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An Interview With Nick, Our New Head Chocolatier

Nicholas Bonamico joined Dandelion last fall, following an impressive seventeen years with Bouchon Bakery. He spent ten years with the bakery in New York, before heading west. As the pastry...

Nicholas Bonamico joined Dandelion last fall, following an impressive seventeen years with Bouchon Bakery. He spent ten years with the bakery in New York, before heading west. As the pastry chef for Bouchon Bakery in Napa Valley’s Yountville, Nick led Bouchon’s pastry team and oversaw production of their (incredible) baked goods and desserts. We sat down to discuss his life in food, and what he’s been up to at Dandelion. 

Nick, can you tell us what exciting, new things you’re working on? 

We’ve got a few things we’re exploring and testing out — candy bars, peppermint patties, seasonal bonbons, caramels. I’m thinking about confections that can be adapted to multiple flavors and expressions, so that we’re not reinventing the wheel every time. 

We’re also working on something special for Easter (a first for us). Easter is one of those holidays that’s so nostalgic. Some people think of a Cadbury egg, or a marshmallow Peep. It’s a fun balance — knowing when to lean into nostalgia or simplicity, and when to go all-out with something crazy and new. 

What was your very first project at Dandelion?

The Valentine’s Day Exclusive Origin Bonbon Collection was my debut project — and it sold out immediately! When I joined, the scope had already been determined: five single-origin cocoa producers, with two flavors per origin, plus a bonus Valentine’s bonbon. So, twenty-one bonbons in all. As far as projects go, this one was challenging.

The idea was that for each of the five origins, one bonbon would be a reflection of that origin, while the other would be a play on the flavors of the origin. I see it like a dessert menu, which typically has five, maybe six, desserts. This was more than double that. I asked: What are all the things I’ve done in the past? How can I put that knowledge into this? How do we tease out these nuances in flavor? 

We had to dig deep. The interviews with the cacao farmers and producers were really valuable. They helped us unveil a huge amount of variety — like the voatsiperifery peppercorn we infused into the Ambanja, Madagascar chocolate ganache. That pepper grows wild only in Madagascar. Dillon, our sous chef, was a great collaborator in coming up with ideas. 

Give our readers a glimpse into your life in food, before joining our team. 

I went to the French Culinary Institute in New York and then worked at La Caravelle. After a couple of years there doing plated desserts and soufflés, I knocked on the back door of the new Alain Ducasse restaurant looking for a job. They asked if I could start the next day, so I told La Caravelle I was done. I worked at Alain Ducasse for all of two days before getting fired. The GM was friends with the people at La Caravelle! 

I thought I’d never get a job anywhere after that, so I went back to school. I got a degree in history and classics at City College in New York, then spent a year at Cambridge studying religious history. I came back to New York, and Bouchon Bakery had just opened at the Time Warner Center. I applied and was hired. Walking into that kitchen was incredible — beautiful, clean, everybody was so positive.

Bouchon is where I really learned confections. We had a chocolate room. Per Se (the Thomas Keller restaurant one floor above Bouchon) had a bonbon service at the end of the meal. 

What led you to Dandelion after seventeen years with Bouchon? 

I came to San Francisco for the first time in 2007 and knew I wanted to come back. When I moved to the Bay Area from New York in 2016 to work at Bouchon Bakery in Napa, I came into the city all the time. Dandelion was one of the first places I went. I remember thinking, “this is good” — the other bean-to-bar chocolates I’d had up until that point were not great.

I didn’t want to leave Bouchon to do the same thing elsewhere. When I saw that Dandelion was looking for a head chocolatier, that jumped out at me as something new to explore.

Is there anything that’s surprised you about your role here?

Chocolate’s great — you know that going in. The location’s great. But the people have been surprising to me, in a good way. Coming in, I was thinking, “Are they going to accept me?” I do feel challenged, but I’m surprised by the welcome that I’ve had from everybody. It’s both the best and the most surprising thing. 

What’s your typical day like — if that exists? 

I believe in routine. I think it keeps you sane. You need to break out from that every once in a while, but if you don’t have a baseline, you get tired, or anxious. I show up at 8:30 a.m. and check in with the team. It’s a small team (seven of us), with half coming in at 7:30 a.m. and half at 8:30 a.m. We’ll go over our production list for the day and touch base on what’s happening. I try to clue people in as often as possible so that everyone feels involved. 

How long does it take for a product to go from conception to launch? 

A variety of issues influence timing. It’s not just the development of the flavor profile. Say you have a bonbon that’s going to have a certain filling. There are all these other aspects — the packaging, the collateral, and so on. That’s where it gets complicated. If it’s a new shape or something we haven’t done before, that can take a few months. 

Coming in to lead a team that’s been together for a while can be tough. How’s that been? 

I’m super lucky. I try to work with the team as much as I can. We have a great time doing this. In the end, you can make the best chocolate. But if you’re not happy making it, it’s not worth doing. I think the consumer can feel that, in a sense. If we’re working well together, it shows. 

Dandelion uses some unique ingredients. How do you source foods and think about where they come from?

I start by asking: Have I used this ingredient before, and did I like it? Is it the best I could find, or is there something better? Having been in the field for a long time, I’ve been able to develop a lot of relationships. I tend to have an idea of what’s good and what’s not. 

Sometimes it’s a struggle, because we try to be hyper local. But what’s local isn’t always what’s best. Right now, I’m getting Sicilian pistachios. They’re delicious and beautiful. The ones from California just aren’t as flavorful. Sometimes you have to think beyond the neighborhood, and that’s okay. 

That said, part of my attraction to the Bay Area is because so many of the best ingredients are right here, especially produce. If the farmers I work with don’t have what I need, they can tell me where to get it. I trust them. You develop a few good relationships, and you use those to expand your community. 

Thanks, Nick. We’re glad you’re here.

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