Clowning around?

Karl Wells
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Hardly. Bulgarian chocolate artists make Vault, and St. John's, home

They work together seamlessly. Scarce words are spoken between them. Each plays a specific role in creating the rainbow-coloured clown, a whimsical, universal symbol of mirth. Apart from a few knives and brushes, their main tools are their hands. Everything is shaped and applied by hand.

"My weakness is her strength, her weakness is my strength. We complete each other," he tells me, trying to explain why they work together so well. The hopeless romantic in me hears, "It's because we're in love." Even someone with a heart of coal could see it.

Vanya Velinova and Tony Velinov arrived in St. John's in March along with this happy fellow. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

They work together seamlessly. Scarce words are spoken between them. Each plays a specific role in creating the rainbow-coloured clown, a whimsical, universal symbol of mirth. Apart from a few knives and brushes, their main tools are their hands. Everything is shaped and applied by hand.

"My weakness is her strength, her weakness is my strength. We complete each other," he tells me, trying to explain why they work together so well. The hopeless romantic in me hears, "It's because we're in love." Even someone with a heart of coal could see it.

Tony Velinov, 29 and Vanya Velinova, 31, are from Sofia, Bulgaria. They are newly minted Newfoundlanders, having arrived in St. John's in March. Both are highly qualified pastry chefs (Tony's also a chocolatier) and both are permanently employed at Water Street's swank Vault Restaurant.

I knew nothing about the young couple until recently. While dining at the restaurant I was so stunned by the visual beauty of my dessert, I felt compelled to ask who had created it. The answer was, "Two chocolatiers who just moved here from Belgium, and, by the way, they don't speak English very well." I decided I had to meet them. Vault executive chef Gregory Bersinski agreed to be my interpreter.

Seduction

Belgium, known for its chocolate making, was indeed the last place Velinov and Velinova worked. Before that, they owned their own pastry shop in Sofia called, appropriately, Seduction. Their desserts are actually more than seductive. They should come with a warning label that reads, "Positively Irresistible."

A typical dessert by this creative couple might involve several forms of rich chocolate, possibly infused with the essence of a particular fruit; or, incredibly, it might be a chocolate creation made from a blending of other foods like Roquefort cheese and cocoa. Did you know that the Roquefort molecule and the chocolate molecule are almost identical? Tony knows this because he is a practitioner of molecular cooking (making a knowledge of food science work for you in the kitchen.)

Tony and Vanya's introduction to Canada has been much smoother than that of fellow Bulgarian Bersinski. When he landed at Gander 20 years ago aboard a Cubana Airlines plane, he was forced to create a diversion to escape the refueling aircraft. Once his feet hit the tarmac he literally ran like hell for the surrounding woods, terrified he might be dragged back aboard the plane and eventually thrown in jail for years in the former Soviet Union. For post "demise of Soviet Union" immigrants, it's been much less difficult.

Settling in

With support from Vault owners and staff, the couple has settled into their own apartment. They have started to learn English and are getting acquainted with Newfoundland culture. Adjusting to our weather has been a challenge but they love the pace and our landscape. Just the other day one of their co-workers took them on a sightseeing expedition for icebergs. They saw several and were utterly thrilled, never having seen anything like the springtime phenomenon before.

Sponsors, employers and the province in general are providing the duo with much, but they've brought a great deal here as well. The skills they possess are a rarity in these parts. I doubt if more than one or two others in the city can compete.

I watched as they spent a few hours using ingredients like sugar, chocolate, flour and cream to make a cake in the form of a standing clown. No shortcuts were taken. It was like watching artists in a studio creating a three-dimensional piece of art. They followed up by making one of their Vault desserts. Vanya filled a tiny pastry bag with melted dark chocolate. Using its fine nib as if it were a pen, she made the most elaborate, delicate design directly onto the surface of the white serving plate.

While Vanya was busy drawing her design, Tony was carefully assembling the various components of the dessert. He married a small disc of baked cake with what looked like one of firmed mousse. This disc sandwich was placed on a board and frosted around with a sugary cream concoction. Banana slices were sugared and caramelized using a blowtorch. The slices were next affixed like soldiers to the frosted sides of the disc sandwich. A chocolate lace collar that had been cooling in the fridge was then placed around the banana soldiers. On and on it went, until yet another work of art was created on the rectangular white plate.

Memorable cake

Tony told me that once, in Sofia, he and Vanya made a wedding cake for someone who insisted the cake had to match the interior of the reception hall, as well as her wedding dress. It was pink and white. This mother of all cakes had 150 different pieces and took 12 hours of non-stop work to decorate. Vanya nodded in agreement as Tony spoke. I could see that she was visualizing a memorable day of cake making. Bersinski suggested that if made in Canada the same cake would most likely cost approximately $1,000. (Don't panic. Their Vault desserts are much, much less expensive.)

I had had a memorable day of cake making as well. I'd been in the pastry corner of the restaurant's kitchen long enough to see the process from beginning to end. Tony Velinov and Vanya Velinova are culinary stars. Having them join Team Vault is the equivalent of having Sydney Crosby join your hockey team.

And yes, I did get to taste the cake and dessert. Everything was rich, smooth, crispy, soft, sweet, luscious, delicious and every other superlative you can think of. Let's hope this talented couple stays here for a long time. Should they ever leave, however, I'm confident all won't be lost. Before our interview ended they told me that they would be teaching co-workers how to do what they do. Whew! Thank goodness for that.

Venezuela makes the best milk chocolate

Costa Rica makes the best dark chocolate

Most Belgian chocolatiers prefer Costa Rican chocolate

If working with chocolate, room temp must never exceed 18 degrees

Chocolate must be stabilised through a method called "tempering"

To avoid marks, surgical gloves must be worn when shaping chocolate

Steady hands are important

Chocolate honey cake is Tony and Vanya's most popular creation




Tony and Vanya's Chocolate Factoids

Venezuela makes the best milk chocolate
Costa Rica makes the best dark chocolate
Most Belgian chocolatiers prefer Costa Rican chocolate
Room temp must never exceed 18 C
Chocolate must be stabilised through "tempering"
Surgical gloves are worn when shaping chocolate
Steady hands are important
Chocolate honey cake is Tony and Vanya's most popular creation

Organizations: Cubana Airlines

Geographic location: Sofia, St. John's, Belgium Bulgaria Water Street Canada Soviet Union Newfoundland Venezuela Costa Rica

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