Chocolatier Oliver Kita and I shared an ambitious afternoon. From Olana to Boscobel, we explored eight historic Hudson Valley homes without breaking a sweat. I learned a lot. And we never left the exquisite comfort of his downtown Rhinebeck chocolate shop.
Together we sat, sampling every flavor in Kita’s Great Estates Collection, a selection of milk and dark chocolate ganache truffles inspired by the region’s majestic mansions. We were at a table beside a multi-paned storefront window that mimicked the geometric divider in the box of chocolates before us. There were 16 stately square confections, monogrammed by hand: “V” for Vandermint, honoring the Vanderbilt Mansion; “C” for Clermont Cappuccino. Kita coaxes their complex flavors from ingredients provided by local farms and distilleries — and mint from his own garden. A map showing each estate’s location, describing its truffle’s flavor, and directing consumers to its website for historical information complements the experience. Call it enriching milk chocolate.
“It’s sort of like a game board — Candyland,” said Kita. “I think of it as a mini tasting tour that you can send to family and friends. It’s a great way to show people where you live and how phenomenal it is. You can learn a lot about the Hudson Valley through its historic homes.”
That’s one way Kita, who hails from Michigan, acquainted himself with his new home. He watched fireworks at Clermont, toured Wilderstein, picnicked at Mills Mansion, and wandered the grounds at Olana, contemplating the life and times of Hudson Valley School painter Frederic Edwin Church. In 1988, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and began an acclaimed career. He was the pastry chef at the famous Russian Tea Room; he owned and operated Heaven Café in Woodstock for 13 years. Recreation merged with occupation when he began catering special events at the historic estates he loved. Evolution spurred him to further education in France, where he studied under two Meilleur Ouvrier de France master chocolatiers, earning degrees from L’Ecole Lenotre, Paris and L’Ecole du Grand Chocolat Valrhone, Tain L’hermitage.
The French method was extraordinarily meticulous.
“It’s all at a level of such precision,” said Kita. “Their way of doing it is one hundred percent, every time.”
With an additional degree from the Academy du Chocolate Barry-Callebaut of Montreal for good measure, Kita returned home and set up shop in the Town of Rhinebeck a few years ago. The store moved to its current location, next to the Beekman Arms and Delamater Inn, one year ago. It’s a cozy space with glass cases filled with dazzling truffles and sleek bon bons, hand painted with the bright splashes and splotches of abstract art. Their rich fragrance fills the air. This time of year, the cases are filled to capacity — not so in summer, said Kita, when chocolate melts and fewer people buy. Those who eat one or two squares most days (like I do) are in the minority.
“Many people don’t think of it as a daily experience,” said Kita, “but I want to convert them.” His slogan is “Mind ● Body ● Chocolate Every Day.”
He aims to extend the experience to all. Kita, who went vegan 14 weeks ago, is diligently at work on a line of gluten-free, dairy-free vegan chocolates, using coconut milk. It will debut Feb. 1, in time for Valentine’s Day. (The flavors for major holidays always appear on the first of the month to ensure exemplary flavor. Bon bons stay fresh for 3-4 weeks.) He’s fine-tuning the recipes, collected in a large binder filled with chocolate-smeared plastic sheaths.
Though the particulars are ever evolving, Kita’s philosophy, “Aware, Exquisite, Passionate, Joyful, Powerful, Conscious,” remains the same in practice: use top-notch ingredients, organic and fair trade; contribute to the local and global economies; give back. Oliver Kita Chocolates is a 1 percent for the Planet business, contributing at least 1 percent of annual sales to environmental groups around the world.
“My philosophy, my level of awareness — the power of our spending and what it means in the world economy — that’s the core of my brand,” said Kita. “People want to connect and know that it’s real. I’m trying to be real with people. Everyone always wants to know the next big thing, what’s new, but there’s no way to update the essence.”
Oliver Kita Chocolate Studio is located at 18 West Market Street in Rhinebeck. Open Mon., Thurs.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sun., 12-5 p.m. Closed Tues.-Wed. For more information, call (845) 876-2665, or visit Oliverkita.com. Sign up to become a “friend of chocolate” (ami du chocolat) on the website and receive email specials, blogs and exclusive discounts.
The Great Estates Collection is $42 for 16 truffles. There is a 30% corporate discount for bulk purchases.