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Bay Area sisters bring their Vietnamese heritage to their chocolate venture

How do you distinguish yourself in the highly competitive market of chocolate, one of San Francisco’s most iconic treats?

For Santa Rosa natives Wendy and Susan Lieu, two sisters who launched their chocolate business Sôcôla Chocolatier 20 years ago at the Santa Rosa Downtown Market, the secret has been as simple as it is savvy.

They have infused the soft ganache interiors of their truffles with the sweet, sour, salty and umami flavors of their family’s homeland of Vietnam. Sôcôla is the Vietnamese word for chocolate.

“For me, it’s about telling stories through chocolate, and that comes from being able to incorporate so many other flavors from our heritage,” said Wendy Lieu, the culinary genius behind the confections. “These flavors I came up with were not on the market in 2001. ... Creating things that didn’t exist is so cool to me.”

She started out making truffles with traditional flavors like raspberry and coconut, but for the past 10 years, Wendy has been incorporating savory Asian flavors in collections such as The Saigon Box, which features a mind-opening array of chocolates imbued with jasmine tea and Vietnamese coffee, pho soup and sriracha, plus the sour-sweet fruits of the tropics like passion fruit and durian.

“I have a Vietnamese palate, so I don’t like very sweet things,” Wendy said. “It’s not just about sweet, but about the tartness. Passion fruit is very sour, so I use white chocolate and the sourness balances it out.”

The chocolatier also dips most of her confections in a 72% cacao dark chocolate made by Guittard of Burlingame, which provides her with a consistent flavor profile she can rely on and make sweeter, if she needs to.

“That (72%) represents the amount of cacao (cocoa nib and butter) in the chocolate, and 28% is sugar and emulsifier,” she said. “We use a higher percentage because I can then add in whatever kind of sugar I want to. I like to control the sugar content in the chocolate.”

A performance artist and writer who now lives in Seattle, Susan Lieu plays a secondary but crucial role in the chocolate company by providing key support in the areas of marketing, sales and branding.

In 2008, after graduating from Harvard University, Susan joined her sister in launching Sôcôla Chocolatier in earnest. Susan had moved to Vietnam to pursue international development and was working directly with cacao farmers.

“It was very full circle, to learn about an interesting, sustainable crop like cacao,” Susan said. “My sister came to visit me ... and we got to see the supply chain of chocolate. She was inspired and she said, ‘I really want to do this.’”

“Chocolate is such an interesting and unique ingredient,” Wendy said. “It’s actually a very natural product, and there are so many ways to work with it. I’m always learning.”

From 2008 to 2011, the sisters experimented with their chocolate startup while working out of their sister-in-law’s doughnut shop in Oakland. They had to figure out how and where to sell their truffles and how to ramp up the business. Eventually, they rented a commercial kitchen in south San Francisco and hired a few employees.

While Susan went back east to get her MBA at Yale University in 2011, Wendy quit her day job and took over the business as full-time chocolatier. In 2014, she opened a storefront, Sôcôla Chocolatier + Barista, on Folsom Street in San Francisco, where she continues to create her handcrafted artisanal confections with modern flavors (although coffee service has been temporarily halted due to the pandemic).

Flavors of home in the Ox Box

For the Lunar New Year this Friday, ushering in the Year of the Ox, Sôcôla is offering a special Ox Box featuring four truffles that reflect the flavors of their homeland: Candied Ginger Peanut, Pandan Coconut, Preserved Kumquat and Tamarind Sesame.

During the Lunar New Year holiday, known as Tet in Vietnam, families clean house, make food offerings to their ancestors, host parties and give envelopes filled with money to kids (and anyone unmarried). They exchange blessings for health and wealth, happiness and longevity.

The Ox Box is a way for younger people to give a gift to their elders during the pandemic, Susan said. It has proven so popular that it was on back order by early February.

“This is a way that people can be connected with their family at this time,” Susan said. “We can be proud to make these pieces that our family wants to eat, and we’re tapping into a market that is nostalgic for these flavors.”

