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Chocolatier Brian Donaghy is hooked on national chocolate competitions

Like many Americans, Brian Donaghy has a chocolate addiction.

But a Hershey’s bar isn’t going to ease his craving. A professional chocolatier who works with chocolate every day, Donaghy is hooked on national-level chocolate competitions.

That’s when teams of chocolate wizards fly into one city to go head-to-head in an Ironman triathlon of sweets: the chocolate showpiece. Pairs of chefs have one workday to turn 100 pounds of chocolate into an original work of art. The competition piece is a chocolatier’s three-dimensional master’s thesis, requiring intimate knowledge of chocolate’s properties to coax it into manifestations that seem impossible at first glance.

“Why do I do it? To get better, personally better,” Donaghy said recently. “I want to win, sure. But I want to be a better chocolatier, a better artist, a better culinarian.”

“There’s also an ego component,” he said. “I expect to compete at a high level, and competitions push me in ways other parts of my job don’t.”

In civilian life, Donaghy is the staff chocolate expert for Tomric Systems, a Riverside company that makes chocolate molds for candy manufacturers. But in August, Donaghy and his partner in competition, Canadian culinary instructor Ruth Bleijerveld, flew to Atlanta. They were there for Pastry Live 2013, a national contest against some of the top chocolate designers in the nation.

In the air-conditioned cool of an Atlanta conference hall, the bell rang at 8 a.m., yielding to an urgent electric whine as chocolatiers gunned their baseball-bat-sized immersion blenders like drivers heading into the first turn at Talladega. Donaghy was using his to chop chocolate discs into a 20-pound vat of molten Swiss chocolate as he started the process of turning it into suitable building supplies.

For six months, Donaghy and Bleijerveld had planned and practiced creating their sculpture. The only thing that mattered now was the next seven hours.

Chocolate illusions

Donaghy grew up in Philadelphia and worked in restaurants for years before the chocolate bug bit. A job with a Swiss import company was where he fell for chocolate, the combination of cocoa powder, cocoa butter and sugar that has bewitched humans for centuries.

Tomric, a 45-year-old confectionery supply company, hired him and brought him to Buffalo. He helps sell chocolate manufacturing equipment at trade shows, and helps troubleshoot problems buyers have.

He’s married to a patient woman named Christina, and has a 4½-year-old daughter named Olive. In his spare time, he teaches chocolate classes at Niagara County Community College. And he competes.

Donaghy has twice been a contestant on television’s “Food Network Challenge,” in 2010 and then 2011, when his team won a chocolate showpiece throwdown.

He’s done two national industry-centric chocolate competitions, which draw the hardest of the hard core, including this year’s Pastry Live.

In March, he started brainstorming with Bleijerveld, a pastry chef and instructor for the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. The contest’s theme was “Art of Illusion,” and after months of discussion, Google image searches and cardboard models, the duo settled on a Daliesque trio of chocolate structures echoing Alice in Wonderland, with teacups the size of soccer balls and a Cheshire cat that only appeared if you looked at it from the right angle.

The rules said the pieces had to rest on three small pedestals. Tentacle-like branches would weave through the work, joining three towers into one figure.

“We were shooting to do something called ‘forced perspective,’ ” he said. Popular manifestations of that illusion include photos of tourists appearing to kiss the top of the Eiffel Tower, or hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If you looked at it from one angle, you would see new things, like the cat, and a stream of tea pouring from a pot into waiting cups.

By May, when they melted chocolate and got to work on the first trials, they had each spent at least 40 hours on planning, Donaghy said. Their employers were willing to donate time and space, and chocolate manufacturers donated products. They paid the rest, about $4,000, including flying themselves and their gear to Atlanta.

They divided individual tasks into lists that would dovetail to enable close collaboration. “She’d finish something and give it to me for airbrushing, then it was back to her to get finished, then placed on top of a piece I was building.”

Before August, they built the piece three times, casting, shaping, painting and assembling more than 100 separate pieces while a timer ran. The last practice run took 6:30. Thirty minutes in reserve, for emergencies.

Competition day

It was 62 degrees in the Atlanta hall, cold enough to change the way colored cocoa butter flows through an airbrushing nozzle. The start went well, though, Donaghy said. He set to his first task, tempering chocolate.

To give chocolate strength and shine, molten chocolate has to be carefully heated and cooled, lining up its internal crystalline structure. “You can’t just heat up a bowl of chocolate and cool it off again,” Donaghy said. “You have to actually manipulate it while that’s going on.”

There are machines, essentially smart crockpots, that will temper chocolate without fail. Not at Pastry Live, though. “The premise is that a good chocolatier or a good pastry chef needs to be able to temper chocolate,” said Donaghy, “and if they can’t, then who cares if they can do all that other stuff?”

Donaghy tempered two 20-pound batches of chocolate, and started pouring it into molds to make the foundation pieces. Bleijerveld, having ground chocolate into a molding-clay consistency, started rolling out branches, draping them over tubes so they could harden in the proper shape. Then she started crafting flower petals and shapes. Since chocolate is dark, you have to paint it white before you paint it another color. Many pieces would need two or three different coats of colored cocoa butter.

It was around hour four when trouble started. When Donaghy put a teacup tower on the display table, it broke, and he had to improvise a fix that cost time. He lost track of tempering a third batch, and it was off slightly, which meant some of the poured foundation pieces weren’t the right thickness.

“When I had to go back and re-temper chocolate, Ruth had to do some things she hadn’t practiced, to keep moving forward,” he said. “When I was done, I needed to do stuff on her checklist. The last hour, for us, was very different than the three previous times we’d built the piece.”

The team got their piece finished without major catastrophe, but some of the fine points were off. The cat’s face didn’t quite line up any more. It was about 85 percent right, he said. When the pieces were judged, they were out of the running.

So when’s the next competition?

“We’ll see what the team back home says about that,” he said with a laugh. “I kind of lost my summer. My backyard is a disaster. The rosebush has taken over my garden.”

“Even not winning, I’m really happy with the work that we did,” he said. “But I was done with it. I didn’t want to talk about it – ‘I’m never competing again.’ Then a month goes by and I’m, ‘Hmm, maybe, let me think about it.’ ”

As it happens, a friend in the chocolate business has offered to bankroll the next attempt. He wants to win, too.