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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Northwest Living
WRITTEN BY SALLY MACDONALD
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
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HomeSpun
Chocolate-drenched dreams are born in Fran Bigelow's cozy little kitchen
 
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A grand old Wolf range is the starting point for developing the flavors that have made Fran's Chocolates an icon in the candy-making world. Here Fran is experimenting with, among other things, chocolate-covered apricots and figs in a chocolate ganache.
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"ONE OF THESE days I'm going to have to remodel," Fran Bigelow says, scratching a fingernail at the crusty front burner on the gas range that hulks over her kitchen.

Why on earth would she want to do that?

Every dainty French truffle, every silky torte and chocolate-robed cherry cordial that helped make her a first-name-only icon among chocolate lovers was first attempted and then perfected in this homey, cheerful kitchen.

The first batch of every candy to come out of Fran's Chocolates, Ltd., Seattle's premier boutique chocolate shop, was first boiled in a copper pot on this behemoth of a range. The first puddle of every chocolate delicacy was tempered and cooled on the cracked marble slab atop the butcher-block island in the middle of the room.

Why would she even think of messing with that kind of success?

It's been 20 years since Bigelow founded Fran's Chocolates as a little dessert shop — eventually finding national recognition as an artisan with a production facility, a booming mail-order business and European-style chocolate salons in Seattle and Bellevue.

Everything about Fran's kitchen says this is a cook's domain — not just chocolates are born here, but elegant dinners and wonderful country-style soups, too.

The dowager queen is that Wolf range, with its six cast-iron burners and two ovens, encrusted with time. The butcher-block island shows scars from decades of slicing and dicing. A platoon of polished copper saucepans — including the first one Fran ever bought, in France — waits on a shelf to be called into service.
 
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In her home kitchen, Fran Bigelow plumbs the mysteries of chocolate and the splendor of flavors to complement it. On this day, a Blanc et Noir torte gets a coat of dark chocolate. On other days, Fran will create an entire meal for friends or family, demonstrating a breadth of culinary skills.
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"I've always loved to cook," Fran says. "Everything I do starts here." And now her fingers have moved to caress the fire-engine-red knobs on her cherished range. "It's 30 years old. It was one of the first commercial ranges for a home. People at that time were really getting into cooking. You got this thing because you wanted a real workhorse."

The range came with Fran and her husband, Peter, a retired hospital administrator, when they moved into their two-story, high-bank home 22 years ago. They'd bought it when they lived in San Francisco for 10 years before moving back home to Seattle, where both grew up. Fran, who graduated from the University of Washington with an accounting degree, had already settled on food — not figures — as her passion.

"I started by going through Julia Child in I guess about 1965," she says. "I went through every one of her cookbooks, making everything."

Later she signed up to study culinary arts under Josephine Araldo, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and at the California Culinary Academy.

"I love to cook, but I really always wanted to do desserts more than anything else," she says. "I always loved that part of the dinner. It's the thing people take away from a meal. It's what they remember."

Fran is the first to admit she's a perfectionist, not only when it comes to cooking food but serving it. It's what's made her chocolate business such an extension of herself, she says.

"I love to take someone else's recipe and make it my own, to change ingredients and proportions. You have some idea of a flavor you want to re-create and you work until you get it right."

"Some perfectionists have opinions," says Sean Seedlock, Fran's vice president of marketing. "She backs it up with work. It not only has to be the best dessert, though; it also has to be the best bouillabaisse, the best everything."

Seedlock remembers seeing Fran in the "Laboratoire du Chocolate," her business kitchen, trying to develop a dark-chocolate sauce flavored with cabernet.

"Watching her in the laboratory is like watching a scientist, adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that. There must have been 16 versions of that sauce before she got what she wanted. But I've also seen her walk out of here on a Friday night with a hunk of butter, some chocolate and cream to go home and play with different ingredients in her own kitchen all weekend. When she's at home it's really just her with one pan, one spoon. And then she comes back to the office on Monday with what she had in mind."

Fran's perfectionism doesn't stop at the kitchen door. A few years ago, the couple hired Peter Walton, an interior designer with David Weatherford Antiques and Interiors, in large part to make the living and dining rooms more comfortable for gatherings of family and friends.

"Everything then was done in dark woods and burgundies," Walton says. He installed French doors in the dining room to open it to a back patio and brought in a round table that seats eight in brocaded pink armchairs.

The Bigelows' son Dylan has been brought in to run the plant and take over some of the daily candy-making operations. He studied at the Culinary Institute at Greystone in California's Napa Valley and has worked at Scharfenberger, a quality roaster and blender of cacao beans. "So he knows what he's doing," Fran says.

She hopes turning over some of the business to Dylan gives her more time to work on a cookbook, she adds.

And perhaps to give that venerable old kitchen yet another couple of decades' experience.

Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.


Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

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