Sunday, February 9, 2003

Confectioner's life is sweet

Steve Hellmich - chocolate maker, teacher, volunteer - somehow stays slim while working in a dandy profession

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Steve, you list your occupation as "chef, caterer, cooking instructor, candy maker and Graeter's confectioner." That's a lot for somebody who is 39. How did you get to this point?

Steve Hellmich holds his raw material - a 10-pound block of chocolate - and the finished product - candy-filled hearts.
(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
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In a roundabout way. I majored in economics and didn't decide to go to culinary school until late in college. I enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute and graduated in 1987.

I always enjoyed making candy, but while I was in school I got even more interested. I grew up in a family of 10 kids and when Christmas rolled around and money was short, my wife and I would make truffles for gifts. After a few years, one of my brothers wanted to buy some. That led to our business Sinfully Rich ( My wife runs it, but I help when things get busy. It's sort of seasonal.

Like Valentine's Day?

Sure, but we're finished with that and working on Easter candy. At Graeter's, we'll crank out about 80,000 cream eggs, thousands of molded chocolate items and pre-packaged baskets. At Easter, we start on Mother's Day. In September, we work on Christmas.

You've always been a candy maker?

No, a chef first. I was sous chef at the Waterfront and White House Inn, then spent seven years as executive chef at the Federal Reserve (Bank of Cleveland, Cincinnati Branch), where they all thought it was pretty funny to have an economics major cooking for them.

What exactly does the confectioner do at Graeter's?

A lot of things, but my biggest job is to keep consistency and quality up. I also supervise the enrobing room (where a candy's filling is "enrobed" by passing through a waterfall of melted chocolate) and work in product development, always looking for new things.

Such as?

Variations on existing candies and totally new things, too. I spent today working on a Bavarian mint truffle that we'll have as an Easter egg this year. I also worked on a butter cookie with raspberry filling that will be enrobed in chocolate. One of my long-term things is to marry the pastry and candy lines in more products. And I'm looking at some upscale ice cream desserts, too. I'm experimenting and tasting. All day.

You're 6 feet tall and weigh 145 pounds. How is that possible?

I know. By rights I should weigh 1,000 pounds because I'm there 10 hours a day and eating most of the time. But have to taste everything. And there's so much to taste. The truth is I've actually gained 15 pounds in the past two years.

But I stay busy keeping up with two kids, working at Graeter's, teaching about 40 classes a year at Culinary Sol and 17 a year at Cook's Wares. Plus I do all kinds of volunteer work for Women Helping Women, coordinating their annual gala and things like this Sunday Salon I'm doing (see below).

And honestly, I eat healthy when we cook at home. It's not all heavy cream and butter like at work. We walk up the street to Ridge Market almost every day and buy healthy food that looks good.

What does a chef cook for the family?

Either my wife or I cook, whoever has the most time. When I do it, I like to do pork loins and tenderloins, hot smoked salmon, things like that, with a lot of Asian or Pacific Rim accents. For guests, I like to do racks of lamb or a crispy duck breast.

What kind of candy does a professional confectioner eat for fun?

Anything with caramel, nuts, coconut. And all kinds of truffles. I especially love dark almond bark. I'm not too big on cream fillings, but I still taste them all day.

And if it doesn't taste good?

We fix it. I'm fortunate at Graeter's to be working with Lou Graeter and Bill Lang. Between them, they have 62 years experience making candy, so they can fix anything.

Plus, Graeter's just sent me to candy school. RCI (Retail Confectioners International) does a two-week course every summer that has the leading experts in the country teaching about ingredients and what they do. It's understanding the science behind the candy. I've always known how ingredients taste and what to use, but I never knew why. The school taught me exactly what each did in relation to the other. We learned the science behind the art.

You mentioned things sometimes go wrong. What's your biggest cooking disaster?

At Graeter's, it was the time I let the chocolate tank overflow. You ever try to clean up something like that? I also have a tendency to melt things. Like the acrylic salt and pepper shakers at home that I put too close to a stove vent. They're history. Another time, when I was teaching a class how to melt chocolate in the microwave I turned and the microwave was smoking. Another acrylic bowl lost.

What do you tell students when you do something goofy?

I always tell them the food isn't overcooked, it's caramelized. I couldn't get away with that the time I lost my handout at Cook's Wares. The class all had theirs but I couldn't find mine. Then the oven started smoking and when I looked in I found all four pages, nicely charred. I'm going to have them laminated and framed.

Valentine's Day is Friday. Does a confectioner give his wife candy?

I wasn't going to, but now I have to. The ladies who pack our candy ordered me to and they're really putting on the pressure. It will be the first time in eons.


Sunday Salons, a series of brunches, lunches and teas in private homes with a guest speaker, benefits Women Helping Women. Steve Hellmich's Salon is A Chocolate Lover's Fantasy, a talk on the history and uses followed by a cooking demonstration and tasting. It's 3-5 p.m. March 2, $50; call 910-8231

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