31 May 2024

Chocolatier choc-full of passion elevates hand-crafted bonbons to royal standards

| Kellie O'Brien
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Chocolatier Michelle Armstrong

Chocolatier Michelle Armstrong and some of her bonbons. Photos: Supplied.

Kiama chocolatier Michelle Armstrong’s love for cooking and desire to always learn more started at age eight, when she mastered the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit after watching a pavlova burn.

That need to get things just right has followed her into her business, MA Chocolatier, where perfectly packaged artisan chocolates and hand-crafted luxury bite-sized bonbons are treated as if they’re “being served on a silver platter to the Queen of England”.

After a hospitality career that took her around the world working with the best, the former Kiwi started the business in 2020 in her spare time while raising her wife’s two granddaughters with a goal to always strive for the highest standards.

“Chocolate has been something I don’t seem to ever get bored with,” Michelle said.

“It’s so stimulating and there’s so much to learn, and I really never feel like I know enough and am good enough, so it just keeps pushing me further and further.”

Michelle makes everything from Italian candied orange strips coated in single origin Vietnam dark chocolate to salted caramel filled milk chocolate bars and, the most popular item, her chocolate bonbon range.

“I’m always trying to improve what filling I’m putting in there and trying to work with what I have around me as well,” she said.

“A good friend of mine, Laura Patmore, has That Local Honey which I use, and I was working at Little Earth Roasters Cafe for a while.

“Another woman, Rachel, used to have The Chocolate Shop in Kiama and her sister opened a gin distillery in Gerringong a few years ago, so this year I did a collaboration with her for Mother’s Day, and utilised four of her products in that collection.

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“Those things really stimulate me to make them more interesting and find out what people want.”

She will often try to accommodate requests for product ideas, or branch into new product creations, but finds the main item that sells is the bonbons.

Prior to starting the business, Michelle’s 25-year career in the hospitality industry saw her work in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and across Australia, often holding her own against world-renowned chefs when working internationally.

However, she always had a soft spot for eye-catching and delectable desserts, being trained by the best at the Australian Patisserie Academy and The Chocolate Academy to assure her skills were not only matched with, but also in competition with the top names in the industry.

“It was incredible to be working with chocolate and sweets all day, every day,” she said.

“I just felt like I was in my element, and it was something I wanted to continue doing.”

COVID also opened her up to accessing training from overseas that would otherwise be hard to access, through online classes with the likes of master chocolatiers Melissa Coppel, Sylvia Baquero, Luis Amado and Kellie Jungstedt.

She also entered many competitions while in New Zealand, which pushed her to always learn something new.

“I always picked something I didn’t really know much about so that it gave me the opportunity to develop that further,” she said.

“In one of them, I did win the competition and got a gold and that was a really standout moment.

“I guess you want to win, but the whole point of it is to develop yourself further and develop your skills.

“You never really feel like you’re good enough at something and so you’re pushing and pushing, so to win was just an incredible feeling.”

Michelle said she stopped working three years ago to help raise her wife’s two granddaughters and had worked the chocolate business around them.

“Not long after I started doing the chocolates, they came into our life, and so now I’m full-time raising them,” she said.

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“I’ve had to really focus on keeping it simple for now. I have to make sure what I’m doing I can keep to a high standard and manage as well.”

And her standards are high, with her wife often telling her she didn’t need to keep going as she wrapped and ribboned up the chocolates.

“People are buying these as really special gifts, so I treat every box I make and every chocolate I make as special,” she said.

“There’s so much love that goes into it and I think, oh, I can’t just send it out the door like a Cadbury’s bar of chocolate, because I feel there’s more value in it than that.

“Also, I think when people purchase it from me, they are purchasing it because a little bit more has gone into it and the product is more valued than other chocolates, otherwise they’d just go to the supermarket.”

She said she had people who regularly bought the chocolates as gifts for others, with their generosity always blowing her away.

As she’s started to gain more free time to spend on the business, she wants to “provide unique products that are high quality that people are going to be wowed by”.

Among that will be developing more gift packs and hampers she can sell through Illawarra shops.

For now, purchase products from the MA Chocolatier website for pickup or postage.

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