TESSA HALSTEAD: A Passion for Chocolate
By: Lilia Davis
Founder and owner of Chocolaterie Tessa in Austin since 2012, she never thought of following was going to in the footsteps of her father, Rex Morgan, a successful pioneer chocolatier in Texas for more than thirty years as her goal. But she had to travel the world of finance with a degree from Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. and later the wine industry in Argentina, and then, finally back to Texas and the surprise of discovering that her true passion was chocolate.
Tessa is an authentic lover of chocolate and her art combines high quality chocolate with the purest and classic ingredients free of artificial colors, flavors and food preservatives. While continuing her father’s tradition of making chocolate, she brought her own knowledge and savvy to bear after studying at Barry Callebaut Chocolates in Chicago and at Jean-Marie Auboine Chocolatier School in Las Vegas. She has developed beautiful designs and elegant presentation reaching the rank of Master Chocolatier. Her chocolates recently received more international awards in 2018. In exclusive interview with La Revista Mujer Tessa tells us how it all began and comments on the chocolate industry in Europe and the United States, on how to pair wine and chocolate and why her chocolates are a gift.
I visited Tessa one cool morning in March at her elegant chocolaterie store in Austin. When you first meet her, she greets you with a kind and bright smile, and even when she is quiet, she smiles with her eyes. The entrance was surrounded by a large number of bunnies standing up like little soldiers of different colors and flavors at the entrance of her store.
You have an abundant collection of bunnies, what does Easter mean to you?
Easter has a very special meaning to me. I love Bunnies! Also one of my very first gifts as a girl from the Dutch family with whom my father learned to make chocolates is this little chick (pollito). So if you come to my store during the Easter season you will notice that I indulge in an abundance of chocolate bunnies. My new addition is a carrot crunch made with milk, chocolate, and walnuts shaped in the form of a carrot. Also this year I am premiering very Special Easter Chocolate Eggs, as they are very popular in Latin America and in Europe.
That sounds really good… Tessa, tell us how did it all begin with your dad?
It all started in a lively conversation by my father Rex Morgan with the passenger on an airplane trip to Europe; a Dutch businessman dedicated to the chocolate business. A few years later, my father, tired of his satisfying yet strenuous job as a teacher in a school for students with learning disabilities, decided to pack his bags and go live in Holland and become a chocolatier apprentice. He spent two years there, learning not only how to make the best chocolates of the world, but also how to speak the language.
Upon returning to the United States, my father opened his own chocolate business in Dallas Texas: Morgen Chocolates (with and “e”) where he worked until 2015. So I grew up surrounded by chocolates. I helped him after school and on weekends, but I never thought of following in his footsteps.
Chocolates and Wine
You seem to have your father’s determination to leave it all and start something completely new in another country. Why Argentina?
My husband and I were both in the financial world and wanted to try something different, we decided to try the wine industry, and since I had a degree with a minor in Spanish, I wanted to try living in a Latin American Country, so we went to Mendoza to learn all possible about wines in Argentina. We lived there for two years. We also worked with wines and managing one of the best restaurants in Buenos Aires, next door to Argentina’s famous chef Francis Mallmann and book author of 7 Fires, Grilling the Argentine way.
What type of wines do you recommend to pair with your chocolates?
Pairing wine with chocolate is one of my favorite things to do. I could advise as a general rule: Go from light to dark. That is, always taste the white chocolate first and then the darkest one last. This avoids overpowering the taste and you won’t be able to taste the other lighter chocolates.
So for a white chocolate I recommend light, sparkling wine such as cava, or champagne, but avoid the super dry, otherwise it will taste extra bitter. The wine needs to be a little sweet. For milk chocolates I recommend a light red port, especially for caramel. For dark chocolate I recommend a fruity zinfandel, a sherry, or dessert wine, and moscato. But all is about the experience, the flavor.
International Chocolate Awards
What is what you look for in a chocolate when you travel to another country and try new chocolates?
I look for presentation, which is of huge importance to me. How the store looks, how the chocolate is packaged is very important to me. Why? Because they are a gift. “Our chocolates are gifts” my Dad used to say. And I think he was absolutely right. Sharing something special with someone you love. I also look for taste in a chocolate, does it have a vibrant flavor? Is it unique? Is it classic? Does it have good texture?
