WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Amanda Wright is a successful chocolate entrepreneur but she is continually pushing herself to learn new things that will take her craft to the next level. Her goal is to share what she learns with other chocolatiers around the world…especially women!
Amanda Wright was an academic before she decided to become a chocolatier, so it’s no surprise she’s a teacher at heart.
Soon after she launched A519 Chocolate, the gourmet chocolate shop she opened in 2015 in Greenfield with her husband, Andy Rape, and relocated a year later to Millvale, she started offering interactive truffle-making classes along with her boxes of hand-painted candies. Students get hands-on instruction in everything from tempering chocolate and molding it into shells to creating the sumptuous caramels and ganaches that fill the handmade truffles.
“I really enjoy producing that layer of education,” says Wright, 34, who was a research assistant studying adolescent brain development at the University of Pittsburgh when, in a seminal moment 10 years ago, she decided to go to culinary school on the West Coast.
It’s a reciprocal relationship.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, the San Diego native also is continually pushing herself to learn new things that will take her craft to the next level. Which is how she ended up in Uzbekistan in September to teach a two-day master class on artisanal chocolate making for pastry chefs and aspiring chocolatiers at the International Center of Uzbek Culinary Arts — and why in return, the edible Advent calendar she’s offering this month is inspired by the flavors her Uzbek students introduced her to.
Freshness is key in the Central Asian country, she says — think perfectly ripe figs, grapes and pomegranates — and Uzbeks also use a lot more dried fruits and nuts in their sweets. As a result, “there seems to be a greater intensity of flavor” she finds exciting.
Artisanal chocolates and confections, says Wright, are becoming increasingly popular in Uzbekistan. Yet for a host of reasons — a lack of quality ingredients and a hot and humid climate that doesn’t lend itself to a product that melts, among them — there just aren’t that many chocolatiers.
The American Councils For International Education aims to change that, through reciprocal exchange programs that match high-achieving millennials such as Wright with aspiring entrepreneurs in the same field in other countries.
Mariya Portnova, who owns Viva Maria Chocolaterie in the capital city of Tashkent, was a hairstylist with a baby when she decided to become a chocolatier nine years ago. Starting small on her own, she eventually trained all over the world with master chocolatiers in Russia, Belgium and France to become the proud (and talented) owner of one of Uzbekistan’s first luxury chocolate shops.
Wright was contacted in spring 2021 about becoming Portnova’s U.S. mentor through a U.S. Embassy-funded fellowship program called Uzbekistan Business Leaders. It pairs young business owners looking for professional development with emerging business leaders in the U.S. Wright was referred to the council by Chris Edwards of Lawrenceville-based Edward Marc Brands.
In a non-pandemic year, the women would have met in Wright’s Millvale workshop for three weeks of training. Thanks to COVID-19, the mentoring took place via Zoom, with the pair meeting only once in person when Portnova’s cohort traveled to Washington, D.C., that fall “and I drove there for lunch.”
No matter: The two chocolatiers so hit it off, they decided to co-write a proposal for a competitive grant to support other women entrepreneurs in Uzbekistan, and empower them to start businesses of their own through culinary training.
The Chocolate Academy in Central Asia project took place Sept. 8-20 in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara, and drew around 50 beginning chocolatiers and professional pastry chefs. Wright’s two master classes included instruction on how to temper chocolate in a new way and “paint” truffles with colorful splatters and swirls. Along with guidance on business practices, she also offered advice on how the women could produce chocolates at volume in a handmade way.
While Wright can easily make upwards of 3,000 pieces a day in Millvale, Uzbeks such as Portnova might only create a couple hundred because everything they make and sell is ordered by customers in the moment, with “instantaneous urgency,” via Telegram Messenger — a set-up that not only limits production but is also rife for miscommunication.
“So I learned I have a lucky way of doing things here because it fits my preferences” with advance orders, says Wright. “They’re at the mercy of customers.”
In the weeks since the women came together to share their love of chocolate, Wright and Portnova have continued to seek out opportunities for additional funding so they can maintain the project and maybe even eventually open a chocolate school to teach future generations of chocolatiers.
“There aren’t a lot of aspirational figures [in chocolate making] from Uzbekistan they want to learn from,” says Wright, “so I want to help [Portnova] build her cachet.”
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