Neely Cohen may not quite be Willy Wonka, but she’s as close to my lifelong fictional idol as possible. Last year Neely won the Food Network’s “Sweet Genius” dessert-making competition show and is now planning the opening of a chocolate factory and café in New Hampshire. This genuine young entrepreneur is as passionate about the chocolate-making process as Willy Wonka is about making candy (and she’s sweet as both!). Neely grew up in the adorable town of Peterborough, N.H., calls Israel a second home, and is dedicated to sharing the rich South American chocolate tradition with an American audience.
When I recently set foot in her not-yet-finished shop, this ray of sunshine couldn’t have greeted me more warmly. After being introduced to her father, who was helping to get the hand-painted Vicuña Chocolate Factory Café sign prepped to don the awning of this former ‘60s hair salon, Neely proudly gave me the royal tour of her new space. Every aspect of the space and business has her stamp and love, including the gorgeous old counter that she “got for really cheap, but took a lot of love to make look so good,” her own black-and-white photos of South American chocolate farmers hung elegantly in an antique wooden ladder, and her impressive variety of chocolate-making machinery, some of it homemade and some purchased from Craigslist.
Per her vision, the shop reflects a “classy on a budget” style and incorporates pieces from around the small town she grew up in, things she’s picked up on her travels in South America, and many components she has cleverly rigged herself.
Neely plans to start simply with just five top-notch chocolate bars, consisting of nothing but house-roasted and worked cocoa beans, sugar and, in the case of the flavored bars, just one other ingredient. Her goal is to share her passion about the true essence of chocolate with the masses and teach people what it’s really about. A hand-painted and designed chalkboard will feature the chocolate-making process, and while sitting at tables in the café, you’ll even be able to watch the magic happen through a large glass window, all designed by Neely after ripping out an excess of blue carpet that covered all surfaces of this former salon.
And what’s better than chocolate for Tu B’Av, the upcoming Jewish holiday of love, aka the Jewish Valentine’s Day? Well, since you can’t buy her chocolate bars just yet, Neely taught me about a unique chocolate treat that’s ideal for the holiday, which begins Sunday, Aug. 10—cacao husk tea. Steep the outer husk of cacao beans in hot water and you’re left with aromatic chocolaty tea that’s full of antioxidants.