Co Co Sala’s Chocolate Saga
This is the tale of The Three Chocolatiers. Once upon a time there was a hotshot financial wiz, a smart biochemist who loved to bake, and a savvy chef who had sailed the high seas on the Q E 2, each going their own way.
A steamy passion for chocolate brought the three together to create Co Co Sala, a foodie kingdom dripping in high-end chocolate, coffee and cocktails. This attracted legions of chocoholics, made the fortunes of the Three Chocolatiers, and they all lived happily ever after.
Now isn’t that a sweet ending?
The story, however, is fact and not fiction. Co Co Sala is a hot and happening chocolate lounge, bar, restaurant, pastry shop and boutique on F Street in Washington DC, and three young Indian-American entrepreneurs are behind its big success – Bharet Malhotra, Nisha Sidhu and Santosh Tiptur.
Co Co Sala’s Chocolate Tale
Bharet, who is co-owner with Nisha Sidhu, started out in a world very far from gourmet chocolate, spending the first two years of his life at sea as his father was a captain on a merchant marine ship. The family lived in New Delhi and Nigeria, where his father started an oil trading business. Schooling brought Bharet and his sister to the US, and for a while he even had a brief career as a tennis player.
Why brief? “Well, let’s just say, the ATP Tour has some pretty darn good players and I lost a lot more than I won,” says Bharet. “Also, if I had told my family when I was 10 that I wanted to own a Chocolate Restaurant/Lounge & Boutique, they would have looked at me in a somewhat odd manner, right? Ultimately I ended up getting a Bachelors of Science in Biomedical/Electrical Engineering and Economics from Duke University.”
Bharet was an investment banker with Salomon Smith Barney and later worked with WorldCom, which is now MCI, in mergers and acquisitions. He is currently a vice president of sales at Cvent, Inc in McLean Virginia, a software company. Yet at heart, he’s always been a diehard foodie, having eaten his way through 70 countries.
So when his longtime friend Nisha Sidhu came up with the idea of a chocolate haven in DC, it was a given that Bharet, an ace in marketing, would get involved. Nisha had found her way to chocolate in a roundabout way. She earned her Bachelor’s from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Master’s from Johns Hopkins University in Engineering & Applied Physics in Biomedicine, and became a bona fide biomedical engineer working for the Naval Medical Logistics Command.
At the same time, she continued to pursue her childhood passion for baking. She says, “Working with pastry and chocolate is chemistry and I love science so it was fascinating to me. I also love art and how aesthetic pastry can be.”
Nisha continued to pursue engineering until the birth of her children when she decided to enroll in the professional Pastry Arts Program at L’Academie de Cuisine. Graduating at the top of her class, she worked in 2941 Restaurant in Virginia as the chocolatier, creating elaborate pastry buffets, wedding cakes and sculptures. She then started her own company The Sugar Gallery by Nisha before collaborating with Bharet on Co Co Sala.
“I always wanted to open something but was smart enough to know that I needed a hook, something edgy and Nisha had the substance,” says Bharet. “She dreamed big and our team set out to put the thoughts to brick and mortar.” The idea was to have chocolate not only in the patisserie and boutique menus but also in the savory dishes.
And that brings us to the third angle of the Co Co Sala triangle – Chef Santosh Tiptur, who brought his culinary experience to concocting unusual brunches, dinners and lunches, with a touch of chocolate.
“While growing up, I always helped my mom as she cooked — that is where the inspiration started,” he says. “However my inner goal was to become a pilot in the Indian Air Force. There was no way my parents were going to let me go to the Air Force, so I had to opt for something else.” And that something else turned out to be baking, which he had experienced in a family friend’s bakery.
“I came to understand pasty is more an art than just cooking and that is where the love affair began,” he says. After earning a degree in Bakery and Confectionery Technology from the University of Agriculture Sciences in Bangalore, he went abroad to hone his skills at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Since then, Santosh has worked as the executive pastry chef at the Ritz Carlton Hotel San Juan Spa and Casino, and also participated in new hotel openings for South Beach Ritz Carlton in Miami and Grand Cayman Island. He has consulted for the Ritz Carltons in the West Indies, and was on the Pastry Advisory board.
He then took all this experience to sea, cooking for several upscale shipping lines, including the Q E 2. “The people I met and places I traveled gave me the most important ingredient and a lifelong lesson – an open mind to different ideas, creations and being adventurous,” says Santosh who also cooked on the Food Network this year.
Co Co Sala’s Chocolate Nation
So at Co Co Sala, he serves global cuisine, juggling sweet and savory flavors. “I am able to leverage my pastry background and incorporate a variety of flavors that include chocolate and infuse them in many of the savory dishes,” he says. “When it comes to chocolates and desserts, I think of what is bold and what will evoke emotion – perhaps a spicy dessert or the recreation of American childhood favorites, like the Strawberry Cheesecake Lollipop with Pop rocks.”
Using no artificial flavors or preservatives, Nisha and Santosh strive to create offbeat flavor combinations while using the best quality chocolate. “It comes at a cost but the patrons can see and taste the difference,” he says. “I like to incorporate chocolate with most of the dishes – that’s a monumental challenge but one I love taking on. For example, who would mix chocolate and bacon? Well, I tried and it worked! We have apple wood smoked bacon enrobed with dark chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt — this is served as a garnish on top of bacon mac and cheese, one of our most popular dishes.
A popular dish, a lobster salad on a bed of crushed avocados, is served with passion fruit and chocolate vinaigrette. Yet another dish has four cheese fritters served with tomato, chocolate and chipotle pepper dip. There’s also a dessert you won’t forget in a hurry – fiery Chipotle Chocolate Soufflé.
Co Co Sala, which opened in 2008, has received critical acclaim including ‘hottest bar scene of the year’ by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and reviews from The Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine.
Besides dinner, chocoholics can also stop by the 200 square foot boutique to try chocolate bars and artisanal chocolates created by Santosh and Nisha, including the famous chocolate-enrobed bacon, cognac truffles and hot Co Co Pops. The chocolate flavors include Banana Ginger and Mango Lassi, and on festive occasions there’s also Champagne-infused Chocolate Ganache or Om chocolate bars.
While the chocolate devotees come in every size and shape, Nisha says women are big on Co Co Sala. “It’s very fulfilling for me as a woman entrepreneur to know it’s a haven for women to indulge in their favorite food group – chocolate! The best part is the five course dessert tasting in the evening.”
Passion for bringing people together through chocolate keeps the three going. “Nothing is more exciting and rewarding than seeing the expressions, the emotions, the thoughts, the reviews, the chatter that people share with each other,” says Bharet.
“In most cases we are the source of laughter and getting relationships tighter and closer. I think if there is any other reason you get into the business, you got into it for the wrong reasons. If you make these things happen, the rest will fall in place.” At Co Co Sala, sinfully rich chocolate becomes not a vice but a virtue, a heavenly treat.
© Lavina Melwani
(This first appeared in Hi Blitz)
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