In 2005, the first Kansas City Chocolate Festival was held in Union Station. It was for a good cause (Friendship House and Catherine’s Place, supporting women in recovery), and it was about chocolate… what else did I need to know?
The event was completely overwhelmed. Every single table had a huge line that took many minutes to inch through; my kids were impatient immediately. When you DID make it up to a table, the crushing crowd behind you prevented you from asking any questions of the vendor or learning more about the products… you just grabbed your sample and scurried to the next long line. It was frustrating, crowded, hot, and generally not fun. We bailed quickly.
This year, I saw a call for volunteers go out for the third annual Chocolate Festival (I was out of town for #2). I decided that if I wanted to enjoy the fest, being a volunteer might be the way to do it. So I signed up, and got an e-mail letting me know I was going to be at the chocolate fountain from 11:30 to 3:30… kind of a long shift, I thought, but I could handle it. Besides, I was curious to see if they’d overcome their challenges.
The fest this year was at the Overland Park Convention Center. I arrived at 10am so I could scope out the fest before my shift. The parking lot was filling but not too crowded. Apparently there were several other events going on in the facility at the same time, but the signage was well done and I found the fest easily on the second floor.
The volunteer table was being manned by someone from Sprint (apparently Sprint employees took the entire first shift), and didn’t really know what I needed to do. She did give me a hand stamp so I could go in, and told me to come back at my shift time for details. No problem.
Several friendly folks met me at the entry, with smiles and a xeroxed program with a list of vendors, sponsors, demonstrations, and kid stage activities. There were several tables displaying a wonderful selection of raffle items, but since I’d been told as a volunteer NOT to bring a purse or backpack, I only had a credit card and my car keys in my pockets… and for some reason, the festival wasn’t taking credit cards for the raffle tickets! This was a sad thing… who knows how many hundreds of dollars they missed out on because they were insisting on cash?
The vendors were scattered in a strange layout across the room… no real traffic pattern could be discerned by me. This led to groups crashing into each other at intersections, with plenty of confused circling, collisions and messes (thankfully, many garbage cans were available for clean-up).
There were 30 vendors listed, and I’d say at least 20 were giving out some sort of goodie. Some were just jars of kisses, but others were gems: Bananas Foster candies from Christopher Elbow (who has recently moved to the 1800 block of McGee and now serves coffee and chocolate, along with selling his new bars and drinking chocolate mixes); Shatto Milk was serving all flavors (the root-beer milk really does taste just like a root beer float!); Krispy Kreme donuts and holes; coffee from Java House; Foo’s chocolate frozen custard; lots of couverture chocolate flavors to taste over at Chocolate Store (the honey was amazing!); Artisan Francais’ new line of truffles; chocolate pizzas from Amore.
There were chocolate sculptures on display, but I didn’t get a chance to investigate. There was a demonstration at 11am on making ganache that I wanted to see, so I headed over to the demo area. Turns out that they weren’t doing the scheduled ganache demo, but instead the 10am Chocolate Bag demo, by Domhnall Malloy from McCormick & Schmick’s.
Malloy was charming in spite of several challenges (“Last year, they had a mixer for me. Oh well!”). There was no hot plate for him to melt chocolate; that had to be found and set up on the rickety table (he finally got a volunteer to stand and hold the hot water pans so they wouldn’t tip over). He hand-beat the whipping cream, telling funny stories about making chocolate bags for the restaurant (on fragility: “We’re the professionals, and we make 100 bags for every 50 we serve. No big deal, though, because you can just recycle the broken ones”). Turns out the secret is to use wax-lined coffee bags; they peel right off. He gave out a recipe for the white chocolate mousse (copied below), and completed his demo with aplomb.
No announcement or sign that I could see saying why he was there and not the ganache demo, or whether that would be presented later. An updated schedule board would have been really nice.
