In Focus: Lillie Belle Farms

If you’re new to Chocolate Connoisseur, or to the higher quality chocolate world in general, you may not yet realize just how unique a space the independent chocolate makers and chocolatiers of the world truly fill. Even if one maker uses the exact same cacao as another, you’ll find a difference in each maker’s chocolate, guaranteed. A not-so-subtle part of those important differences stem from the faces behind the cocoa… the people behind the chocolate… and the winding, twisting paths each person traversed on his or her journey to the wonderful world of cacao.

Today’s chocolatier takes that “not-so-subtle” part to near mercurial levels, and I’m happy to introduce you to the one and only Jeff Shepherd, founder of Lillie Belle Farms Handmade Chocolates. I say it all the time (and that’s not hyperbole), the best part about spearheading Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine is not the chocolate… it’s the people. Jeff accentuates that point to the nth degree. I may be right, he may be crazy, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. Let’s dive into what’s easily one of my all-time favorite In Focus interviews…

With a Massive Dose of Theobroma

Ask Jeff about his early days, and he won’t regale you with story after story about any chocolate-filled childhood wonders or obsessions. Jeff’s chocolate path started later in life, and as you’ll soon see, we wouldn’t want it any other way. His life before the Lillie Belle Farms days molded the man who now molds the chocolate, and in a nearly over-the-top way, one that obviously still genuinely translates into the magic he mixes together daily at the chocolate shop. I’m not the first person to urge Jeff to take a little time out of his hectic schedule to pen his life story – it’s a best seller in the making.

Part of that is simply because a little goes a long way with Jeff, and it all stems from one core principle he never directly mentioned when we talked, yet it clearly shined through in all our interaction – Jeff Shepherd follows his heart. No, he won’t share any enlightening childhood chocolate anecdotes, like many other great chocolate artisans hold close in memory, but he will share one –

“I, of course, have no real memory of this, but my mother says she ate a whole bag of chocolate chips the night she went into labor with me in 1962. So more than likely I burst screaming into the world with a massive dose of theobroma coursing through my tiny body.”

A chocolate binge, a theobroma birth, and see what I mean? Few words, yet a memory you’re not soon to forget…

Take You Back

The other key cog in Jeff’s machine? A deep love of music that somehow, almost supernaturally, permeates into and winds itself all around, inside and out of his chocolate aspirations at Lillie Belle Farms. It’s everywhere, and I don’t simply mean in the chocolate bar titles.

Yes, the music, or as Jeff asks when expanding on one of my multiple music-related questions, “oops…too hippie?” Yeah, and by the way, he wanted to be an actor. So how the hell did this California kid, with an early passion for acting, wind up an ace farmer and chocolatier up in Oregon, with such a strong focus on music? Let’s take it back to the beginning. Jeff grew up in Los Angeles, and its “surrounding bedroom community environs in the 60’s and 70’s,” an area now known formally as Santa Clarita, or as he puts it, “you know, urban blight.” The fun California lifestyle of that time period definitely made its mark –

“It wasn’t unusual to drive to the mountains in the morning, play in the snow and be at the beach before sundown to body surf…”

Jeff refers to it as “the typical middle class upbringing,” but don’t let him fool you. There were early signs pointing to a very unique path, starting with Jeff’s acceptance, circa 1980, to Cal Arts. At the time, he was the only local student accepted to the ultra prestigious art school.

Jeff Shepherd – Lillie Belle Farms Chocolates

Like Julliard, the only way into a department, be it film, music, theater, etc., was via an outstanding portfolio or audition. He attended as a theater major, and considering the vast amount of Academy Award-winning talent spawned from Cal Arts (including the legendary Tim Burton), it’s a wonder we’re not writing about a different chocolatier in Chocolate Connoisseur this month, whilst Jeff instead appears in Entertainment Weekly.

“Eclectic and weird to say the least. I loved it.”

The First Chocolate Detour

His agent at the time encouraged a move to LA proper, so Jeff could be closer to casting calls, private classes, etc. So Jeff made the move, and then took a night gig as a sous chef apprentice in a tiny-but-oh-so-fancy Italian restaurant, at the ripe old age of nineteen. Fancy or not, the restaurant owner had zero budget, so he strongly encouraged creativity in the kitchen. He did, however, pony up just enough to pay for a few cooking classes at Ma Maison with some, at the time unknown, local chefs. You might know two of them now, however, as they both found just a wee bit more fame years later – Wolfgang Puck and Patrick Terrail.

