A Cowboy and His Cocoa: Meet Wyoming's Meeteetse Chocolatier
Meeteetse, Wyoming, a tiny ranching community that springs from the yawning badlands of the Big Horn Basin like an old Western movie set, might be the last place on Earth you'd expect to find a rich, velvety Parisian-style hot chocolate. But there it is for the drinking in a former saloon on State Street, hand-blended by real-life cowboy Tim Kellogg.
To grasp the concept of a cowboy who makes exquisite chocolate treats, you'll need to rewind to 2004. Back then, local ranch hand and rodeo competitor Kellogg had set his heart on a new Bronc saddle, custom-made to fit the rider and costing upward of $1,300. To raise the money, he took his mosaic-artist mom's suggestion to make chocolates and sell them at Cody, Wyoming's annual Art in the Park event. To his grateful surprise, they were a hit.
Chocolate-making hadn't always been so rewarding for Kellogg. Once upon a time, he had thought it would be fun to hand-make chocolates for friends and family at Christmas, but tying on an apron once a year resulted in a painful learning curve; a mere four dozen chocolates required several days' struggle, and it took 11 months for him to find the will to recommit himself to confectionery.
But his initial success in the saddle, so to speak, changed his destiny. A few more fairs and sales helped build a loyal local following for his rich truffles, brownies and chocolate bark, and he'd soon discover that chocolate was more a passion than a mere hobby. In 2005, when he broke his ankle and dislocated his shoulder in the rodeo ring ("Turns out I don't actually bounce," he says of his injuries), he hung up his Bronc saddle for good and found himself content to devote more time to his culinary craft.
As demand steadily grew for his concoctions, Kellogg longed for a kitchen outside of his home. In 2009, he opened Meeteetse Chocolatier in its present location on State Street, a block-long interruption in northwestern Wyoming's Highway 20, where antelope roam against a backdrop of soaring blue Absaroka Mountains and bald eagles perch on weather-worn fence posts. The shop's vintage Western storefront has changed little since the late 1800s, when it was a notorious saloon called the Blue Ribbon Bar. The boardwalk planks of the front stoop, wall-hung horseshoes and swinging half-doors remain, but with a gleaming kitchen, gift bags of goodies in bushel baskets and a shiny glass dessert bar stocked high with treats, this local haunt's modern incarnation is now more Candy Land than Deadwood.
Kellogg, who's rarely seen without his Stetson hat and boots -- even in the kitchen -- has found that his true love is playing with flavors. He uses local ingredients like huckleberry, prickly pear cactus and sage in his chocolates and makes his own pine needle extracts from local conifers. He also uses a variety of standard alcoholic beverages -- one is Coors beer -- in some of his truffles. Kellogg's favorite concoction is his dark chocolate Focaccia Truffle, made with rosemary, olive oil and just a hint of salt. Many of his chocolates, which he makes by hand without additives or preservatives, can be ordered online as well as purchased in his State Street shop.
Kellogg equates being a chocolatier with being a vintner: Both are concerned with the terroir of their products, he explains, and where a cocoa bean comes from is as important as the provenance of a wine-making grape. To share his knowledge with his customers, he holds tastings in the shop almost every month, sometimes pairing chocolate with liquor. "Just like with wine, you can detect a caramel undertone or a floral note in chocolate," he says. "It's fun to open that door for people."
He's not satisfied to rest on his laurels, however. Each January, in the wake of the Christmas rush, he closes up shop and heads to Europe to attend culinary trade shows, take intensive courses at a culinary school in London and connect with other chocolatiers. Kellogg's trips abroad, always done in plenty of time to meet customer demand for Valentine's Day, inspire him to try out new techniques and products in his Meeteetse kitchen.
When he first tried a handmade hot chocolate in Paris, for instance, he knew he had to give this blend of melted chocolate and whole milk a go back home; his rich, warmly spiced hot chocolate drinks are now one of his shop's biggest draws.
These days, Kellogg doesn't have much time to attend rodeos, but he enjoys sponsoring local riders. He splits his week between working outdoors on the same ranch that first led him to Meeteetse and indoors making chocolates in his shop. While he could easily spend all his time tinkering in his kitchen, he dearly loves the seasonal, cyclical rhythm of ranch life, helping out with winter calving, fence mending, moving cattle, mucking stalls and feeding horses.
Kellogg says that his sweet secret to happiness is "never doing one thing long enough to get tired of it."
[Top photo: Brian Harrington/bhpimaging.com]