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Monday, December 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In her sweet job, chocolatier concocts strange but wonderful confections

Seattle Times staff reporter

Autumn Martin, looking younger than her 25 years in a purple sweater, slippers and a hairnet, insists that melting chunks of chocolate into her chili is not disgusting. Neither is sprinkling it on a salad, she says, or spicing baked cauliflower with little chocolate nibs. Right.

But considering that her yellow-curry and roasted-coconut chocolate bar has been selling like hotcakes, what's surprising isn't this puckish chocolatier's eccentric taste; it's how shockingly delicious her unlikely creations actually are.

"When people hear about these combinations, the first reaction is always, 'Gross!,' " she says, "and the second is, 'Oh, yum, is there more?' "

Martin, the head chocolatier of Theo Chocolate factory, laughs while imitating visitors' reactions as they pass through her workplace on two scheduled tours daily. As the nation's only chocolate factory that manufactures fair-trade chocolate from scratch, the Fremont-based company is used to fielding curious visitors' questions — and shocking their palates.

Since joining the startup company in August 2005, Martin's primary duty has been to imagine, and then to create, an original line of confections.

"I usually start with some crazy idea and then just experiment with it," explains the culinary alchemist, who in the past has assembled the kitchen-equivalents of base-metals (curry, fennel, peanut butter and jelly) and conjured gold. Her fig and fennel truffle — which shares the mundane consistency of a Fig Newton but boasts a deeply ominous aftertaste, like something The Godfather would have nibbled while lounging in a smoking jacket — recently won second place in its category at the London-based Academy of Chocolate's annual awards.

Martin's confections vary in degrees of gustatory eccentricity, but she admits that many of her confections "reflect the juxtaposition of salt and spice with the deep, warm sweetness of chocolate. It's unexpected. Rich. Wonderfully complementary."

When Martin banters with her staff or recounts her scantily clad participation in the infamously raucous annual Fremont Solstice Parade last year, her eyes dance with youthful mischief. But when the subject wanders to the art of chocolate making, the cadence of her voice slows. Her brows knit in earnest, her eyes grow distant in concentration and her mouth pauses between words, her tongue tucked into her bottom lip, as if to mull a phantom taste.

As one of the youngest chocolatiers in the nation, the ambitious and diligent Martin finds that hard work and a vicious strain of self-criticism keeps her running with the big dogs.

"I'm the kind of person who does something with my whole mind and heart. Why live any other way?" she says, the intensity of her eyes belying a quick shrug. After graduating from Edmonds' Community College culinary program and subsequently working as the lead pastry cook at Canlis restaurant, Martin "fell in love with all things you can do with sugar." She began helping out at Theo Chocolates part-time in Spring 2005, impressing president Joe Whinney with "her intuitive sense, creative mind and extraordinary raw talent." Whinney offered Martin the job of head chocolatier, and she refused — twice — before deciding she could, in fact, throw herself into it, "and learn everything there is to know about chocolate."

Under the aegis of Theo Chocolate, Martin attended what she calls "chocolate school" in Montreal and began experimenting with the medium in her own kitchen. On the factory's floor, she learned to shepherd burlap sacks of unshucked single-origin cacao beans through each of nine steps — destoning, preroasting, winnowing, nib-roasting, stone-milling, ball-milling, mixing with sugar, refining and homogenizing — before eventually using the pliable final product to enrobe her carefully mixed ganache and praline fillings.

Everything from the cacao beans to the mint leaves in Martin's delectable mint ganache is fair-trade, and most of it is organic. The company's commitment to "enrich the lives of everyone involved in making food" also jibes well with Martin's personal ethos, which she describes as "living consciously." Everything she does, she explains, is done with intent. She has spent time volunteering on an organic farm in the area and traveled to Mexico to taste homemade molé.

"I'm very old-fashioned with certain things. I like things to go slowly and to happen for a reason," explains the North Seattle native.

Because Theo is such a small operation, Martin is not only the creative mind behind the confections, but also one of the "primary tongues" that direct the course of the company — a particularly important role in such a subjective business. Often there is not a specific formula that dictates when the beans have been roasted to perfection or when enough sugar has been added. The final flavor of the nibs and the fillings all "comes down to taste," she says.

"In the roasting process, we have to stop every minute or so and taste a cross-section. You don't want them over-roasted or under-roasted, but just right. It's the same with confections," she adds, admitting that sometimes tasting chocolate all day makes her a little giddy.

Pausing to contemplate a nibble of chocolate with scotch filling, she continues. "You don't want them too, say, citrusy or too smoky, but just right."

Our Goldilocks credits her taste for the "just right" to genetic intuition. As a kid, Martin used to sit on the kitchen counter and watch her father, who works as a carpenter, combine flavors with reckless abandon — hot pepper here, oysters there and a splash of garlic for good measure. Sometimes he'd bake what Martin remembers as "disgusting muffins," and sometimes really delicious oyster stuffing. But it's not only the recipes that have been passed down.

"He showed me the joy of experimenting with flavors, tasting combinations and thinking — does this feel right in my mouth?" she says, her cadence slowing again. Her eyes go dreamy, and her mind is mired once more in a labyrinth of imaginary tastes.

Eventually, she returns to reality, hinting that her next truffle might be inspired by sharp Chinese spices.

Gross. I mean ... Oh, yum. Is there more?

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published December 4, was corrected December 6. Theo Chocolate factory uses fair trade, not free trade, chocolate, as reported in a previous version of this article.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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