Tong, who has only one employee and prepares the chocolates herself seven-days-a-week, is no stranger to hard work. For over 10 years, she had long days in corporate finance with jobs at Bear Stearns and insurance brokerages. Craving a change of pace, she enrolled in the French Culinary Institute's six-month pastry course in the fall of 1999. After an internship with Ron Ben-Israel as a wedding cake designer and a stint in the pastry kitchen of Todd English's restaurant, Olives, Tong discovered that for her, "baking is not all that much fun." Two years later Tong returned home from a pastry job in France, ready to reevaluate her prospects. She thought of going back into the corporate world or of finding another angle of pastry that interested her more. But 9/11 came just two weeks after her American homecoming. The city was devastated and Tong had no job. "There was literally nothing out there," she says. "Nothing."
Returning to what she enjoyed most in pastry school, Tong decided to stay home for five months and practice working with chocolate. She instantly loved what she calls the "therapeutic and soothing" aspects of working with her hands and the process of creating. It was during this time that Tong decided to open up her own shop. "I have always wanted a business of my own," she says. "But I didn't know what." In The Chocolate Garden, Tong found the answer.
Though she's lived in New York since the age of four, Tong had never explored Thompson Street and was not familiar with the SoHo area until shortly before starting her own business. While cat-sitting for a friend in the East Village, she ventured west and discovered the space in which she now works. When she first saw what is now a light-and-airy setting, the floor was painted black and it was so dark Tong didn't think there were any windows at all. Still, she looked inside and knew that if she didn't get the place, she would never open up a shop. "I said to myself, 'This is it.' "
Originally, The Chocolate Garden sold both fresh-cut flowers - Tong's first passion - as well as chocolates. However, shortly after her Thompson Street opening, a florist moved in down the block, forcing Tong to focus exclusively on her sweets. With the time she had spent going to the market and making floral arrangements, she developed new flavors and expanded her business. When she opened in the spring of 2001, Tong had only 10 flavors; today, the count is up to 26 and constantly expanding. She also ships her products nationally, though not during the summer months due to the heat, and is currently working on a website.
What distinguishes Tong's work from myriad chocolatiers in New York is undoubtedly the freshness and quality of her chocolates as well as the unique flavors. She ships most of her ingredients from France and uses Cacao Noel chocolate as her base "for its freshness." Don't let fancy flavor names like Thai Basil (her newest addition) or jasmine fool you: at Kee's, it is all about simplicity. She doesn't add butter or sugar, allowing the quality of her products to speak for themselves. Tong's chocolate repertoire is impressive with flavors like champagne, the Thompson (hazelnut ganache with a whipped cream layer), pistachio, lemongrass, green tea and coconut, to name just a few. She says her Asian roots have inspired many of these special flavors. Crème Brûlée (custard delicately enrobed in a milk chocolate shell) is often cited as her signature piece, though Tong loves and is most proud of Passion Fruit (a dark chocolate heart exploding with the tangy fruit infusion).
Generally, the big names in the chocolate field are men, but Tong has not found this to be a stumbling block on her way to chocolate notoriety. "Because I'm a woman, I think people tend to be more supportive," she says, and adds, "and I think the chocolate speaks for itself." The fact that she makes everything fresh on the premises and that she works openly while customers "ooh and ahh" as they decide which flavor to choose is instrumental in creating the intimate atmosphere that makes Kee's so special.
Though you will find her predominantly at her Soho shop these days, Tong also enjoys skiing (though she claims not to be very good), and window-shopping in her store's trendy neighborhood. In addition to chocolate-making, Tong also has a love for noodles. In fact, her ideal meal would include noodles of any kind - Asian or Italian - with or without dessert. That's right, folks: the chocolatier herself does not love sweets. "I don't even like pastry," she admits. Tong only has one or two pieces of chocolate a day and tastes her flavors as she develops them.
For now, Tong plans to continue making her chocolates for as long as it keeps her happy. She says she might like to move to a bigger location, in the next few years, or perhaps move onto pastry, even miniature wedding cake production. And though we must wait to see what the future holds for Tong, one thing is certain: whatever she creates will be uniquely and extraordinarily hers. And as long as she keeps creating, we'll keep coming back for more.
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