Other countries have a different approach to chocolate, for example, according to industry experts, Switzerland had the highest chocolate consumption in the world. On average, they consumed about 8.8 kgs of chocolate per person in 2017, with the United States coming in at the nineteenth position at 4.4 kgs per person.
Tessa pulls her calculator out, her finance skills always at hand, she then computes some amounts and says: “well, that makes it about 3.oz per day, equivalent to a Hershey’s bar per week. Which is not bad, it’s still a lot of chocolate!
But I think what that shows you is that Europeans in general consume chocolate less as occasional gifts and more for day to day consumption; they have set in their minds that chocolate is good for you, for health reasons. USA is not there yet, but is going in that direction though, as chocolate contains a high amount of magnesium, especially necessary for women and we have now more access to chocolate than ever before.
What do you feel makes your chocolate distinct and award winning?
First of all I do classic, traditional chocolate flavors. For example I don’t do curry with chocolate and then I execute them extremely well. When we compete with North and South American chocolatiers; judges value the execution of the chocolate, the presentation, good looking chocolates, that they are elaborated technically correct, and have a good texture and lastly, that they have a unique and outstanding flavor.
So we always strive the hardest to make the best and judges notice that. For example, for almonds: I source my almonds from a small farm in California because they have the absolute best flavor, and you can tell the difference from the first bite in the chocolate.
How do you decide to add new chocolate flavor or combination?
A special ingredient always stirs up my imagination to create new flavors. For example our newest flavor is Matcha, yellow tea natural to Texas. The local tea makers went all the way to China to learn the techniques of brewing the same local tea and that came out with an outstanding flavor.
Women in Business
Which was the hardest obstacle to overcome when you started your business?
More than anything it was money – we had to finance it through the Small Business Administration. It helped that I had previously worked in the chocolate industry with my father and that I had already some of the equipment, mostly knowledge of chocolates.
I notice most, if not all of your staff are women, and an increase of women chocolatiers in Austin. Is that a trend?
I am not sure it’s a trend or not, but worldwide chocolatiers are mostly men, while in the United States most chocolatiers are women. Maybe we are more detailed oriented, but I am not sure exactly why that is. However, as a female owned business, I have a female friendly workplace that I am committed to and I aim to provide jobs to them as much as I can.
What would you recommend other women who want to start a business?
They have to be honest with what their needs are. Not all businesses allow you to have a family life. Prior to this I had worked in Argentina managing a high profile restaurant and with wine and those were very long hours. The culture there consists of late dinners, and drinks and so I was never back home before 1-3 a.m. So I knew that I had to work differently when I started my own business.
Are you planning to expand your business to pastries or chocolate drinks?
I have been thinking to open a second location in the future, but more like a café offering drinks, some food and wine to pair with my chocolates. I think it could be a good concept.
Our Chocolates are a Gift
Your first child, your son was born surrounded by chocolates just as you were, and your second child about to be born, might you expect them to come in and help you someday?
My son still is very young, but one thing I can tell you is that he absolutely loves chocolate! He is a picky eater, but I was impressed that he has not declined any offerings of chocolate so far.
What motivates to keep going every morning?
I love what I do. I love making something that makes people happy. When I hear a client sharing my chocolate with a friend so enthusiastically, that is a great satisfaction to me, and assurance that I am doing something good and it is appreciated. That’s what keeps me going, the people aspect of the business. People enjoying and sharing my chocolate as a gift. What surprises me is how much love my chocolates bring to others. My father used to say “Our chocolates are a gift”. And I agree with him one hundred percent.
A sensory experience
When I tasted Tessa Chocolates for the first time it was an unforgettable sensory experience. I tried award winning Banana Caramel (Milk Chocolate Caramel blended with Real Bananas), Salted Caramel (Salted Butter enrobed in Milk Chocolate) Mocha Pyramid, (Coffee Ganache enrobed in Dark Chocolate), her newest flavor, Local Leaf Matcha (White Chocolate Ganache infused with Yaupon Matcha made by Austin Own Local Leaf Tea), and at the end, my new favorite Easter crush: Crunchy Carrot chocolate.! A delicacy of flavor in each of the different chocolates. They are not so sweet, and the taste keeps conquering you gently enticing you on to the final bite! I loved every single one of them. The best chocolates I ever eaten.
It’s not easy to find a chocolate with such an excellent flavor, presentation, technique and passion under one name: Chocolaterie Tessa: and right here in Austin. So don’t wait any longer….