To think, Jeff started as a Theater major at Cal Arts…

Wolfgang ran the pastry chef side, and actually taught Jeff his first flourless cake recipe. Apparently training with Wolfgang “Who the Heck is That Guy” Puck paid off, as Jeff soon found himself in charge of the restaurant’s dessert tray. He created a delightful chocolate mousse that became a big hit. Cue the detour –

“In fact everything we did with chocolate was a best seller. I was written up in the LA Times food section for my desserts at age 20. I was smitten with fine food at that point and was getting more press for my food chops than my acting abilities, so I dove head first into a life of fine dining.”

Ahh, the twists and turns, and believe me, we’re just getting started.

The Grateful Living

If you’ve seen almost anything made by Lillie Belle Farms, you likely know already that Jeff holds a healthy obsession for the Grateful Dead. He grew up in a perfect time and place for it, and he’s fed (pun so intended) that obsession nearly every step of the way ever since. He kept working in the Los Angeles cooking world throughout the 1980s, but he also started a little tie dye t-shirt company that helped give a little extra fiscal boost, while simultaneously feeding the Grateful Dead fever. Indeed, from circa 1988 to 1990, Jeff would even follow the Grateful Dead on any of their west coast tour legs, carting a giant treasure trove of tie dye t-shirts with him to sell at each show.

“It wasn’t unusual to show up for a three day show… I remember showing up at Laguna Seca on a Friday with fifty dollars in my pocket and a truck full of tie dye, and I left Monday morning with ten thousand dollars in my pocket.”

Bet you didn’t know how well it paid to be a Grateful Dead fan?

Shelter from the Storm

At the end of 1991, one of his old bosses from the early eighties called with an offer to move to Hawaii and become a chef and general manager at his restaurant in Kauaʻi. Jeff accepted and headed off to the gorgeous island, but his adventure in paradise didn’t develop quite as planned. Jeff actually proposed to his girlfriend Belle just a few nights before the hurricane hit. Turns out they both love the water, and they had an opportunity to help a friend sail his boat back to Honolulu. It turned into the roughest ocean passage Jeff ever endured.

Everyone on the boat except the captain, Belle, and himself were horribly seasick from the brutal conditions. Jeff and Belle took the night shift, and with Jeff at the helm, eighteen to twenty foot waves and thirty knot winds pummeled the boat. Finally, as they neared Oahu right at sunrise, the winds started to die down a bit. Belle took that opportunity to head to the front of the sailboat and egg mother nature on for the challenge. Jeff remembers vividly –

“This beautiful woman that I was dating, using the lifelines clipped along the edge of the sailboat all the way up… to the front of the sailboat, she clipped herself in and she was standing up there as the sailboat rose and fell with these giant waves just shooting spray all the way up and down… she was just wahooing and yelling, telling mother nature to bring it on. I remember looking at her as the sun was coming up and I thought wow, I so need to marry this woman…”

When the boat finally reached the harbor, Jeff asked her to marry him –

“I told her not to answer me right away, I just wanted her to think about it…”

A little over a month later, on Jeff’s birthday, Belle gave him a handwritten birthday card with the word “Yes” on all four sides. As Jeff tells it –

“Of course when I opened the card it took me a minute, ’cause I’m an idiot!”

The accidental pause mattered little, however, and Jeff and Belle set a tentative date for the following June, about nine months later. They then decided to celebrate their engagement with a weekend alone, away from the world, spending two days sequestered in the resort where Jeff worked the restaurant gig.

When they finally returned to the world after that two-day hiatus, on September 11th, 1992, the devastating Hurricane Iniki was bearing down on Kaua’i, about to jolt their Hawaiian lives and send them both down yet another path filled with surprises. The hurricane hit Kauaʻi with category 4 strength. It destroyed or damaged over six thousand houses, knocked out power for much of the island, and essentially leveled the resort and restaurant where Jeff worked.

As you might imagine, that put a slight damper on his chef gig. With no job indefinitely and no power for what turned out to be two entire months, the newly engaged couple had picked a less than ideal time for a relocation and subsequent engagement. After the storms all passed, the resort’s general manager offered some encouragement, telling Jeff, “If you can stay on this island for the next nine months, you two will stay together forever!”

Hurricane Iniki nearly obliterated the famed “Tree Tunnel” on Kauai

Not to worry, as neither Jeff nor Belle planned to shy away from the challenge or even think of leaving Hawaii after just nine months. As Jeff recounts, they stepped up to the plate, big time –

“I pounded nails for a year… did drywall and painting and rebuilt condos… I saved a bunch of money and Belle and I bought this building that was a one hundred year old ex-Buddhist temple that was being run as a bed and breakfast.”

