8 Questions for Black Dinah Chocolatiers' Kate Shaffer
Chef-turned-chocolatier finds idyllic albeit isolated location doesn’t detour tourists nor chocolate lovers.
Maine’s Isle-au-haut encompasses 12.7 square miles and supports a year-round community of about 80, most of them engaged in the lobster fishing industry. Large portions of the land are designated as Acadia National Park. One wouldn’t normally think of finding a chocolate shop and café there, but thanks to Kate and Steve Shaffer, locals and trekkers can enjoy award-winning chocolates in the wilderness.
That coincidence has its origins in Kate Shaffer, who moved to the area several years ago to take on a job as a chef at one of the local inns. As she told a Boston Globe reporter in 2011, Kate was thrilled at the opportunity of serving up “a dinner party every night.” She, however, found preparing desserts with chocolate a challenge. Determined to learn how to make truffles for her hotel guests, Shaffer, described in the article how the process “cost them [the hotel] a lot of chocolate.”
Learn she did, however. When the hotel was sold, the Shaffers sought a way to remain in this idyllic location. In 2007, the two opened Black Dinah Café, named after an outcropping near the island.
Serving breakfast pastries and a light lunch to tourists passing by one of the major trails, which just happened to loop past their door, the couple hoped the visitors would also try the truffles and gourmet confections made by Kate under the Black Dinah Chocolatiers brand. A mention by Martha Stewart about the chocolates soon shifted chocolate production into high gear, moving production from the kitchen to the dining and living rooms, and eventually to their barn.
Of course, that mention probably stemmed from the fact that Kate and her team combined single-origin chocolates from Venezuela and Peru with the freshest, locally produced cream, butter, herbs, fruits and flowers that she’s gathered from a dynamic network of family farms and gardens in Maine.
Today, Black Dinah chocolates are sold online, in 29 retail stores throughout the country, at a tasting room in Blue Hill, Maine and at their Isle-au-haut café. Until this summer, all chocolates were hand-made by Kate and her small team on the island. This past June, the Shaffers moved chocolate production from the 500-sq.-ft. barn to a 4,255-sq.-ft. space in Westbrook, Maine.
Black Dinah Chocolatiers recently won a prestigious Good Food Award for its Cassis de Resistance truffle, adding to scores of honors and awards reaped by the company over the years. As well as being a Chocolatier, Kate is also the author of a best-selling book, Desserted, which features more than 45 of her delicious recipes, and describes the realities of living on a remote Maine Island. For more info, visit www.blackdinahchocolatiers.com.
If you were stranded on a deserted island with only one kind of candy, what would it be?
Kate: For me, nothing beats peanut butter and chocolate. It really is the perfect combo, and—dare I say?—feels almost healthy.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Kate: A chef and an author.
What issues concern you most about the confectionery industry and why?
Kate: Labor and agricultural practices in the production of chocolate. While I’m gratified that a lot more light is being shed on issues of slave and child labor, and de-forestation, we have a long way to go.
What’s the last book you read?
Kate: Three Slices. It’s an anthology of novellas by Chuck Wendig, Delilah S. Dawson, and Kevin Hearne.
What is your pet peeve?
Kate: When people are late for work. Drives me irrationally nuts.
If given the chance to choose anyone, whom would you like to collaborate with?
Kate: I’d love to collaborate with a favorite fun fiction author—like Laurie King or Kevin Hearne (or any other number of popular series writers)—to create a confection or other favorite recipe, that is a go-to food for one of their main characters. How fun would that be?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Kate: I was fast approaching burn-out as a chef, and I went to this massage therapist because I had developed repetitive motion injuries in both biceps and wrists. She said, “If you can’t channel love into your work through your arms and hands, then you need to find a way.” I quit restaurants after that season, and three years later I was making chocolate. I haven’t had any injuries since.
What excites you most about your job?
Kate: That it’s my job! Who knew? Certainly not me!