Few chocolatiers sell their chocolate bars as “canvases.” But, then again, few chocolatiers worked as painters before getting into the game. Karen Urbanek, owner of Berkeley’s Flying Noir chocolate, might be the only one in the Bay Area who cut her teeth as a full-time visual artist. But now, while some artists paint portraits of their favorite restaurants and cafes, Urbanek creates edible paintings on the same confections she makes to eat. “I put chocolates together by composition, just as I would a painting,” Urbanek says.
It’s all about textures, tastes, and colors — then, those creations are arranged in a box, banded together by an original painting by Urbanek. That presentation is just as important as the chocolate itself, the flavors of which include tea-infused oolong and pu’erh bonbons and truffles laden with Aleppo chiles and pistachios. The colors on the chocolates are natural dyes; mica mineral-based colors give the bonbons a metallic sheen that can also serve to extend the shelf life of the sweets. Urbanek is an expert in natural dyes from her days working as an artist in Mendocino, and that level of craft and nuance is reflected in the creations themselves. “I like the chocolates to go through a succession in taste as they sit on your tongue,” Urbanek says.
Urbanek is no stranger to local chocolate-making. She just got back from a swanky fundraiser in St. Helena at the beginning of November, where numerous Bay Area businesses set up stands to generate money for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals. Fellow Bay Area chocolatiers Socola, Cocotutti, and Jade Chocolates all worked the floor alongside Urbanek. She’s been quietly working for a while now, though she got her flowers and once ranked the number one chocolate option in the country by Forbes. “I’m not the new kid on the block anymore,” Urbanek says. “But I set my course in the beginning to have my creativity and art in the chocolate.”
She makes her creations out of chef Angela Pinkerton’s Pie Society kitchen at 2533 Seventh Street in Berkeley, a relationship built out of overlap at a pop-up event in the East Bay. Similarly, Urbanek built relationships with chocolate producers and buyers from around the world for her small business: she gets chocolate from Jenny Samaniego’s Conexion in Ecuador and Dick Taylor’s Maya Mountain Coop in Belize to name a few. It’s a one-person show, though friends help out here and there; at the Golden Gate Fair Building’s Chocolate Salon, Urbanek and her assisting friend Leah Vass were nicknamed “the ladies in the black berets.”
The entrepreneur started the business when she turned 60 years old, then a painter living in Mendocino. That was a fine way to pay the bills until the recession hit. “The art market just fell apart,” Urbanek says. She’d always made bonbons for her openings, and decided she could give that a go full-time. It took a few years of solid practice until she felt like she was any good at it; she completed online classes from Ecole Chocolat just like East Bay contemporary Daniel Korson at Coracao. And working as a woman in a male-dominated industry — and an older person at that — means she can get ignored within the chocolate industry at times. She says she doesn’t feel like she’s experienced as much difficulty as some, but she admits she tends to stay focused and deflect any potential difficulties. “I’m kind of invisible a lot of the time,” Urbanek says. “I overheard at one of the chocolate salons someone saying ‘it’s good to see a little bit of cleavage.’ But I want the chocolate to speak for me.”
Catch Urbanek painting chocolates at Pie Society (2533 7th Street, Berkeley) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week until the holidays are through, and her hours will change. You can order your chocolate online to arrange a time for pick-up, too.