The oldest Buddhist mission on the island to be exact, and Jeff and Belle turned the beautiful building into the only “Dead and Breakfast” in Hawaii, catering to backpackers and tourists. Jeff’s stable chef gig at a Hawaiian resort instead morphed into a wild and crazy five years, where he also worked as program director for a radio station, ran a small catering company on the side, and even worked part time with a tuna fisherman…

A Barn at Lillie Belle Farms

Belle Goes to Washington

Meanwhile, Belle worked in public health and really wanted to study for a masters degree in that same discipline. After three years of unsuccessfully applying to he University of Hawaii (nonsensical, as she already worked for the health department on Kauaʻi), she set her sights on another school – the University of Washington, Seattle. In 2000, that university accepted her into their extension program, which meant she only needed to be in Seattle for a few weeks each year, but Jeff and Belle both longed for more breathing room than Hawaii could offer.

“Living on a postage stamp of land for a decade had me wanting some space so I set out looking for a couple acres to call home with an outbuilding for art and whatnot. We found this run down berry farm in Jacksonville Oregon and bought it.”

That turned out to be Jeff’s first finite, if inadvertent, step towards a chocolatier career, now unknowingly just around the corner. The couple sold their house, sold the bed and breakfast, packed everything up, and headed back to the mainland with their two-year old daughter, Lillie, in tow.

From Gentleman Farmer to Mad Chocolate Scientist

Belle’s family lived in Ashland, Oregon, hence the location, While Belle worked on her masters degree, Jeff stepped into the role of gentleman farmer. He replaced the fields, put in irrigation, and essentially revamped the land, creating an incredibly abundant organic berry farm in the process.

“I spent grueling days digging up and replanting thousands of berry canes and plowed up fields and terraces to put in strawberries and blueberries and marionberries and plums and just all kinds o’fruit. I dug irrigation lines and really went for it. It was so physical and rewarding when harvest finally came and we were pulling 30-40 flats of berries a day off the farm. Being a chef I had to do something with all the fruit so I started making jams and preserves and created a name, Lillie Belle Farms. We sold the jams and preserves at farmers markets.”

Deep in the heart of Jeff’s organic raspberry farm. So many berries…

In 2002, wondering what else he could with all those dang raspberries, since jams and preserves weren’t exactly cost effective, Jeff finally opened the chocolate floodgates –

“Knowing full well after twenty-plus years in the biz that chocolate desserts were the one thing never, ever sent back to the kitchen, I set out to make raspberry and strawberry truffles. We started doing that and selling them at the farmers markets. I then just kinda went insane. I bought a small temperer and went to town to teach myself the art of fine chocolates. I bought stuff from all over the world and dissected the flavors, techniques and styles, and re-created them as best I could… I just never stopped. I am still experimenting and trying to make the perfect piece. I will never, ever get there.”

Fate Goes Rogue

Why did he never stop? Because no one would let him! Jeff’s chocolates quickly caught on, and the business clearly needed to grow (I swear these puns aren’t intentional) beyond the farm. I ask Jeff how he launched the full throttle chocolate business, and as always, he honestly replies, “Well… launch is a strong word. Stumble is more like it.” At the time, he sold rough hand-dipped truffles in zip lock bags out of a cooler at the farmers markets, not exactly the greatest business model… and sitting on an ice chest in a one hundred degree parking lot… not exactly the greatest marketing tool either.

“But I would gladly set down my guitar and hand samples out to anyone who asked. People really liked them.”

One day, some happy customers approached him at the market. They absolutely loved the chocolates, and asked Jeff if he’d consider selling wholesale. Turns out they just purchased a small creamery across town and were about to revamp the place into what became known as the Rogue Creamery. How did that fateful day turn out?

Rogue Creamery’s Famous Blue Cheeses

“The space I’m in now, and have been for the last ten years, is owned by Rogue Creamery. My shop shares a parking lot with them. They were the ones who encouraged me to take it further. I will always be appreciative of that. They actually gave me an architect to work with to design what was, at the time, my dream kitchen.

Six months of rebuilding this old beast transformed it into what it is today; a major tourist attraction in the Rogue Valley. A must see visitor destination recommended by the state of Oregon. Who knew I would become a tourist attraction?”

Heigh Ho the “Dairy”-O, the Farmer ‘n the Belle

Rogue Creamery also became Lillie Belle’s first wholesale customer, fully encouraging Jeff to pursue the chocolate line. As he tells it –

“I then went all in and tried to create a fancy box of chocolates. There is something so satisfying and intriguing about opening a box of chocolates. The shapes, the flavors, and different combinations of great ingredients were something I just wanted to perfect. Of course I had no idea how to do that so I just up and did it.

I experimented like crazy. I bought chocolates from every maker in Europe and beyond. I dissected. I purloined. I got fat. But eventually I understood tempering and center construction and the science behind making good confections.”

Yes, Jeff taught himself the chocolate trade. As he says, “For better or worse, it’s all my fault for never listening to anyone about anything… I just plow ahead with my own vision of what chocolate should be, which is fun.”

Smokey Blue Cheese Truffle Spread