Crack open a Cocoa Nut and find a sweet praline

Ariella Anzarut Toeman was born in Brazil and raised primarily in Montreal. Fluent in four languages, after college she landed a job on the Queen Elizabeth, where she worked for six months as a translator. Aboard ship, her career plans changed course.

“I was earning all this money, and there’s no way to spend it on a cruise ship,” she says. “I had all these savings, and I’d always wanted to go to cooking school.”

So with her nest egg, Toeman was off to follow the same path taken by her Lebanese grandmother decades earlier. That is, to Le Cordon Bleu Paris school.

“My grandmother was a very good pastry chef. She went to the Cordon Bleu 50 years before I did. It was very special for me to go there after she did. I just packed my bags and moved to Paris for a month. I didn’t have an apartment. I didn’t really know that I’d do.”

But it was evident that Toeman had a knack for making pastries, having spent her childhood Passovers preparing chocolates and nut confections in the kitchen with her mother. After graduating with a diploma in pastry arts, Toeman was awarded an internship at the prestigious Patisserie Fauchon, “the oldest pastry shop in France — a very big name with a big reputation.”

She worked six days a week, straight through the night on Saturdays — “You can’t even imagine how many pastries they go through” — and Patisserie Fauchon offered her a job. But during her time in Paris, “I got little homesick, so I’d go to synagogue. I have a very strong Jewish identity. It’s interesting to travel around the world and see how similar the communities are.”

Two years later, Toeman was ready for another change. “So, I packed my bags again and went to visit a friend in New York City. Daniel Blue was just about to open his first restaurant — a mega-restaurant, with high-quality food served to over 300 guests. I approached him and ended up getting a job as a pastry chef.” After that stint, she was hired as a pastry chef by Jean-George, “the megastar of chefs.”

In 2003, however, Toeman “needed a different type of intellectual and professional challenge. I moved back to my hometown of Montreal to start my first company, Cane et Cacao [French for “sugar cane and cocoa”], designing wedding cakes and sweet tables.”

In Montreal, where she graduated from McGill University with a degree in linguistics, she was closer to her Jewish roots again. “A lot of Jews here don’t know there are many Sephardic Jews from the Middle East,” says Toeman, who is the daughter of an Egyptian mother and Lebanese father.

And then love struck. She met her husband, Jeremy Toeman, at a concert in Montreal. The summer of 2003, she decided to follow him to San Francisco. “I felt like I needed to take a chance on love. It was a big step for me to give up my company.”

But the inventive and resourceful Toeman hatched new and bigger plans. Living in San Francisco — “a city well known for good food and wine” — she came up with the idea for Cocoa Designs, a line of modern gourmet gifts that “blends classic methods, superior ingredients and original, but not too crazy, flavor combinations.”

On Valentine’s Day last year, her first product, Cocoa Nuts, hit the market. Simply put, they are handmade praline almonds dipped in Venezuelan chocolate and rolled in natural cocoa powder and spices. “I used to make praline almonds with my mom all the time, so it’s a family recipe, tweaked and improved by adding premium chocolate and spices.”

Toeman’s motto is: All-natural nuts plus premium quality chocolate equals great products and happy people. “Although Cocoa Designs does not operate under the strict rules of the Vaad [Hakashrus, the kosher-certification authority], I like to consider Cocoa Nuts to be kosher-style (parve and dairy), as well as kosher-style for Passover, as Cocoa Nuts contain nothing but almonds, sugar, chocolate, cocoa powder and spices.”

She now features seven blends, which are sold in a number of Bay Area shops. One of her products, Cocoa Nuts Mon Amour, was featured in the February issue of InStyle magazine. Toeman also offers gifts and tins for weddings and corporate events. You can choose a favorite Cocoa Nuts flavor, along with a color scheme, personal image, text or poem to create an original keepsake.

(After sampling, this reporter’s favorite was Noir, the handmade praline almonds dipped in El Rey Bucare chocolate and rolled in Cocoa Barry Plein Arome cocoa powder. The cocoa powder is indeed smoky, and El Rey chocolate from Venezuela has a higher cocoa percentage than most commercial products.)

Today, in her one-woman commercial kitchen in Burlingame, Toeman’s dream just gets bigger. “I want to show people what chocolate is all about!” she says. “I want Cocoa Nuts to be for the masses, and not just for the elite. People are starting to realize that quality of chocolate is very important. I’m very big into eating quality, not just quantity. You can have a small quantity of good chocolate, and be totally satisfied. That’s my message!”

Cocoa Nuts are sold for $8 to $9 for an 8-ounce cellophane bag at nearly two dozen Bay Area retailers, including Gump’s, Birite, Atelier Emmanuel, YUM, Ruby Wine and Cocoa Bella Chocolates. They are also available in tins and bags at www.cocoadesigns.com.