Wendy, who came up with her own recipes for the Asian flavors, said she is thrilled to be able to invent a creative new product based on the European tradition, but with a new twist.

“I’m so excited for the opportunity to connect people with family through chocolate,” she said. “It’s like we’re creating our influence in a space that’s old and bringing so much surprise and delight and happiness to people.”

Most of the Sôcôla confections are technically bonbons, because the ganache interiors are coated with a hard, dark chocolate shell.

“If it was just the ganache rolled in cocoa powder, that’s a truffle,” Susan explained. “But in American, people don’t say bonbons, so we just call them truffles.”

If Wendy were Sôcôla truffle, she would be Jasmine Tea, because she’s refined and sophisticated. “She always looks put together,” Susan said.

Susan said her flavor, on the other hand, would be Give It To Me Guava, because of her extroverted personality. She’s the one who takes risks, generates ideas and makes cool things happen.

“She’s the Gucci purse,” Susan said, laughing. “And I’m the thrift-store purse, but you found it in Portland.”

Growing up with a dual identity

Susan is writing a memoir about her life growing up as a Vietnamese American in Santa Rosa, where her parents owned a nail salon, Today’s Nails, on Fourth Street across from the mall. As a child, she wanted to be American, but now with a child of her own, she is thinking about what part of her heritage she wants to pass on.

Like her solo show that toured in 2019, which included a run at The March in San Francisco, her memoir is an attempt for the 35-year-old mother to find some closure around her own mother, who died during a botched cosmetic surgery operation when Susan was only 11.

“It’s focused on my upbringing in the nail salon on Fourth Street, but it’s also about intergenerational trauma,” Susan said. “My parents were refugees. They escaped and arrived here, had their own business and then my father lost my mother. We inherited their trauma, but they didn’t want to talk about it.”

Susan doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that one of her brothers, with his wife, created an almond milk business, while the other brother became a dentist with his own practice in Rohnert Park.

“It’s funny because it’s teeth, chocolate and almond milk,” she said. “Asian Americans communicate through food. ... We all started these businesses in the very way we communicate.”

It all started at the mall

The sisters’ parents fled Vietnam in 1982 and spent two years in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where Wendy was born. The family then moved to the Bay Area, where Susan was born, and opened their first nail salon in Albany.

In 1993, they moved to a four-bedroom home in Rincon Valley, where there were 14 people living close together, many of them working at the nail salon.

“My mom sponsored her three sisters, a cousin and her two parents,” Susan said. “We were all living together — me, my sister plus two older brothers and a family friend.”

The two sisters attended elementary and middle school in Rincon Valley and graduated from Maria Carillo High School in 2000 and 2003. Along the way, they started working at the nail salon, too, confirming appointments, handling cash, folding towels and running out to feed the parking meters. Wendy started doing nails at the age of 12 or 13, while Susan was in charge of entertaining customers who were waiting.

“I am very clumsy and not good with my hands,” Susan said. “So it’s no surprise that my sister became the chocolatier.”

As a teen, Wendy was inspired in her culinary arts studies by teacher Sonja Erickson at Maria Carillo, but when she asked her father if she could go to culinary school, he turned her down.

Instead, she earned a degree in managerial economics from UC Davis, then worked for seven or eight years at Accenture, a multinational consulting company that specializes in technology.

But her heart already had been stolen by chocolate.

As kids, Susan and Wendy used to walk through the downtown mall every day to get to their parents’ nail salon, and that’s where they discovered the seductive flavor of the cacao plant, thanks to the free samples handed out by the white-frocked clerks at See’s Candies shop.

“They were beautiful, especially to a kid,” Susan recalled of the treats. “But they were too sweet. In Vietnamese desserts, it’s red bean paste or sesame. We don’t have straight-up sweet things.”

