Antoinette Little is putting the finishing touch on a batch of her best-selling truffles, dotting chocolate ganache with a speck of edible, 23-karat gold. She calls these candies Mollys — after her mom.
"This was the very first chocolate I made," Little, 62, says. "I topped it with gold, because my mom was such a jewel to me."
Little financed her culinary school training with the money she inherited from her mother, and her shop, Antoinette Chocolatier in Phillipsburg, N.J., is full of personal tributes to her mom, who was a Hungarian immigrant. "I have her picture in the kitchen," Little says. "She watches me cook."
As a single mother of three, Little's priority used to be supporting her daughters. She worked tirelessly to put them through school, beginning as a part-time secretary and, over two decades, working her way up to the director of administration at a law firm. But this achievement took its toll: for the last five years of her career, she was working 70 to 80 hours a week.
A decade ago, Little was hospitalized with chest pains and diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart. The doctor's orders were clear: if she didn't stop working like that, she'd die. Little says the doctor first broke the news to her family, "because if he told just me, I wouldn't have quit." Her family, though, made certain that she did — immediately.
But even after such a blunt warning, Little was reluctant to give it all up. "I worked so hard to get to this job," she recalls. "I loved the people, I loved being there. Loved what I'd accomplished."
It didn't help that life at home wasn't particularly exciting. Little felt lethargic — like she'd gone from 60 to zero in an instant — and she missed the daily feeling of accomplishment she'd come to take for granted. "When you go from a position of authority and then all of a sudden, you're doing nothing …" She trails off. "I was like, ‘what's next?'"
Sensing her unhappiness, Little's second husband, Joe, took her on a trip to New York and made sure to walk her by the French Culinary Institute. What she thought had been a spontaneous day trip was actually Joe's plan to help get Little back on her feet. "He knew exactly what he was doing," she laughs. He knew she'd always found baking relaxing and therapeutic. By the end of the day, she was enrolled in a pastry-making program.
Little was shocked when she began showing up for class. The other students — and even some of the instructors — were, as she puts it, "babies." At first, her age made her self-conscious. "There I was with my little case and books, breathing hard, walking up two flights of stairs and all these kids are just running by me", she recalls. But she soon realized that she brought something to the group that no one else did. "My life experience added a lot," she says. "I became the mother of the group. I would turn around and say, are you smoking? That's not good for you. Stop that. Don't go out drinking tonight, go home," she laughs. "My classmates and I became very close by the end of it."
While at culinary school, Little developed a love of chocolate. "Working with it is almost a Zen feeling," she says. "It's warm, it's silky, it's just soothing." But could she make a living working in the culinary field? Little once again found inspiration from her family. She had fond memories of the small Italian grocery store that her father owned when she was growing up. She thought of him chatting with customers and making his own hours; it was a far cry from the atmosphere of the law firm. It sparked something in her — she decided to open a chocolate shop.
She and Joe scouted the area for the perfect location. They finally settled on Phillipsburg, a former railway town looking to build its Main Street back up — and thus offering alluring tax incentives to new businesses. The property that Little purchased was a fixer-upper, to say the least. It took her and Joe nearly eight months to get it into shape (they did much of the construction themselves), but in October 2007, Antoinette Chocolatier opened its doors.
Little takes care of every aspect of the business (with some help from Joe, of course.) But she certainly has the built-in work ethic to manage the chores. "I always give 120 percent to whatever I'm doing," she says. "It's just something in me."
But if she ever needs an extra hand, she knows she can always get help from her family: her daughters and sisters have been known to drive to the shop and help out at a moment's notice.
"My mom was always saying to us, her daughters: you can be anything you want to be. Just work hard." Little's been heeding that advice all her life — and now she's finally reaping the sweet rewards.
Lindsay Zoladz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.