• Source: Debora Smail

    Annie Rupani

    Age: 26 Position: Chocolatier and Owner Restaurant: Cacao & Cardamom, Houston

    Annie Rupani paves her own way. The chocolatier and owner of Cacao & Cardamom opened her first storefront about ten months ago in Houston's swank Galleria neighborhood, offering specialty drinks and gelato in addition to chocolates. But there are also pictures of the bean-to-bar process up in her store, images that show the process from the cacao growing to how exactly the bars and bonbons are made to help educate her customers. "I discovered single-origin chocolate when I was studying in Boston. I was a huge health freak, so chocolate was a great dessert that didn't make me feel guilty," Rupani says, and she wants to channel that feeling into her business.

    She takes an all-natural approach to chocolate making at her shop, saying that while some people expect the super sweet chocolates they're used to, "each piece here will have only two or three grams of sugar, which is plenty for your palate — or at least it should be." People come in asking for sugar-free options, but Rupani won't make them. "I tell them if they can find me a sugar-free chocolate that's made without chemicals, I'll serve it but I refuse to put chemicals in my chocolate."

    Before opening her storefront last year, Rupani sold chocolates in an online shop. She got into making the confections while she was studying for the LSAT after graduating from Boston University. "I started playing with it, just as a stress reliever during the studying process." After she was done studying, she went to Pakistan, where her family's from, to do charity work. She was working on applications, but while she was there, she started to think that maybe she didn't want to be a lawyer.

    From Pakistan, she ended up going to Malaysia to take a chocolatiering class, and then landed an internship with a Houston chef back home. She made chocolates for his restaurant during the day and worked on her own at night.

    It was all just to pass time while I figured out what I really wanted to do

    "It was all an experiment, and it was all just something to pass time while I figured out what I really wanted to do," she says. But three months later, the opportunity came to set up a table at a local event. Rupani's chocolates were a hit, and a news anchor called her afterward and asked if she could come film her making chocolates. It was then that that she realized this could be a business. "I thought, maybe this isn't a hobby — obviously people are seeing something here. So I made the most of the situation." Her online shop opened right after the segment, and a year and a half later she found a brick-and-mortar space in Houston.

    Because of her circuitous route, the chocolatier thinks it's important to talk to others who want to explore unorthodox paths. "In many cases and many life choices that I've made, the routes that I've taken have been very unconventional, so I definitely try to do my part," she says.

    What's next? There are plans to expand, but Rupani's focusing first on teaching the Houston community. "People here are still really into cupcakes and macarons, and don't necessarily understand chocolate," she says. "The largest misconception is that the best chocolate in the world comes from Switzerland and Belgium — but cacao doesn't even grown in Switzerland and Belgium." At Cacao & Cardamom, the chocolatier sells over 100 bars of chocolates from countries around the world like Lithuania, Iceland, and Vietnam in addition to the in-house offerings. Rupani wants people to treat chocolates the same way they think of specialty coffee from different origins.

    I'm all about education, because that's the only way people are going to get out of their frame of mind

    "I'm all about education, because that's the only way we're going to grow and the only way people are going to get out of their frame of mind." She also has what she calls a spice bar in her shop, a station set up so customers who aren't familiar with ingredients like cardamom, black sesame, or Chinese five-spice can smell them, because, as Rupani says, "I want people to have an understanding of what they're eating."

    New flavors are created based on things she's inspired by — trips, great dinners and coming across new ingredients. Someone gave her bag of Madagascan peppercorns recently that she turned into a batch of chocolates, and right now she's working on a creme fraiche. "It's awesome. It adds this airiness to the chocolate, and that little tang of yogurt." She's also playing with cheese and chocolate. "I've done brie and I'd love to make something with goat cheese. I'm never going to make a plain sea salt caramel or something you can find at the grocery store."

    —Sonia Chopra

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