It was Susan’s idea to start selling chocolates at the Downtown Santa Rosa Market in the summer. At that time, she was serving as the first teen representative on the market’s board. The market’s Executive Director, Tracey Pugh, gave the teens their own booth, conveniently located in front of the nail salon run by their parents.

“They were both so driven and had so much energy and were so positive,” Pugh recalled. “I was amazed that these teenagers took something and ran with it.”

Meanwhile, a member of the Benedetti family offered them the commercial kitchen at Willie Bird’s Turkey when it was not in use.

“Because so many community members had faith in us, that’s how we were able to get started,” Susan said. “Every week that we got money from the market, my sister would drive to Nancy’s Fancy’s and buy new equipment like chocolate molds and dipping forks.”

During summers and holidays, the sisters continued their chocolate hobby, working feverishly to create boxes treasured by friends and family.

“Our parents were entrepreneurs, so it was very natural,” Wendy said. “It was very fearless.”

Eventually, Wendy went to pastry school in the evenings to find out what she didn’t know. She attended the Tante Marie Pastry School in San Francisco.

“She found out that she did know quite a bit,” Susan said. “She’s self-taught and read a lot of books.”

The chocolatier was first inspired to create truffles from her family’s homeland while working with the Catalyst Foundation, an organization that runs community programs in Vietnam and offers a cultural camp for Vietnamese kids in the U.S. that introduces them to successful Vietnamese-American role models.

“We teach about chocolate and connect with the kids,” Wendy said. “The founder loves those Vietnamese flavors, so we created the Catalyst Collection for her and donated 10% of sales back to the foundation.”

In developing new flavors such as durian, known in Asia as the king of fruits, Wendy said she does testing for about a month to perfect it.

“If I’m going to move something, I’m going to go intense on it,“ she said. “I found a recipe for a crème fraîche truffle, with a similar texture to whipped durian. So I created a recipe based on that texture.”

When working on the flavor of pho — the beloved noodle soup of Vietnam — she came up with a spice blend found in that dish: coriander, fennel, cinnamon and black cardamom.

“There’s no meat or chicken in there, but it tastes like a bowl of pho to me,” she said. “It’s not like you want to eat it all the time, but it opens your mind up.”

Wendy will give a virtual chocolate-and-tea pairing class for Valentine’s Day with Pauline Mai, another Vietnamese American entrepreneur, of Dartealing Lounge. For the past three years, she also has collaborated with Bare Bottle in San Francisco to develop special brews for SF Beer Week.

“We just launched a beer inspired by our chocolate ... called Sôcôla,” Wendy said. “It is a Vietnamese Coffee Chocolate Truffle Stout. It’s like a dessert.”

This week marks the seventh anniversary of the opening of the Sôcôla retail shop in San Francisco, and the two sisters from Santa Rosa can hardly believe they’ve been making chocolate for 20 years now.

“It’s been a long journey,” Susan said. “It took a lot of years to understand a craft.”

This recipe is from Wendy Lieu, co-founder of Sôcôla Chocolatier in San Francisco. The recipe requires a kitchen scale.

Matcha Green Tea Truffle

Makes about 40 truffles

50 grams (¼ cup) whipping cream

10 grams (2 teaspoons) glucose (or corn syrup)

3 grams (1½ teaspoons) matcha tea powder, sifted

10 grams butter (2 teaspoons), room temperature with a mayonnaise-like consistency

210 grams (1¼ cup) white chocolate

Powdered sugar for rolling

Heat cream, glucose and sifted matcha powder to 110 degrees in a small saucepan over medium heat.

Put chocolate in a dry stainless steel bowl and melt to 110 degrees in a bain-marie or melt it in a microwave in 30-second increments.

Add the cream and glucose mixture to the chocolate. Stir in small circles from the center and then larger, concentric circles until it has a pudding-like consistency. Add butter and stir until mixed.

Leave in a bowl to set overnight.

Using a spoon or melon baller, scoop out ganache and roll into desired-size balls. Coat with powdered sugar.

Store at room temperature or in a container in the refrigerator. Best consumed fresh.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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