A bottle has washed ashore in Westville Village with not a note, but chocolates inside.
Chef Darrell Nurse has brought the chocolates to the corner of Whalley and West Rock avenues, where has opened a new sweet shop called Chip in A Bottle.
Nurse wasn’t expecting to have a revelation when he stepped into Norman Love Confections on a trip to Naples, Florida, several years ago.
One bonbon later, he was hooked. Not on the sweet, flavorful chocolates, though. He loved the idea of making them for customers in New Haven.
Now that obsession has led him to start Chip in A Bottle. Later in the year, he plans to turn it into a wine and chocolate shop, as the two complement each other.
Nurse, 32 and never a great lover of sweets, didn’t always have chocolate on his radar. Born to Guyanan immigrants in Brooklyn, he grew up around food — slow-cooking, molasses-scented pepper pot, oxtail, curries, fragrantly spiced cakes and other West Indian dishes. He became interested in a career in physical therapy when he was hit by a passing car while riding his bike in New York and had to do rehabilitation at a nearby hospital.
“I was 14, so I’m thinking: what am I going to do for a career,” he said. “I ended up liking physical therapy for the sports aspect and ironically because they didn’t have to wear suits. I never wanted to have to wear a suit for work. That’s kind of hitting the criteria of everything I ever wanted in a job.”
For a long time, that was the path he pursued with an almost dogged diligence. After receiving his BA at Quinnipiac University, he went on to Northeastern for a Doctor of Physical Therapy (PB-DPT), working between hospitals, sports clinics and home care. He loved the service he was providing, and the patients he met through his work. But he wanted to be adding something new: he went back to school for his MBA, and started to think about how that degree might help him in his therapeutic pursuits.
During that time, another facet of his life — one he never recognized as a possible career, he said in the interview — was also evolving: He was learning to cook. What started as a life skill during his student years at Quinnipiac soon blossomed into a hobby, and then a genuine love. Nurse would spend hours teaching himself to prepare braises, pound out supple pasta doughs, turn meats just the right way in the oven before a dinner party.
“That basic cooking expanded into doing more baking,” he said. “And baking just took its own little path in learning how to make a lot of things that you would see on televisions or things that you would see in competitions and what not.”
Which, perhaps one too many episodes of Cake Boss or The Great British Bake Off later, is how he ended up in Florida, reveling in the cocoa-scented insides and industrial kitchens of Norman Love’s flagship store in Naples. Staring into pristine cases of chocolates, he went weak in the knees. He’d felt flutters of this in the kitchen before: it was just something he had to do.
“I said: You know what?,” he said. “This is awesome. I wanna do something like that ... as soon as you walked into the door, you just knew that you were not in the same place. You were not walking from a regular old bakery. You walked in to something that was just another level of food. And I thought it was just super cool.”
So he made chocolate — good chocolate, not the wax- and sugar-packed stuff that comprises Hershey’s and Kit Kat bars, plagues grocery store aisles everywhere, and threatens to send him into a minor fit of rage every time it’s mentioned. Never mind that he didn’t have training in candy making or know where to buy the best kids of cocoa. He wasn’t sure when to walk away from a ganache, or how the melting and burning points . He flipped on his computer, opened an internet browser, and typed a few search terms into google. Self-teaching, grace à Reddit and YouTube.
“I said: Let’s learn to get in there as well,” he said. “I like the alchemy side—it’s pretty fun. Especially if you get to that very intricate type of cooking.”
He started with the basics: candy melts, beginner-style chocolate, melting couvertures. There were disasters. Describing himself as “more of a line chef on my own,” he recounted having to throw out whole batches of expensive chocolate, going through literal pounds of corn starch, and getting rid of pots that wouldn’t get clean after a bad batch of bonbons. His tiny Dwight kitchen, where he ran out of counter space when a single baking sheet was out of the oven, wasn’t always the most conducive to beta testing large batches of chocolates. But he made it work. In his mind, there wasn’t any other way to operate.
He hustled. It taught him how to make his product distinguishable, he said. Not just pretty, painted with shades of dyed cocoa butter that remind him of camouflage in one instant, candy canes in the next, but long-lasting, with flavor profiles like French Valrhona Azélia, whose chip blooms from milk to hazelnut and back again, or Guittard, which morphs into burnt, spun sugar as it melts slowly on one’s tongue.
All of that prepared him to open a store, he said. That’d been the goal since that fateful, flavorful and very sweet day in Naples.
“I used to stalk this building,” he joked. “I used to live around the corner ... and every day I would drive through the same storefronts down to Westville—I would see the stores, and I would think “that’s the store. I would keep passing it and I would go: I want that store. It’s on a corner, it’s well lit, it’s perfect ... Eventually, I said: I’m gonna go for it.”
That was in May. From June, he’s been working 15-hour days, getting the proper permits, doing updates to the building, changing the decor, and of course, testing out his recipes in the industrial kitchen. By Saturday morning, the still-pristine cases will be full of chocolates, cookies, brownies and gelato, he said—and then hopefully, they will need to be restocked.
“Every day we’ll see what’s best, and then we’ll work from there,” he said. “I have no fear of failing [in the kitchen.] So if I fail I’ll take it, and I’ll scrap it, and I’ll try again.”