Anyone who walks into the Coco Jolie store on North Dean Street in Englewood can tell almost immediately that chef and owner Miriam Gitelman is a woman with a vision. From the intricate displays to the pristine atmosphere, everything is well thought out and visually appealing. The gourmet shop, founded by Gitelman three years ago, began with mostly e-commerce as Gitelman created unique confections out of a kitchen rented from a catering company. Before she knew it, business was booming—and she opened up shop at her first brick-and-mortar nearly two years ago.
But it took Gitelman many years and three career changes to get to this point. “I always wanted to do something in culinary; ever since I was a kid I’ve been messing around in the kitchen with different things,” she said. “But of course, life takes you on different routes.” Gitelman obtained her university degree in architecture, and worked in that field for nearly a decade before transitioning into the technology field. She then had a career in digital marketing and IT for about 20 years.
When Gitelman finally got the opportunity to attend culinary school six years ago, she ran with it and finished the International Culinary Center’s professional pastry program. She began working in various cafes as a pastry chef and exploring the world of chocolate on her own time at home. And that’s when it clicked for her: “I thought, all right, if I’m going to do this, I have to leave everything behind and go all in.”
All of Chef Gitelman’s creations are entirely vegan, and have been since Coco Jolie’s inception. Gitelman explained that when she first began selling her chocolates she was renting an entirely pareve kitchen. “In pastry school, the curriculum was French…which meant it was all butter and cream,” she said. “Having a pareve space gave me another challenge to figure out how to retool these recipes and make them vegan.”
But what sets Coco Jolie’s chocolates from other pareve confectioners is the stellar quality. The chocolatier prides itself on using all organic, fair trade ingredients. As Gitelman recalled, “When I went into pastry school, one of my personal missions was to prove that you could make amazing pareve desserts without all of the garbage that is usually in them. I feel like the kosher market has been conditioned to accept the junk, and unfortunately, we’re used to it.”
And Gitelman’s commitment to quality definitely shows. Recently, Coco Jolie was awarded with a handful of prestigious awards from the International Chocolate Salon in the vegan chocolate category, with six gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes for the signature bon-bons. The chocolatier also won several awards in the chocolate bar category for the “Aloha bar,” chock full of delicious tropical ingredients, and the new “Persian Paradise bar,” complete with candied pistachios and cardamom, ginger and rose petals. Gitelman explained that Coco Jolie was up against hundreds of other chocolatiers in each category she entered.
The kicker? This was Coco Jolie’s first time ever entering the competition space.
“I never wanted to submit anything until I’m really, really happy about it,” said Gitelman. “But I figured, ‘what the heck,’ and went with it. Having feedback from a panel of people who have never tried my chocolates before is very valuable.”
Gitelman described feeling both “shocked” and “grateful” for her awards. She chuckled as she recalled her excitement when she clicked through the Chocolate Salon’s website for the competition results. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! Holy cow!”
Aside from quality, Gitelman explained that her passion for vegan chocolate is also ethical. “The chocolate industry has a long history of child labor, farmer exploitation and environmental degradation,” she said. “Since day one, I’ve been very particular about what chocolate I use and how I source it. Keeping it vegan goes along with the ethos of ‘do no harm to the planet.”
Gitelman described herself as a “guilty vegetarian,” meaning she is working toward veganism in her personal dietary choices. “I myself am an animal lover…but we’ve got everything in our household from die-hard carnivores to total vegans,” she joked.
Unfortunately, the decision to open up the Englewood storefront came at an inopportune time. Shortly after the launch of the brick-and-mortar Coco Jolie, the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to shut her doors; and despite having the appropriate infrastructure for e-commerce, online sales slowed significantly with people staying indoors.
Gitelman knew she had to come up with something. That’s why in August she launched her in-store classes, where she was able to host very small groups of people in the Coco Jolie kitchen and teach them all about the wonderful world of chocolate. “That really saved me and got us through the pandemic,” she recalled.
Thankfully, Gitelman’s classes have been a major hit with the local community, and the demand has kept growing. As of now Coco Jolie has several ongoing classes, usually running about two hours each, which are held in the store on weekday evenings and Sundays.
“Part of my goal is to educate people about the beauty of chocolate,” she said. “So much of the commercially available chocolate is filled with extra sugar and other stuff that it takes away from that inherent beauty. We don’t know about the incredible process that the chocolate goes through, from a cacao pod on the tree all the way to consumption.”
The most popular in-store class at Coco Jolie is the truffle-making class, which entails an overview of chocolate, as well as a tasting of chocolates from around the world. Students then get the opportunity to learn about chocolate tempering and make their own truffles that they can bring home. “It’s a little bit of education and a lot of fun.”
Gitelman also teaches a series of online courses, which go a little deeper than the standard in-store class. This summer she is also running the “Teen Chocolate Bootcamp,” a two-day experience where teenagers can learn all about the chocolate-making process and can learn skills that they can take home with them.
Gitelman explained that the summer months are generally slower for Coco Jolie. But that’s not stopping her: The ambitious chef is in the process of developing a brand-new product line for her store. Using the technical skills she learned in her French culinary program, Chef Gitelman is working on a launch of traditional French pastries, including macarons, tarts and eclairs. Like Coco Jolie’s chocolates, the pastries will be entirely vegan, gluten-free and ethically sourced, and certainly won’t skimp on flavor.
“I’ve been working on this for the last six months. Getting a vegan macaron to taste just as good as a regular one, which is made with eggs, is quite challenging. I’ve had to figure out the ratios and the science behind it,” she said.
Gitelman revealed that the new line of pastries is expected to be available at Coco Jolie by the end of the month.
Despite a brief stint selling her chocolate wholesale this past winter during the hot cocoa bomb craze, which she joked was the “second pandemic,” Gitelman insisted that her focus is really on growing the Coco Jolie store in Englewood. “I really would like to make my own space here—and be able to teach people about chocolate in a fun, delicious and enlightening way.”
For more information about Coco Jolie, or to order chocolate, visit https://cocojolie.com/.