Interview by Ashley Carpenter
Issue 36 • February 2016 • Alexandria

Looking for a better way to connect with his clientele, this classically-trained chef is forging his own path as a chocolatier and earning national recognition in the process.

Nestled away in the historic district of Alexandria, Fleurir is a delightfully bright, not-your-average chocolate shop. Robert Ludlow, owner and chocolatier, greets me with a legendary Salted Caramel and begins offering samples of their latest project, the Wine Bars. Bouncing between sheet pans lined with delicately crafted treats, he hands me what seems like an entire box of chocolate one piece at a time, spouting off the cocoa percentages and origin of ingredients per sample. For such a messy business, Fleurir creates meticulously gorgeous chocolates from the inside out.

What does “fleurir” mean?
We wanted something fun and whimsical, unlike a lot of other chocolate shops that tend to stick with dark, dull brown, and maybe a splash of color. Originally we wanted to use Bloom, but in the chocolate world, “bloom” is actually a negative result that turns the sugar grayish and bubbly – Google it and you’ll know! So, we switched languages [to French] and Fleurir was born (as “Ludlow” doesn’t really scream chocolate).

Why did you want to take on chocolate?
I was a “fine dining” guy for a long time, training Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, and eventually moved to pastry and sugar – the sweeter side of the kitchen. I came back to the States, got a job at a nice restaurant, and quit after ten days. I found a job in a chocolate shop and realized that I could do everything I love and still have a life. In the kitchen, I found that interactions with guests tend to be limited: either everything is great and the plate comes back clean or someone is pissed and the plate gets back to you much faster than anticipated. Having the shop has allowed me to keep my creativity, form relationships with customers, and educate on the craft of chocolate. Not many in this industry are actually making their own chocolate and people don’t know that. I enjoy teaching about the quality ingredients that make our products different and why sometimes we may be out of a favorite item or two.

How did you get started?
Like all good stories, in my parents’ basement. With plenty of room to work with, we turned a portion of it into a kitchen. Weekdays were spent cooking, while weekends were for reuniting with my wife, Ashley, as we traveled to markets to sell our products. Funny how people generally don’t want to try chocolate at 7 AM. We also had to get creative with car battery operated coolers to keep the chocolate from melting!

Rob, Ashley, and Linden

Once Ashley got pregnant with Linden, it was time for a change. We moved into our Georgetown storefront, eliminating the travel element of our business and making things a little easier on our growing family. A year later, we decided to move to Alexandria for a better deal. Still an infant, Linden spent almost every day of her first ten months here, napping on shipping supplies and sucking chocolate off of the concrete floor while people were coming in and out of the store. Questionable parenting, I’m sure, but it’s not too bad to grow up in a chocolate shop!

What is your most popular item?
Our Salted Caramel. No doubt our most popular item and it actually put us on the map. Three years ago, the New York Times did a blind taste test of some of the best made chocolate in America; we came in top ten (which was awesome) and it changed everything! I spend a lot of time researching and sourcing high-quality natural ingredients and honing in on more efficient methods all to ensure top notch chocolates.

True to his words, the Salted Caramel sample I was given upon arrival was divine: an enticing balance between salt, sweet, and texture. As his sweet three-year-old, Linden, spills a bag of the precious Murray River Flake Salt, Robert sighs and thanks her for trying to help. He then clues me in that it’s probably the most expensive salt available, perfect for the delicate finishing sprinkles that just dissolve on your tongue. At that moment, I knew this was a chef who was serious about his ingredients.

Anything up your sleeve for Valentine’s Day?
Classics as always, but like most holidays we like to play around with themes (e.g. bourbon boxes, beer boxes). This Valentine’s Day, we’re featuring our Wine Bars – a flight of five chocolate bars specifically designed to pair with wines from all over. They are meticulously created to be smooth and pack a powerful flavor without chunks of fruits or spices throughout. For example (and the coolest in my opinion), the Strawberry & Black Truffle bar. We use freeze dried strawberry powder and mix it with a delicate balance of black truffle oil. The result is a super concentrated, massive flavor that is well-balanced and without the chunks to bite into. The Wine Bar flavors include Salted Citrus, Applewood Smoke, Black Truffle + Strawberry, Herbs de Provence, and Pink Peppercorn.

Wildflower Honey Caramels

One of Fluerir’s classic recipes, formulated here for the home kitchen.

450g sugar
275g wildflower honey
775g 40% heavy cream
2 tsp sea salt
350g 70% dark chocolate
125g soft butter
pan release

4 qt pot
silicone spatula
9x13” pan, greased
cutting board
chef’s knife
waxed paper

  1. Combine cream, sugar, honey, and salt into the pot. Stir over medium heat until all sugar and salt have dissolved.
  2. Bring caramel up to 232°F stirring regularly. Add butter and chocolate. Stir until completely melted and incorporated. Turn temperature down to medium-low.
  3. Bring mixture back up to 239°F being careful not to scorch the bottom.
  4. Pour caramel into the greased pan and allow to completely cool.
  5. Unmold caramel onto a greased cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares. Wrap each piece in waxed paper.

To order some sweets of your own, visit Fleurir online at fleurirchocolates.com.

Photography by Mike Lesnick

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