless empire, and it has been doing so for the past four years. The restaurant imports cocoa beans from Mexico to make authentic Oaxacan chocolate. This chocolate is not like the stuff you find in candy stores; it is rich, much less sweet, slightly spicy with strong cinnamon notes and has an almost gritty texture that still melts in your mouth. The chocolate plays a starring role in the restaurant's drinking-chocolate program, but is also used in other sweet delicacies. We stepped into the basement kitchen - where all the magic happens - to get a behind-the-scenes look at the detailed process.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Fermented cocoa beans arrive from Tabasco, Mexico, four times a year in 232-lb. batches that cost over $8,000 per shipment. The beans are fermented beforehand to release the sugar and give them a deeper and more complex flavor. A similar process is used on coffee beans.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    When XOCO began making all of its chocolate in-house in 2009, each batch of beans was roasted and hulled by hand. Now, an automated machine roasts the beans for 20 minutes at 250 degrees before another machine takes over to remove the cocoa nibs from the shells.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The custom fabricated machine uses a bean splitter and an industrial-grade vacuum to extract the cocoa nibs. The machine splits the beans, and then the vacuum sucks out the lighter shells into a separate compartment so the nibs are able to flow out of the machine and into a tub.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The cocoa nibs are transferred to a baking sheet and reheated. The husks are not thrown away, but rather reused as fertilizer in the restaurant’s rooftop farm and Rick Bayless’ garden. By this time in the process, the entire prep kitchen is filled with the smell of fresh chocolate.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The hot nibs help to jump-start the grinding process. Hotter nibs mean more friction between the chocolate and the granite wheel that breaks down the beans into a paste. The chocolate is ground for three hours until it reaches a temperature and consistency that can be set in trays.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    When XOCO first started making their chocolate, the entire production was done in the upstairs pastry kitchen. The smell of chocolate permeated River North, drawing diners in by their noses.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The hot chocolate paste is chilled in trays. This allows the crystalline structures to set, while still keeping it a less-stable product than tempered chocolate. This means the chocolate at XOCO is better suited for culinary applications like pastries, truffles and drinking chocolate.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    While much of the chocolate is used for drinking chocolate (one block yields six gallons of the stuff), some of it is reserved for the pastry chefs at Topolobampo and Frontera Grill. This same chocolate will also be used at the new XOCO location in Wicker Park when it opens in the spring.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The chocolate is reheated and blended with a 1:1 sugar ratio to make authentic Mexican drinking chocolate. The ratio in the five different varieties varies slightly, but the main difference is the additives. Authentic is made with water, Classic with 2% milk, Aztec gets chile and allspice, Almendrado is mixed with almond milk, and Mexico City Thick contains no additives.

  • In addition to the drinking chocolate, the chocolate is also made into a ganache to dip freshly fried churros (although, they can be dipped into the beverage just as easily). The restaurant's churros are dusted with sugar and specks of the authentic Oaxacan chocolate for an all-encompassing sweet experience.

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Places Mentioned

XOCO

Mexican • River North

Food27 Decor16 Service18 Cost$19
 
 
 
Frontera Grill

Mexican • River North

Food27 Decor22 Service24 Cost$45
 
 
 
Topolobampo

Mexican • River North

Food28 Decor24 Service26 Cost$70
 
 
 
 
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