An unparalleled indulgence

by Eric Ginsburg

Healthy eating has never been my forte. Friends joked in college that I dined exclusively on the “yellow” food group, but their playful criticism wasn’t fair — I consumed my share of brown, white and cheesy orange morsels, too. My eyes glowed when I first toured the cafeteria, my gaze settling on pizza, vibrant jello and a self-serve freezer of ice cream. Hello, adulthood.

I’d like to think my habits progressed dramatically. I’m still a glutton, but my color-coded meals now incorporate a wider palate with more regular appearances of the color green (and not thanks to pistachio ice cream).

Still, when my parents expressed interest in flying down for my birthday weekend, noting that it conveniently coincided with a “Wine and Chocolate Dinner” at the Proximity Hotel, nobody would be foolish enough to bet that I’d turn the offer down.

My eyes didn’t glaze over, mouth hanging partially open as motor skills briefly stalled, nor did my vision sharpen, suddenly paying rapturous attention like a dog playing fetch or Ron Swanson near steak. A few years ago that might’ve happened, but now I could only focus on a rush of questions.

Wait, is all of the food chocolate? That’s stupid, of course not, but how do you incorporate dessert into a five-course meal? Is my palate refined enough to appreciate the wine pairings?

As I walked into the luxury hotel that first weekend of October, more questions percolated. The Talking Heads hit “Once in a Lifetime” came to mind: “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” This was the second year that the Proximity hosted a Chocolate Weekend, complete with this jaw-droppingly delicious and expensive dinner menu. I only partook of the wine and chocolate dinner, missing a luxurious stay and a chocolate cooking class — my parents are generous and fortunate, not crazy.

Leigh Hesling, the head chef who designed the extravagant menu and hosted the cooking course, said in an interview that the idea partially sprang up to coincide with the city’s 17 Days arts festival in the fall.

“We wanted to do something different that would catch somebody’s attention,” Hesling said. “It just came down to the challenge of how do you pair or use chocolate not just for dessert and in a way that it’s not contrived. It’s honestly all new territory when you’re making that stuff up.”

After connecting with the proprietors of French Broad Chocolates in Asheville, Hesling curated the chocolates to incorporate into each course.

There’s a long story behind the chocolatemaking process at French Broad, one that I couldn’t hope to accurately recount, but I did walk out with several evocative memories: the rich, rich dessert tray that alone could’ve satiated two people; the elated, young couple next to me celebrating their anniversary; mixing bites of raspberry-crusted veal chop with the cocoa nib chocolate topping and popcorn; probably saying “wow” when every plate was placed in front of me; the chili-lime crusted seasonal fish with blood orange white chocolate rémoulade, hazelnut-chive risotto and Prima Donna cheese; my pants button growing increasingly more oppressive.

Hesling enjoys watching people’s faces, especially the chocoholic types, as his chocolate creations hit their taste buds. Especially witnessing them experiencing this sinfully gratifying ingredient in a way that never would have occurred to them.

It’s difficult to give advice to chocolate lovers or kitchen crusaders who want to experiment with the ingredient beyond traditional desserts, but if Hesling can offer any basic tip, it would be to start with mousse.

“Chocolate is a tricky ingredient to work with,” he said. “Making chocolate mousse is about as simple as it gets.”

Mousse can be a great place to start because it can be forgiving and there’s no limit to what type of chocolate can be used, he said.

Hesling may be more adept at showing rather than telling — in his chocolate cooking class as part of the weekend blitz, he models a threecourse lunch menu for attendees, walking around the room with a dish as it cooks when possible. Plus, as anyone fortunate enough to attend one of the guilty-pleasure dinners or indulge in Hesling’s more regular dishes can attest, his output speaks for itself.

Each year the menu is overhauled, the constant exploration making it difficult to pick a single favorite dish, but the first one he mentions is the cocoa-dusted bison short ribs from the inaugural go-round.

While Hesling enjoys working with chocolate and respects it as an ingredient, he doesn’t have a lustful or zealous relationship with it. Instead he understands how chocolate functions — it can’t be too hot, it can’t get too wet — and he derives pleasure from using it in a savory context.

I’d like to think my consumption patterns are on a similar plane — deep appreciation and reverence that doesn’t border too closely on obsession. By the end of the night I experienced dual sensations: Hesling’s cooking shattered my expectations for chocolate like a classier version of Miley Cyrus’ wrecking ball, and a fullness and satisfaction so deep that for the first time I can remember in my life, I felt all right about not downing all of my dessert.