Name and age: Nichelle Patel, 34.
Education: Bachelor's degree in biomedical sciences from Nottingham University, England.
Family: Husband Divyes Patel, children Shaylan and Shreeya.
Chef you aspire to be like: A combination of "Mr. Chocolate," Jacques Torres, and the "Cake Boss," Buddy Valastro.
People would be surprised to know: I am called by my customers "The Chocolate Chick from Chattanooga."
Most difficult thing she's made in chocolate: Over 500 high-heel shoes, size 6 1/2, handmade within seven days.
For eight years Nichelle Patel worked as a biochemist at a nationally known, local consumer-goods company formulating dietary supplements and managing a consumer-relations group.
She left the lab three years ago when she made the decision to be a stay-at-home mom with her two young children.
But within three months, she was formulating a second career in chocolate.
This self-taught chocolatier and baker began with simple chocolate treats, expanded into custom designs, then found a market for them, which led to the creation of her cottage industry, The Chocolate Box.
Her success in artisanal chocolate led to an invitation to participate in a class with Buddy Valastro, better known as the "Cake Boss" on the TLC network. Patel will travel to Valastro's Cake Factory in Jersey City, N.J., for the workshop later this month.
The chemist had never worked with chocolate, she said, nor was she a baker. She made her first candy, suckers, by melting chocolate wafers in a double-boiler and pouring the liquid into molds. That elementary candy-making was the first in a variety of novelty
creations she molded from chocolate. Patel said she now loves the challenge of custom chocolate work.
Two years ago, a mutual friend introduced her to Patti Taylor. Taylor had operated The Cake Boutique for three years.
"I liked her attitude, her professionalism," said Taylor, who soon invited Patel to join her at The Cake Boutique.
Taylor said she saw how their companies could complement each other and their partnership be mutually beneficial.
"People who want cake, such as brides, often want favors, such as little chocolate boxes, for their weddings," Taylor explained.
For Patel, the bakery was a ready source for cake to make the trendy cake pops.
Although each woman has maintained her own business, Taylor said the partnership already has produced a noticeable growth, almost doubling business.
Patel tells how she developed her artisanal chocolates then got out the word about her talent.
Q: How did you get started making chocolate?
A: I left my job in September 2009. During November and December, I began working with chocolate at home starting with a kit I bought from Hobby Lobby. The first thing I made were ladybug lollipops for my daughter's birthday.
A friend suggested I sell my work. To test the market, I made 20 houses similar to gingerbread houses only made all of chocolate. I took them to a Christmas show and sold all of them for $20 each, and people were asking me for more.
During 2010, I began having people ask for chocolate made into cars, ducks for baby showers and more. Soon I was taking orders for bridal and baby showers, birthdays and parties.
Q: What type of things do you make at The Chocolate Box?
A: Chocolate shoes, numbers, letters, monograms, birds, carousels, horses and champagne bottles molded entirely in chocolate. We do chocolate-covered fruit arrangements, chocolate truffles and cookie arrangements. We specialize in custom creations for cake pops, and we are working on cheesecake pops and savory pops.
Q: You said you had no experience; how did you learn the art?
A: I was never a baker or a chocolate-maker. I am self-taught. I am not a chef by education but by experience. I have been taking a number of classes and attending events and seminars to learn more.
Q: Is the class with Buddy Valastro part of his "Next Great Baker" reality show?
A: No, this two-day class is separate. The classes are available to those who apply. However, it is very difficult to get placed. I have an obligation to pay to travel, for my hotel and class fees. However, the trip is a priceless experience."
Q: Other than at The Cake Boutique on East Brainerd Road, where can Chattanoogans see your work?
A: We will be participating in Chocolate Fling on April 29 at Pier 2, which benefits the Epilepsy Foundation.