By Kim Green
Scott Witherow lives the fantasy of any kid who’s ever gone trick-or-treating, slurped hot cocoa on Christmas Eve or dug into a pile of birthday cake.
“I work in a chocolate factory,” he says. “It’s my dream job. Even a bad day is usually a fun day.”
More precisely, Witherow created a chocolate factory. Olive & Sinclair, a small-batch maker of artisan chocolate, operates in a narrow basement beneath a retail strip that serves the modest, part-working-class/part-hip East Nashville neighborhood of Inglewood. (Related: More Tennessee chocolate companies)
The 33-year-old chocolatier begins the “factory” tour by scooping up a handful of almost peanut-like, light-brown beans from a stack of huge bags stamped with the names of exotic locales such as Ghana and the Dominican Republic.
Bean pods arrive from afar already fermented and go from 300-pound sacks to a huge roaster, and then to a “winnower,” which separates the bean’s shell from the dark, crumbly “nib” inside.
That’s where the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory imagery comes in. On this stormy Monday morning, Witherow’s working a batch of his buttermilk white chocolate through the stone mill, a machine that began its life as a steam-powered mill somewhere in Spain around a hundred years ago. “I like doing things the new-old-fashioned way,” he says, as rollers fold buttery-creaminess onto itself in a tub so big that it’s hard not to summon a full-immersion fantasy.
There’s a piquant blend of gleeful mad-scientist and skilled chef in Witherow, a boyishly cheery Willy Wonka character for the 21st century. Tanned and fit in a well-creased ballcap, he looks like the kind of guy you might meet on a mountain-biking trail in Montana.
A Tennessee native, Witherow grew up on the line, cooking in restaurant kitchens from age 15. From his first job at Sizzler in Columbia, he worked his way across the culinary world – from catering to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in England, and back home to turns at Nashville’s Wild Boar and F. Scott’s, with brief unpaid stints along the way in the world-class kitchens of Fat Duck (United Kingdom) and Alinea (Chicago).
Those culinary explorations led him, on a vacation trip, to a small chocolate producer in Canada. “I looked in kind of bright-eyed,” he recalls. “Bought about a pound, and ate it all. And I thought, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ ”
Witherow soon started experimenting with chocolate-making at home and fed the samples to his friends in return for feedback. “It was wretched,” he says of those first forays.
His product soon improved. In September 2009, Witherow launched Olive & Sinclair and started turning out what he calls “Southern artisan chocolate.” Within a few months, he had a bulk order from actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and articles about his products started to hit media outlets, such as the Nashville Scene and the Oxford American.
Three years later, Olive & Sinclair produces more than 1,000 chocolate bars a day. From milling, the chocolate moves through a couple more stages – to grind down the fine particles and blend flavors through careful temperature changes – and finally, goes into bar molds and to the hand-wrapping table. It’s a tiny operation, very DIY, with a handful of smiling employees – each of whom Witherow introduces as “My friend ________.”
Witherow wants his brand to evoke that new-old-school aesthetic that led him to keep things small and hands-on, and to haul an antiquated machine – in pieces – from Spain.
“I’m obsessed with old things,” he says. From his traditional-with-a-twist production methods to the vintage-y package design that evokes an era of handlebar mustaches and healing elixirs – the brand’s imagery and actuality reside where tradition meets trend, and place Witherow firmly in the swelling ranks of Southern culinary craftsmen who are bringing back a range of arts once thought nearly lost.
It’s a place Witherow’s proud to be. “So many other good people making craft products!” he exclaims, ticking off a few favorites – such as Drew’s Brews hand-roasted coffee, and Allan Benton (an East Tennessee smokehouse guru and creator of world-famous Benton’s Bacon), with whom he’s recently launched a collaboration.
“You have to try this,” he tells me, breaking off a triangle of his new Smoked Nib Brittle – a sprinkling of nibs infused with subtle smokiness in Benton’s smokehouse, suspended in crisped caramel. It’s velvet-butter, with an afterglow of salt and woodsy smoke – sultry and complicated and wonderful.
Witherow hopes to keep seeking out these collaborations with food-artisans and chefs, to stoke his culinary curiosity. He’s started making a special salt-and-pepper pecan bar for the cookie platter at Nashville’s City House restaurant, where pastry chef Rebekah Turshen says she also loves Witherow’s chocolate. In fact, Turshen buys it in 10-pound blocks “because it is local and delicious” and makes “a particularly lovely chocolate ganache.”
It’s just this kind of creative exchange that Witherow hopes will keep him excited about chocolate-making for many years to come. “That’s the plan,” he says, when I ask him if he imagines himself as a chocolatier for the long haul.
“Plus, we’ve got a new little chocolate maker on the way.” At this, his smile broadens into something still boyish, but complex and multilayered: It’s sweet and salty, this grin, like Witherow’s chocolates – the smile of a soon-to-be new father who gets to spend his days making chocolate, a man delightedly living the life of his choosing.
“The workdays fly by so quickly,” he says. “If my wife and I and the rest of the team make a decent living making chocolate, we’re all pretty happy.”
Where to Buy
To learn more about the company, or to purchase products, visit www.oliveandsinclair.com.
Olive & Sinclair also offers tours of their factory every Saturday. Watch them turn beans into chocolate bars every hour, on the hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours are $5 per person and first come, first serve.
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