“The past is not dead. In fact it’s not even the past.”
“I never thought I was going to get into cooking,” says Sophia Contreras Rea with a smile. “It never occurred to me. I loved to eat, loved art and travel, and loved foreign languages and cultures. But it wasn’t until I was thirty that I discovered that I really loved cooking, too. It was a natural way to bring them all together.”
Though Rea was surprised by her late-blooming passion, it makes perfect sense when you look at her background. She hails from generations of storied restauranteurs. Her grandfather came over from Greece in the 1930s and ran a popular ice cream cart in Santa Fe before opening a restaurant with her grandmother on the fabled Route 66. Her cousin has directed the top-rated Santa Fe Farmer’s Market. Her uncle introduced the first breakfast burrito thirty-some years ago, and at one point her uncle, aunt, and mother had three of the top-rated restaurants in Santa Fe. Indeed, the family’s restaurants have connections that run all the way to the White House.
While Sophia had worked in those restaurants from a young age and knew her way around the kitchen, it wasn’t until the late ’90s that she made the leap into the culinary world. She recalls, “I started my own business in Nashville, and worked as a private chef for people behind the scenes in the music industry. I built up a really good business, and in 2000, I got a call from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s assistant, saying they were interested in a full-time chef.
“I didn’t know who they were,” Rea laughs. “But that was a big move for me, and it ended up being a great experience. I cooked for them for four and a half years.”
After her time with Tim and Faith, Rea went on to cook for other country artists and music executives, as well as many prominent families and businesses in Nashville. She also got married and had a son. In the middle of her busy life, Rea started to dream and brainstorm about a new direction for her career.
“I had been doing these intimate dinner parties,” she says, “and that led to the idea of private chocolate tastings. I wanted to celebrate the pleasures of really tasting chocolate, not just eating it.” Rea pinpoints her deep interest in chocolate to a specific childhood moment. “In the early 80s, my stepmother took me to a Chocolate Festival in southern California,” she says. “Remember, this was a time when people were just becoming aware of things like sushi and quesadillas. I go to this festival and they’re dipping French bread in French chocolate. We’re not talking Hershey’s. It was the real deal. Back then, the only nice chocolate you’d ever get were things like See’s and Whitman’s. That was the context then, so being exposed to this was the most amazing thing ever for me.
“Then in college, I was in a Latin American Studies class, and we got into the Aztecs and what an important role chocolate played in their history,” she continues. “I eventually traveled all over Europe, sampling chocolate in places like Spain and France and Austria. Later, after I’d worked for Tim and Faith, I went to Guatemala, the heart of where chocolate comes from. So all these various things made an impression
and stayed with me.”
Rea’s private chocolate tastings coincided with a rising awareness
of the Slow Food Movement.
“Chocolate is more complex than most know,” she says. “And my goal was, and is, to teach people how to slow down, understand where chocolate really comes from. This is not some piece of candy just to devour. Sometimes, with chocolate, there’s this whole thing of deny, deny, deny then gorge, gorge, gorge. I think there’s an in-between where you have a really fine bar and take the time to enjoy it — you don’t have to gorge to be satisfied. When I do my tastings, this is the number one comment I get. A lot of people come because they love chocolate, and think they’re going to stuff themselves. But then, because they slow down and really taste what they have, they find they’re completely satisfied with small amounts. Their appreciation is so much deeper.”
In 2013, the chocolate tastings inspired Rea to start Projet Chocolat, a company devoted to, in her words, “elevating the culture and enjoyment of chocolate.” With Projet’s flagship product Les Arômes du Chocolat, an elegantly-designed chocolate aromatics kit, as well as Chocolate Storage Envelopes and Chocolate Tasting Papers, Rea feels like she has found her niche in the culinary world. Better yet, she says she’s found her professional family, combining talents with extraordinary friends and a wonderful cue of fine artisans and craftsman ready to bring forward a line of beautiful products. “I think people are really ready to discover the nuances of fine chocolate now, and even to change the way we buy and keep it,” she says. “There’s joy in chocolate. What could be better than to bring joy, happiness, something wonderful, something beautiful into people’s lives? We have enough going on in this world where it’s critical and negative, and sometimes we need to be reminded that there’s beauty in this life, whether it’s through music or art or food. That’s where I’m coming from with Projet Chocolat. That’s my goal.”
- Bill Demain, journalist and contributor to publications such as MOJO, Classic Rock and Entertainment Weekly