To France and back for her chocolate dream
Monday, January 16, 2006

Jeanne-Louise Womble and Richard Womble (left and right), and their daughter Renee Mann (center) all pitch in at de Rochonnet delights in Midlothian. Renee's twin, Eric, is the executive chef.<BR>LINDY KEAST RODMAN/TIMES-DISPATCH
Jeanne-Louise Womble and Richard Womble (left and right), and their daughter Renee Mann (center) all pitch in at de Rochonnet delights in Midlothian. Renee's twin, Eric, is the executive chef.

The ancient Aztecs liked it spicy with chili peppers. Europeans like it slightly sweetened and thick.

Jeanne-Louise Womble likes her hot chocolate sweet, handmade and topped with a dollop of thick whipped cream at her Midlothian sweet shop, de Rochonnet delights. But if you don't want to drink chocolate, you can buy exquisite handmade candies in milk, semisweet or white chocolate with ganache fillings that Womble invents herself at her factory in Chesterfield County.

The shop also offers gift packs with molded chocolate in seasonal shapes from Belgium molds. There are coconut tarts and handmade cards.

Walk into the shop and you are no longer in a suburban shopping center. The deep maroon walls are loaded with art. The curtains are thick and sumptuous. It's like being in a patisserie in France.

She taught herself chocolate-making when she was a stay-at-home mom with twins.

"We collected pennies in a sock all year long," Womble said. Then in December she would roll the pennies and use them to buy her chocolate supplies for Christmas gift-making.

When she returned to work, it was as a benefits specialist with the Virginia Department of General Services. After 28 years, she decided to take the plunge and become a full-time chocolate maker.

She took her first formal chocolate class in 2003 at the Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver, British Columbia. But the program is not just about making sweets, sharing recipes and sampling divine desserts; it has a business component that includes writing business plans, operations plans and other non-chocolaty details.

After completing her general certification, she went for her master of chocolatier's certificate at the Ecole du Grand Chocolat in Tournon, France, run by Valrhona, the chocolate manufacturer.

Everyone at the Ecole except Womble was a professional chef. But, she said, they were kind and helpful. And she learned an important lesson -- discipline.

And this is where the hobbyist turned into the professional chocolate maker.

"The hardest thing was standardizing my recipes," Womble said. No more pinches of this, dashes of that. Every recipe had to be the same.

Success has been steady since she opened her shop in 2004. She worked out of her home creating fresh chocolates for the shop as well as special projects for corporate clients.

For Saks Fifth Avenue, it was goat heads. They were celebrating cashmere last fall with a store promotion, "Wild about Cashmere."

Jennifer Gorsline, assistant store manager for the Saks in Stony Point Fashion Park, still marvels at how inventive, flexible and tireless Womble was at creating the right goat head. There were three types of heads: milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate. All were delicious.

"There were also whole goats," Gorsline said. "They were fabulously presented." Several were sent to corporate headquarters.

During the summer, Womble moved her chocolate-making to a former caterer's kitchen in Chesterfield. It has allowed her more room to work with larger quantities of chocolate.

She also had to get out of her home.

"If we stayed in the house," Womble said, "there would be no growth. That's scary, but it had to be done."

Her son, Eric, left his job as a chef in Charlottesville and is Womble's executive chef, helping with chocolate production. He recommended that Womble offer some bakery items, so she hired a dessert chef, Marcy Doswell.

Eric's twin, Renee, helps in the shop and designs the shop's windows and packaging. Womble's husband of 35 years, Richard, is her financial guy and handyman.

For Womble, being a chocolatier with her own shop is a dream come true. But the hours are long and the work can be frustrating.

"It's a hard business," she said, "but it's my passion -- my heart."

Chocolate is notoriously temperamental. Too much moisture in the air and the chocolate won't set properly. If the air is too dry, it won't set properly.

But at least mistakes in chocolate are easy to fix, Womble said.

"You remelt it and do it again."

Contact Linda Dunham at (804) 775-8126 or