Fine chocolate finds its home in Durham
Bonnie Lau doesn’t just sell chocolates. She’s in the business of selling memories.
Lau is the founder of Miel Bon Bons Fine Chocolate & Artisan Bake Shop, a chocolate truffle and bake shop that is now in Durham after a move from Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro. The shop opened in the fall on University Drive in the same shopping center as Nana’s.
On a Monday recently, Lau had handcrafted chocolate truffles on display with flavors such as coconut curry and raspberry rose. A separate display showcased boxes of cookies, toffee and other holiday goodies. And near a work table by the door, Lau had pictures on display of cakes and French macaron cookies that she can make by custom order.
All of the cakes and chocolates are handmade on location, said Lau, who received training, mainly in confections, at two schools in Paris: The French School of Culinary Arts Ferrandi, and L’École Lenôtre. Born in Hong Kong, Lau also said she’s worked in quality control for the American food corporation General Mills, for a hotel in San Diego, and for a short time, she ran an Asian bistro with her sister in Charleston, S.C.
This was the first holiday season that her chocolate and bake shop has been open in Durham. Lau said she’s been embraced by the surrounding neighborhood in the new location. However, she said she wants to grow the amount of foot traffic that she sees. On Feb. 3, she’s planning to hold a grand opening event for her shop with free samples, drinks and light hors d’oeuvres available from 5 to 8 p.m.
Right now, the bulk of her business comes from sales of custom cakes, cookies and chocolates, she said. However, she said she is selective about the work she takes on so she can retain the quality of her product.
Past projects she’s taken on include two cakes created to look like hotels for the opening of a new Hampton Inn & Suites in Carrboro, she said, and a chocolate coin featuring the Old Well from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
In the last month, she said she’d made four classic French croquembouche dessert towers, which are cone-shaped stacks of custard cream puffs that are dipped in caramelized sugar. They have a light crunch, Lau said, which is followed by the smoothness of the custard cream filling.
Margaret Bridger of Raleigh ordered a croquembouche for her family for Christmas, and said it was dramatic, beautiful, and very tasty — but now gone.
Bridger said she first heard about the shop from her hair dresser, and “fell in love” when she stopped by. She tasted one of the shop’s salted caramel chocolates, which Lau said is one of her top sellers.
She saw a picture of the croquembouche tower on the wall that was made for a wedding, and asked Lau if she could do a smaller version. Her family had never seen the tower before, but she said it was well-received.
“It was really spectacular-looking with all of the sugar on the outside of it,” she said. “In fact my son, who is a real foodie and an excellent cook himself, told me that it reminded him of crème brûlée. It did. It had that creamy inside and that crispy light sugar on the outside of the cream puff.”
In the chocolate arena, Lau also has another fan in Laura Florand, an author of romance novels in a series called “Amour et Chocolat” who’s also a lecturer in the Duke University Romance studies department. Lau has a “true passion for chocolate,” Florand said in an email, and she was “delighted” by the shop’s move to Durham.
“I was worried about how I would adjust to ordinary chocolate after all the research I had been doing with top Parisian chocolatiers for the ‘Amour et Chocolat’ books, but fortunately Bonnie saved me,” she said. “No ordinary chocolates there.”
Florand first went into the shop when it was in Carrboro because a friend had discovered her macarons. She also found out that Lau had studied at the Ferrandi, a culinary school in Paris. She said one of her fictional characters was “attending” the school, so Florand asked if she could interview Lau about her experiences. While she was with her, Florand said that Lau pulled out several of her petit fours and desserts she was preparing as well as some macarons and chocolates for her to try.
“They were all amazing, really,” Florand said. “I love going in there because she is always experimenting with new flavors and is impassioned for her to try her latest: a macaron with yuzu, or a new ‘blond chocolate’ from Valrhona she had been using in some of her chocolates recently, or her raspberry rose truffle,” she added.
Florand also continues to work with Lau for book events. For her latest novel, “The Chocolate Heart,” she said she’s making heart-shaped macarons filled with a chocolate ganache for an event at the Southwest Regional Library branch at 3 p.m. Jan.19. Florand plans to talk about what it’s like behind-the-scenes in top Parisian pastry kitchens.