This Culinary Queen’s Delicious Path to Gourmet Chocolatier

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There’s nothing sweeter than a box of chocolates, except maybe the woman behind some of the best chocolates I’ve ever eaten.

Holly Peterson, gourmet chocolatier and the powerhouse behind multiple businesses, is an accomplished woman whose creativity and innovation make her an entrepreneurial role model. I had the pleasure of meeting her near her shop in Calistoga, California, in the north end of Napa Valley. Her story is one for the books. And her chocolate? Well, it’s divine. 

A Windy, Delicious Path

She attributes the flavors of her chocolate to several factors, including the terroir of the cacao she selects, the blind taste testing she applies, and the organic ingredients she uses. Of course, her background and experience play a pivotal role in her ability to do all of those things well. And while she did not follow what anyone would consider a “normal” trajectory to get to where she is today, she believes the path she took was always meant to bring her here. 

“When I was in college, I didn’t fit into a standard major. I started off in enology/viticulture at UC Davis, but my electives — food science, marketing, communication — added up to a triple major if I stayed an extra year,” Peterson says. “I wanted to accept a job with Stephen Spurrier at L’Academie du Vin in Paris that year, so I was motivated to finish college on time. My adviser, Dr. Singleton, told me I could graduate in four years if I wrote an individual major. That idea opened many doors to thinking beyond what is standard and established. I am grateful to him to this day.”

Growing Up in the Delightful World of Wine

Out-of-the-box thinking became Peterson’s way of life, and it served her well as she explored different avenues for her talents. “Growing up in Napa in the world of wine, I worked in vineyards, wineries, and wine laboratories, transforming grapes to wine. Winemaking is a fascinating, artistic industry, and having an amazing role model in my winemaking father, it should have been a perfect fit for me,” she says. “I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing for me in that career, but watching a master chef create a souffle before my very eyes was magical. There it was, a light cloud of perfection, elegantly prepared with a smile and grace, and just 20 minutes later, a toasted fluffy puff emerged. Oh, and then we ate it. Yes, that sealed the deal.”

When Food Becomes So Much More Than Food

Peterson says that was a turning point for her, when she knew in her heart she was a chef. Although she had yet to explore the world of cooking, she became obsessed with the beauty of food all around her and the French chefs who cooked and styled simple, natural ingredients into works of art. “Chefs bring joy and beauty — way beyond nourishment. Food is so much more than food,” she says. 

As Robinson moved into the world of cooking, she discovered ways to define her own career. “I found myself getting jobs where I wrote the job description for my employer because what they really needed hadn’t been done before. Later, when creating each of my own businesses, the common thread was always this principle: It hadn't been done yet, and there was a need or desire for it,” she says.

The Big Picture Houses the Minute Details

Applying that principle, Robinson founded Sea Star Sea Salt in the early ’90s, when no one had imported sea salt into the U.S. Then, when she noticed that most catering businesses used a set menu, regardless of the client or location, she created Flourish Custom Events. Her goal was to customize every detail of food to a specific desire and place, even if that event was in another country. Working with teams cross-culturally, she aims to see the big picture yet execute the minute details. 

The Divine Dessert Was Born

Finally, Flourish Chocolate evolved from a client request for exquisite truffles for a charity gala. Robinson thought she could do something much more unique than truffles, and instead hand-made and hand-painted gorgeous chocolate Robin’s Eggs in honor of guest speaker and TV anchor Robin Roberts. Out of respect for Roberts, who had been battling cancer, Robinson made the eggs with cancer-fighting ingredients, demonstrating just how innovative she could be. Her eye-catching chocolates were a huge hit, and her name spread from there. 

She says all these businesses have taught her something about client needs. “The more I thought about each request — other chefs wanting the sea salt I brought from France, clients wanting a specific experience, and a special chocolate to punctuate a fine culinary experience — each idea evolved. The tiny details make a defining difference.”

The Bottom Line

Her career path has not always run smoothly, and she’s faced disappointments along the way, but that’s where the refusal to quit has led to her success. “To innovate, you can’t give up,” she says. “If a mission is scrubbed, you work toward the next, and what you learned from past experiences will always be valuable.”

To experience Peterson’s chocolates for yourself, visit her shop in Calistoga or order online at flourishchocolate.com. To learn about Peterson’s other businesses, visit her website at ChefHollyPeterson.com.

Tags: Chocolate, dessert, Entrepreneur

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Written By

Rebecca Deurlein

Rebecca is a freelance writer, author of the book Teenagers 101 (Harper Collins), and a former Girl Scout. Her home is Houston, TX. See Full Bio

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