Soon it was time to check in for my fountain duty. I went back to the table, and things were still pretty up in the air. I was told to just go to the fountain and relieve the person there; they would tell me what to do. I headed in towards one fountain; there were five people standing around. One mentioned that there was another one across the room, and I said I’d go check it out… they obviously didn’t need five people to run one little fountain!
Sure enough, there was fountain number two. And three… there were two going at this station. I relieved the person standing at the fountain, who was happy to hand over her apron (decorated by kids, I guess… lots of paint and glitter splashed all over it). The deal was to try to keep people from taking more than two items, because we were already running out of things at 11:30 am. Another volunteer took over at the head of the table, to pass out plates and napkins, so my job turned into helping folks at the fountain, fishing out lost bits of banana, that sort of thing.
You mostly had to keep an eye on the little guys, who would dip in a pretzel, lick it off and head back for seconds. One father actually got mad at me when I wouldn’t let his precious little girl share her saliva with everyone else, insisting that she hadn’t put it in her mouth despite the thread of spit leading from her pie-hole to the pretzel.
Still, the vast majority of folks were wonderful. I mean, they get to play with my little fountains, cascading rivers of milk chocolate! We had trays of sliced bananas, strawberries, marshmallows, thick pretzels and pineapple to choose from. Another volunteer brought by a pitcher of melted chocolate every 15 minutes or so, to replenish the depleted supply. We were able to keep the line moving at a pretty good pace, despite the crowd (and having another fountain station across the room helped a lot).
It was messy, that’s for certain. I quickly gave up trying to clean up the splatters and just left towels tucked around the base of the fountains to catch the worst of the drips. Nobody seemed to mind, though (if they were too squicked out, I guess they just passed on trying it).
Several folks asked what kind of chocolate we were serving. The chocolate pot person said “Belgian,” and I asked if there was a name on the box. She came back with “Choco,” but now I’m wondering if I’m remembering that right because I can’t Google anything like that name. Still, it was a decent chocolate: it didn’t harden up at all, even the drips, so it wasn’t a couverture. It wasn’t too sweet, either, just a mellow milky flavor to it.
We were right next to the kid’s stage, which seemed to have a bit of confusion as to whether it was a stage FOR children, or a stage to entertain children. It went from puppets to child dancers and singers. Fortunately, there were some other activities for kids going on, including a dunk tank and a fishing station.
After four solid hours on my feet at the fountain, my replacement showed up. I gave her my best slobber-avoidance maneuvers and headed on out. I checked back at the volunteer table, and got a quick “Thanks! Bye!” from the volunteer stationed there. I was a tiny bit disappointed that the volunteers didn’t get even a little thank-you note with a chocolate kiss or a little baggie of goodies… it would have been a kindness to be remembered.
But having hundreds of people grin in glee as they advanced towards the waterfall of chocolate at my station was worth it. I think I definitely had the best job at the festival! Other than Drooly’s dad, every single person I met was happy to see me, and that felt great, even when my feet got tired.
My take on the event: still crowded, but more manageable (more stations, event spread over more space, not so crowded… not so well-publicized?); needs better signage and traffic flow; should accept credit cards; could stand to space out volunteer times and acknowledge their volunteers a bit; a little confused and chaotic but generally a feeling of a good time to be had.
Thanks, Friendship House/Catherine’s Place! Hope you raised a few bucks for your cause, and that you continue improving and building on this wonderful event for next year!
McCormick & Schmick’s
White Chocolate Mousse
1 lb. white chocolate
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
1 oz vanilla
3 gelatin sheets
1 qt. heavy cream
Slowly melt chocolate over double boiler. Allow to cool slightly.
Temper eggs with chocolate (add a bit of the melted chocolate to the eggs first), add eggs to chocolate.
Soak gelatin sheets in ice water until softened. Melt sheets in warmed vanilla, add to chocolate.
Whip cream to soft peaks.
Pour chocolate mixture in cream, whip until stiff. Chill overnight.