With dual degrees in neuroscience and psychology, Amanda Wright possesses both a knack for problem-solving and the patience of a saint. Two skills that served her well as a research assistant studying adolescent brain development at the University of Pittsburgh.
Yet, ever since she was little, the soul of an artist burned inside.
When she decided in 2012, to put her science career on a back burner to study baking and pastry arts at one of the country’s premier culinary schools, no one was surprised. Least of all herself.
While the 28-year-old loved her job at Pitt, and the fact that it complemented her husband’s doctoral studies in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, “I had that slight dread of not doing exactly what I wanted to do to be happy,” she says.
So back to West Coast the couple went, where during her first semester at Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the San Diego native figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life: to create one-of-a-kind confectionery from chocolate. Serving as an assistant to CIA instructor and Team USA member Stephen Durfee at the 2013 La Coupe de Monde de la Patisserie competition in Lyon, France, only cemented that goal — and not just because the aromas that come with the job of chocolatier are so intoxicating.
“It’s one medium, but you can be creative and express yourself in so many ways,” she says of the intricate process of turning high-quality chocolate into delectable treats like truffles and hand-dipped candies.
Flash forward to April 2015. With stints as a pastry cook and sous chef and creative director at an artisan chocolate shop in tony Yountville in the Napa Valley under her toque, Ms. Wright and her husband, Andy Rape, boomeranged back to Pittsburgh to open A519 Chocolate in Greenfield.
Talk about a well-laid plan: The business launched just four days after the couple arrived in Lawrenceville. And her hand-painted chocolates were such that they quickly found fans not just at local farmers markets and boutique shops but also with clients such as Stage AE, Carnegie Mellon, Hotel Monaco and Coterie, a co-working space for women in the Frick Building.
Ms. Wright concedes the move was risky. But at the same time, the couple felt certain there was a growing market for hand-crafted artisan chocolates, even at the princely sum of $30 for a 16-piece box. At least there would be once people saw what bold, gorgeous works of art her truffles were and came to understand the precision, care and artistry that goes into making them.
What’s it take to create her edible treasures? Ms. Wright this month started offering private truffle-making courses at A519’s expanded year-old kitchen in Millvale. The interactive class — which starts with a tasting — costs $85 and takes about 2½ hours, during which attendees try their hand at everything from tempering chocolate on a marble slab (it’s harder than it looks) and creating chocolate shells to painting an acrylic mold with colored cocoa butter. Guests also learn how chocolate is made, from the growth of the cacao bean to its harvest, processing and preparation. The price includes a six-piece box of truffles.
Ms. Wright describes her work as “magical,” but it’s really a fragrant labor of love. She starts early each morning at 6 and often toils late into the night in her 68-degree, 400-square-foot industrial kitchen. Quality is key; each piece starts with milk or dark chocolate from Valrhona, a premier French chocolate maker, and most of the fillings, infusions and flavorings are sourced locally — cream from Penn Hills’ Turner Dairy Farms, coffee from Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, nuts and other dry goods from Pennsylvania Macaroni.
While the holidays are the busiest, every season is chocolate season. Ms. Wright hand-crafts thousands of truffles each week. It’s as taxing as it sounds, but make no mistake, she never gets tired of it.
“Every day I get to go back to my childhood,” she says, recalling how when her teenaged self was grumpy, her father got her to chill out by slipping her a Dove chocolate heart.
She also loves the fact she still gets to use the left side of her brain. Truffle-making involves so many rules and incredible precision, and there’s also a science to creating a killer ganache or soft caramel. Also she gets to put the cooking techniques she learned in culinary school to good use, such as when she makes pralines or nougat from scratch for fillings.
Her colorful, abstract designs, she says, are usually the result of a conversation with her husband, who is in charge of marketing and packaging. But sometimes she just has fun and lets go with the splatters and swirls. She also can customize the chocolates with a client’s desired colors or logo, using an innovative three-dimensional printing process.
The most popular truffle is her signature black-and-gold salted caramel, crafted with gray salt, but there’s always 10 rotating flavors to choose from. Depending on the season, the chocolates might be filled with fresh strawberries, pumpkin or apple cinnamon caramel, or a gourmet take on s’mores; two new spring flavors are mandarin honeysuckle (dark chocolate infused with fresh mandarin and honeysuckle tea) and bananas foster (blond Dulcey chocolate with bananas and Maggie’s Farm Rum). For Valentine’s Day, the shop will feature a special line of single-origin dark chocolates, including Illanka (Peru), Manjari (Madagascar), Nyangbo (Ghana) and Alpaco (Ecuador).
While the idea of opening a stand-alone store is perpetually on the table, the couple has no concrete plans to make that move just yet; they’re too busy keeping pace with current demand. For the immediate future, it’s just about creating a product she’s proud of, and having fun.
“I’m following my heart and allowing myself to express my creativity,” she says.
To sign up for one of A519’s truffle-making classes. go to shop.a519chocolate.com or call 412-475-9519.