Kevin Toohey of Shelburne had finished his studies in classical music when Laura, the woman who would become his wife, took a part-time job at a St. Louis restaurant run by Swiss immigrant Andre Bollier. Intrigued by the nuances of food preparation, Toohey began an apprenticeship in 1979 under another Swiss chef, René Nussbaum. Today Toohey and his wife own Bijou Fine Chocolate, a specialty boutique in Shelburne.
For three years Toohey worked six days a week for fifty-two weeks studying under Nussbaum and a British baker. At the end of the apprenticeship, he was encouraged to “job around” so he worked in several establishments to gain more experience. “It was a time when the European tradition was growing in the United States,” he said. “I was a pretty hot item because I could speak French and German and I didn’t need a visa.”
Toohey enjoyed the opportunity to work for various professionals including a German pastry chef, but he and his wife eventually decided to start their own business. In the mid-1990’s they founded LUNA Chocolate Truffles. Other ventures have included making wedding cakes and Swiss pastries. The couple also found time to revisit their classical music roots by playing in bands and performing at weddings and concerts. Laura is a violinist and Kevin, while trained in the bassoon, has moved to the piano, guitar and flute.
Several years ago, Toohey was asked to taste test for someone who was starting a bean-to-bar coffee company. He helped the company import beans from the Dominican Republic and then begin the process of roasting and grinding them and adding products like sugar and milk powder. After a few years, Toohey decided he was more interested in taking the finished chocolate and using it to make other products. He and Laura started Studio Cacao out of their home in Burlington and began selling their chocolate concoctions on the internet and at City Market.
Toohey was pleased to get into City Market, noting that the scarcity of shelf space there is akin to the Burlington parking situation, but he worried that the heat and humidity was damaging to the chocolates.
In April, 2014 the couple moved to Shelburne to begin production and in March of this year, they opened their retail store, Bijou Fine Chocolate. “The people in Shelburne and Charlotte have been amazingly gracious,” Toohey said. “It’s been great to be here with this great community and get their support.”
The company focuses on truffles, but also has a line of bon-bons which include marzipan, caramel, nuts and candied Spanish orange peels from Italy. The butter and cream used by the company is entirely local.
Family is very important to the Tooheys. They home-schooled their five children and are pleased to be able to work with two of them. Their oldest son Rowen works for the company and their oldest daughter Virginia is about to join them as well. Toohey likes the fact that Vermont’s image has expanded from plaid shirts and country stores. He credits the cheese and beer industry for putting the state on the culinary map and hopes he can add to that. “We’re interested in bringing the world of chocolate to Vermont,” he said. “We want to bring more finesse and European tradition which is quite lovely and elegant.”