Ask Matthew Shepherd how he came to own a jewel box chocolaterie in Hillsborough, where he makes glorious chocolates, and he will regale you with stories—stories from a Missouri coal-mining town to Vermont, then to Florida, and finally to Churton Street.
He'll add plenty of off-road adventures, from trouble with the Canadian border patrol at Niagara Falls (something about a bird), to a night spent during Hurricane Wilma in the closet of his condo, to a hospital stay for a collapsed lung, to ... wait, he was almost a professional bowler?
Well, fine dining wasn't a big thing in Louisiana, Mo., when Shepherd was growing up. "The fancy restaurant in my town was called The Feed Lot," he said. But bowling was a big thing. "I've been bowling since I was 6," he said. "I was either gonna go pro or go to culinary school."
Lucky for us chocoholics, he chose the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, where he spent one year. He didn't receive any formal chocolate training, but he impressed his instructors nonetheless.
"We never did any chocolate stuff," Shepherd said. "But whenever there was a side project to do with chocolate, [an instructor] would always give it to me to do. I could never figure out why."
Then he was off to Deerfield Beach, Fla., for an internship—a very challenging internship: "Day two, [the] pastry chef falls down the stairs and breaks her ankle, and I have the whole restaurant," he said. "It was trial by fire."
He never returned to school, even when he gave up cooking for a while. He indulged a long interest in scent: essential oils, incense and aromatherapy. "My nose is so sensitive," he said. "I had perfumers tell me that if the food thing didn't work out, that I could get a job as a professional smeller."
He eventually started an incense manufacturing company. "I couldn't find incense burners that I liked," he explained, "so I learned how to throw pottery on a wheel, so I bought a wheel and started throwing them, learned how to make molds so I could mass-produce them, all this kind of stuff."
He learned about layering fragrances—bass notes, mid note, top notes—and trained his nose to recognize, say, one sandalwood out of 100 samples. "Olfactory [sense] is like 85 percent of taste, but people leave that out of their cooking. They do," he said. "All the oils I was using were from all the herbs and things that I learned to cook with, so I knew the culinary side, and now I knew the fragrance side."
The incense company went under. "And then I worked for a guy who sold gold-plated jewelry," he said. "The whole thing just killed my soul, because it was not creative at all."
The chocolate was always there, just not his focus. He made truffles in his Vermont apartment once, and they were well received. He made a wedding cake for a 500 guests. He often gave trays of baked goods as Christmas gifts, but one year he gave chocolates instead. The recipients raved. The next Christmas, he sold $1,000 worth out of his Florida condo. The Christmas after that, he was open for business in Hillsborough. He visited a friend here once and decided it reminded him of his hometown.
So Matthew Shepherd's winding road to Churton Street has brought him an artist's eye, a champion nose and lots of business experience. He handed me a sample and concluded his tale. "Every little thing that I've done and learned in my life," he said, "is in that piece of chocolate."