When Justin Chao of Le Bon Garcon discovered caramels in Paris, he learned that crafting classic handmade French caramels can be a labor of love. I first tasted his buttery confections at Artisanal LA, and was so taken by the mango-passion fruit combination I reached out to Chao to learn more about his process for making such deliciously sweet caramels. To get your hands on some, visit the online shop where they sell in variously sized packages spanning $5-18.
How did you come up with the name Le Bon Garcon?
When I lived in Paris, I lived near Rue des Mauvais Garcons, which translates to Street of the Bad Boys. When I started thinking of names for my company, the name "Mauvais Garcon" kept coming to mind, but I wanted something that reflected my personality, and the truth is, I've always been more of a good boy than a bad boy. The name also reminds me of my childhood, when my grandma would take me to the Chinese grocery store to buy French pastilles for special occasions or as a reward. When I started thinking about the concept for Le Bon Garcon, I wanted my customers to feel as special as I did when my grandma would take me to buy candy.
Why did you decide to focus on caramels after working at L.A.'s Water Grill?
When I was in Paris, I discovered what a caramel could be. French caramels were buttery, flavorful and melted in your mouth. When I returned to L.A., I found myself missing those caramels more than almost anything else about Paris. After searching and searching for something similar, I finally decided to make the caramel myself. For months, I spent practically every evening after work in my kitchen, making batch after batch of caramel until I finally found a formula that I was happy with. When I perfected the recipe, I started giving the caramels out to friends and family. As soon as I saw their reaction to my caramels, I knew I had to start a company.
What did it take to launch your company?
Launching Le Bon Garcon was not an easy process. The logistics of finding a kitchen and getting all the permits for a food business is complex and took me a while to figure out. When I had finally found a kitchen and finished all the administrative and legal paperwork, I still needed to find a place to sell my product. I went to a performance at the Broad Stage with my mom and some family friends. I brought some caramels for our friends who happened to know the director of the Broad Stage, Dale Franzen. Dale liked them so much that she asked me to start selling them at the next show. From there, I was able to slowly expand through word of mouth and participating in the Artisanal LA show this past April really helped propel Le Bon Garcon to the next level.
Where do you make the caramels?
I make the caramels at Chefs Center of California, which is a communal commercial kitchen located in Pasadena. The manager, Larry Bressler, an instructor at the Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, has given me several pointers about how to improve my caramels.
Is there a different technique for making fruit caramels than classic caramels?
Absolutely. Each caramel has its own unique process to make the flavor an integral part of the caramel's essence (rather than something added at the end). For example, to preserve the fresh mango and passion fruit flavors in the caramel, I use a gentler process for heating the caramel. Scorching is an issue with the fruit, so the caramel must be constantly stirred for about an hour in French copper pots. I use real mango and high-quality passion fruit puree to make the flavor of the caramels as close as possible to the flavor of a fresh piece of fruit.
What is the secret to making your caramels so smooth?
Unfortunately, there is no magic trick to making smooth caramel—it's just hard, manual labor. The texture of Le Bon Garcon caramels comes from constantly hand-stirring the caramel while it is cooking so that the caramel heats uniformly and does not scorch.
Will you be adding more flavors or products to Le Bon Garcon?
I am constantly experimenting with new recipes. I hope to start releasing limited runs of seasonal flavors in the next few months, but I want to make sure that the new flavors are of the same high standards as my current flavors.