I often seem to get dragged along to local markets on mornings when I have no business being awake or even attempting to interact with others, but these always seem to be where I find really interesting small businesses that end up fascinating me. This was definitely the case one morning last year while visiting the Horsefeather’s Market on the West Side of Buffalo. Amongst the produce vendors, small shops selling coffee and handmade dumplings, and an interminably busy brunch spot — was a small table piled with tiny boxes hiding treasures. You could have easily walked past it if it weren’t for the electric colors of the actual product drawing you in. These simple and unassuming cartons were filled with selections of glossy Technicolor chocolate truffles — bright blooms of gold, red, and purple, bisected asymmetrically by a single bold line of color. A metallic dusting leaving them looking a little a starry midnight sky. But don’t for a second think that these truffles are too precious or delicate to eat, their intensity of flavor and uniqueness demands that they be sampled. And honestly, all this romanticized and pseudo-poetic language about chocolates is coming from someone like me — WHO DOES NOT LIKE SWEETS — so you know they have to be pretty good.
The man making and selling these chocolates is Ben Johnson, the owner of Blue Table Chocolates, and he got his start in chocolate as a way to fill his days while looking for a job. Ben came to Buffalo from Boston, MA, where he had been working for over a decade in the non-profit sector with an initiative focused on building affordable housing. Ben’s wife was the catalyst for a move when, as an academic, she was offered a job teaching at the University of Buffalo. “I started looking for the same exact thing here and it wasn’t coming up. So just to fill the day I got a job working at Choco-Logo on Broadway downtown, worked there for about three months, just working the line along with Buffalo’s Burmese community and just got hooked, just got totally hooked until I got another desk job, and you know, ‘say good‑bye, this was fun, you know, take care, guys, I’ll see you around, but I have to go back to my real life now.’ But I never really stopped.” Ben told me.
“So I would be working sixty, seventy hours a week in the non‑profit world and just be completely stressed and burnt out. After work I would get home at nine o’clock at night, say hi to the wife, put the kids to sleep, walk the dog, and then just be all amped up and would make chocolate until two or three in the morning. And I just did that in our kitchen for about four or five years and it got to the point where we would go to dinner parties and bring stuff I’d made along and our friends would ask ‘This is great, where can I get some?’ And there was no answer — like ‘Oh, no, this is just for fun’. The job I was in just got more and more demanding as time went on and I started thinking ‘Why are you doing this? You never see the kids, you never get to go to soccer games, you have no summer breaks.’ So we sat down, had a hard talk about what happens if I do this, what happens if I actually do what I enjoy doing — and the whole conversation was ‘well, what’s the next step, what do you do five years down the road? What do you do ten years down the road?’ And I thought ‘let’s just put that aside, let’s forget about five years, ten years — what do we want to do now? And then it will figure itself out’ So I said my peace and gave two months’ notice so they could start another search to fill my position. I think it was about two and a half years ago, I just started do this real small, some private events, online sales, and it’s just been taking off since then.”
Aside from the immaculate taste, the aesthetic of Ben’s truffles are a big part of the appeal. These chocolates are gorgeous, and not in an overly baroque or ornamental way. The simplest elements of design done well are on display here: line, color, and shape. There aren’t any fancy ornaments or overlaid patterns, just a clean and perfect structure to convey delicious chocolates to your taste buds. A simplicity that is perhaps owed to Ben’s own education in design and architecture. “I studied at UVA for four years. I had a lot of fun. The thing is, and I didn’t even think about this until long after it happened, but every architecture school has got its own assets and quirks, I think. UVA was known to not rely on color in renderings and the models and all that, because that was seen as something of a cheap out. It should be about the design proportions. At most you might add something like a single red line to define a section because it’s that single restrained moment that makes everything else pop more, and that kind of ended up as the aesthetic of Blue Table — don’t get all crazy with fifteen different colors, the rainbow tutti fruity, just have one clean line, and that’s sort of the become the look.”
