“Chocolate changed my life,” says Stephanie van Vuuren, owner of JackRabbit Chocolates, on her deep emotional connection with the confectionery. For 10 years, she worked as a programming engineer, a job she hated. Her escape was chocolate and she spent her spare time experimenting and honing her patisserie skills. Then, a couple of years ago she took a leap of faith and left her job to pursue chocolate full time – and we should all be grateful she made the career change.
Stephanie worked for years from her small kitchen at home, tempering chocolate on a huge glass slab she bought on auction which she cooled down with frozen bags of peas. Today the self-taught chocolatier offers an incredible range of chocolates from her shop in the Waterkloof Heights Shopping Centre in Pretoria. Though she might have loathed her last job, Stephanie believes that it has helped to make her the chocolatier she is today; there’s just one tempering machine behind the scenes and everything else is made by hand to Stephanie’s exacting standards thanks to years of trial and error, logically thinking through challenges, and eventually perfecting the techniques that create her unique range of confectionery.
While you might get distracted by their colourful outsides and assume that the chocolate is the most important element of the confectionery, you’d be wrong. It’s all about what’s inside. “The chocolate is only a vessel to get the filling to you,” she says. Flavours are central to the experience – in fact, it’s what started her on her chocolate journey. As a child, she took trips with her parents overseas and had the opportunity to taste a wide spectrum of foods. She still remembers those tastes and, unable to find something that tasted similar in SA, set about recreating the flavours.
Working from a list of flavour inspirations that’s been years in the making, Stephanie adds 10 new flavours to the shop’s line-up every week in addition to the standard flavours (the stalwart flavours were part of the very first range of chocolates offered in JackRabbit’s first week of business, and include salted caramel, yuzu, espresso and passion fruit).
She believes that each and every chocolate needs to be a delicious experience – “I don’t just want you to have one or two favourites. This isn’t Quality Street!” – and works hard to ensure the perfect mouthfeel and taste, balancing bitter and sweet in a range of interesting flavours that go beyond the traditional (JackRabbit’s Christmas range included Spiced Pear, Eggnog, Brandy Custard, Burnt Butter and Honey, Peppermint and Sticky Date Pudding).
Stephanie’s chocolate services aren’t just confined to her shop – she’s developed confectionery elements for Mosaic Restaurant’s latest menu and chocolates for the turn-down at Capital Boutique Hotel (she offers her services to develop bespoke flavours and signature ranges). She’s also competed internationally, winning Gold in the European Open Category of the International Chocolate awards, and a Silver in the World Finals of the international chocolate awards hosted in London.
Quickfire Q&A with Stephanie:
Best thing you’ve ever eaten? Dark chocolate and tonka eclair from Yann Couvreur in Paris
Worst thing you’ve ever eaten? Super old tramezzini from a small town deli
What is the one item you couldn’t live without? A spatula
What are your 5 favourite flavours right now? Yuzu, tonka bean, vanilla, passion fruit and almond
Top tip for an aspiring chocolatier? Don’t give up – chocolate is hard, hard work and takes time to perfect. Also, never sell yourself short; you’re making something special for someone and you put so much of yourself into each thing you create, so make sure that you don’t work for free.
What would your last meal on earth be? Chocolate in 5 forms… probably served with ice cold chocolate milk!
Are there any chefs/foodies that you’re slightly obsessed with? Always obsessed with Yann C, Cedric Grolet, Ksenia Penkina and Frank Haasnoot
What is one dish/confectionery/flavour you struggle to get right? I struggle to make phyllo pastry for baklava. I’ve tried many times but just never get it quite right!