Much like the architecture he once studied, there is a language to the design of the truffles that Ben makes — a syntax of colors that imply flavor and define expectations. Sanguine crimson with a splash of eponymous color for blood orange, passionfruit is the color of a tropical sunset crossed with a cream color that reminds one of sand. Salted caramel is a regal purple shot though with pure white — royal colors for Blue Table’s best seller. Boxes are accompanied by a flavor guide that explains all this, but it’s much for fun to eat your way through a collection, learning to recognize your favorites by sight. And there’s always the surprises — monthly flavors that are based on the season, ingredient availability, what experiments Ben has ben toying with — sometimes for years. The current monthly offerings are french toast and maple bacon, while past months have included flavors like St. Germain, pumpkin caramel, blood orange, lavender, rosemary pine nut, banana rum, yuzu-ginger, and Pop-Rocks
As a fledgling business, gaining a foothold in the community was important for Blue Table Chocolates, especially since their creative approach to truffles is a little out of step with the ubiquitous presence of sponge candy and chocolate pretzels in Buffalo. Rather than be slavish to tradition or trends, Blue Table has decided to embrace other elements of Buffalo’s shifting culture, including its growing immigrant and refugee community. One of the first major events that Ben got to flex his creative muscles on was a fundraiser for The International Institute of Buffalo — called Buffalo Without Borders – an opportunity that found him creating chocolates with flavor profiles al little outside of what you might find in any of Buffalo’s more traditional chocolatier’s catalogs. ”The idea was to find some sort of bridge between local Buffalonians and the refugee population. There are Burmese families all over Buffalo, as well as refugees from other areas, but it’s really segregated and there’s not much crossover between the communities. So the point of this event was to offer something that was influenced by the Burmese or the Bhutanese community, but was accessible to local Buffalonians as well, and the thought was that chocolate could be that medium.”
“I worked with three families, one from Burma, one from Bhutan, and one from Iraq — and over the course of three of four months of meetings I got to know their stories, their history, and what they like to cook at home. I would go back with a few small Tupperware containers that had samples of ganache — perhaps something like a date and white chocolate ganache with a touch of tahini for a Baklava inspired truffle. And these families were brutal, which was great. Sometimes even if they liked it they would feel the recipe had no real connection to their lives in Buffalo or back in their previous homes — so I had to start over and rethink what I was working on completely. So these families were incredible and really let me know when it wasn’t working. Ultimately I went through four or five versions before settling on something they really liked. For the Bhutanese family I created a toasted basmati rice pudding truffle that was similar in concept to an India rice pudding, but they toast the rice first in peanut oil which gives it a brown color and a great nutty aroma. We also added some toasted cardamom and golden raisin to round out the flavor a bit — which ended up being so specific and unique — but it totally nailed the flavor of this dish.”
“The Burmese truffle was an interesting process because the Burmese culture doesn’t really have a set dessert course in its meals — so instead we based it off a traditional Burmese tea salad, which is a communal event that brings together a lot of small dishes to accompany tea, and guests just sort build their own thing from what’s available. So we worked with coconut milk, chilis, and tamarind paste while omitting other elements of the service like the preserved fish and dried shrimp. It’s a truly unique truffle that’s a little more bitter than what we normally create, and certainly a lot hotter, but It appealed to the palettes of my hosts who kept pushing me to build stronger hotter flavors that they were accustomed to. We’ll be doing that event again this year, so I’m interested to see what I get to create this time.”
It may be a harder road to walk, but by eschewing trends and chasing what interests him, Ben has begun to carve out a loyal following — amongst both fellow obsessives and casual fans. Each season brings a constant evolution and refinement of Ben’s truffles, which he still produces by hand himself. Blue Table Chocolates have become something of a treasure to those that love them — something they will gladly seek out as they follow Ben’s market schedule, order directly from him, or even by opting to one of the subscription plans that Ben offers that featuring both his classic and special monthly flavors. Speaking for myself, it’s the uniqueness of the flavors that Ben creates that drew me to his chocolates — And while you won’t find sponge candy or other classic local favorites amongst his wares, you can be sure that Ben is awake, probably much later than you are, and working on something even cooler to excite you.