Sweet success: With a perfectionist’s precision, she crafts magnificent molded chocolate morsels

Melissa Coppel at her Las Vegas chocolate and pastry school. Photo by K.M. Cannon
Melissa Coppel at her Las Vegas chocolate and pastry school

In the waning hours of the three-day Intensive Chocolate Workshop held recently at the Melissa Coppel Chocolate and Pastry School, the instructor and several students huddled over long, narrow chocolates. They were seemingly flawless, shiny, sable-brown bars with a rich mottled color.
But there were tiny imperfections, which only a practiced eye could spot. Slim, dark bands lining the edges of the bars’ bases faded slightly in a few spots, which Coppel explained meant the amount of cocoa butter in the formulation was a little off. Spotting it didn’t require a microscope, but almost.
“I’m super-picky,” she said. “I know what I want and how I want it.”
“She’s an absolute perfectionist,” said Benoit Cornet, executive chef for Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, who worked with Coppel at Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand.
It’s that attention to — even obsession with — detail that propelled Coppel, 38, from Cali, Colombia, to rock stardom in the chocolate and pastry world. And her business is run from a medical and office complex tucked away at The Lakes in Las Vegas.
Coppel’s fame among aspiring chocolatiers continues to mystify her. When students proclaim, “We can’t believe we’re meeting you!” she does a double-take: “Me?”
It’s been a long, winding path. Nowadays, she says, it’s not unusual to hear someone say they want to become a chef, but that wasn’t the case when and where she grew up. She learned from her parents — both good cooks — and knew that was the profession she wanted to pursue, but there were no culinary programs in Cali. Her mother found a hotel-tourism program with one cooking class, so she enrolled. An internship took her to Bogota for a pastry position, which was not what she had in mind, but she soon warmed to the idea. “I think it’s better to whip cream and chop chocolate instead of peeling shrimp all day,” she said.
Back in Cali, Coppel began teaching housewives to cook so she could earn money to further her education in Argentina’s pastry schools. “I just had it in me,” she said of the desire to be a chef, “because I didn’t have much training.”
Coppel, who lived with her grandmother, was parked in front of the TV every afternoon at 1:30, tuned to “El Gourmet” an Argentine channel. She took notes, then her grandmother would buy the ingredients, and Coppel would make it. When she had earned enough money, she was off to Argentina and pastry school. And then it was back to Cali. On a trip to Chicago to visit her cousin, Melissa (then Gomez) was introduced to one of her cousin’s best friends, Alain Coppel, and they hit it off. A three-year, long-distance relationship followed, and then she moved to Chicago to marry him.
He encouraged her to further her education, so she enrolled in the French Pastry School there. Alain, a physician, found a job in Las Vegas in 2006. When Melissa told her instructors she was moving, one of them recommended her for a position at what he called the best restaurant in the world: Joel Robuchon.
“I arrived to Vegas with already a job,” Coppel said. Her husband kept encouraging her, suggesting she use the salary earned during two years at Robuchon to attend more classes at the French Pastry School. Work at Robuchon was followed by shorter stints at Caesars Palace and Bellagio.
She quit after becoming pregnant with daughter, Alaia, now 8. When Alaia was 1, Coppel and a partner opened a chocolate wholesale business.
Along the way, she continually experimented. Her instruction in chocolate-making had been somewhat rudimentary, and she saw a challenge.
“I looked at molded pieces. How can I transform it into something?” she wondered. “It’s been done for years the same way. How boring is this? I started incorporating all these elements of pastry.”
The result was her jewel-like bonbons, each containing a tiny dessert such as apple tart or cheesecake, enrobed in a chocolate shell.
“It really tastes like cheesecake, with the different elements,” she said.
Coppel opened a school in a small spot at Charleston Boulevard and Rancho Drive, followed two years ago with the larger space on West Sahara Avenue. It’s not easy to find — with modest lettering on the door — but students from all over the world manage to get there. At the school, she’s part cook, part artist, part chemist and part teacher.
She holds an average of one class a month for professionals (enthusiasts can join if they know how to temper chocolate) at the school on such topics as “Spray Boot Camp” and “Running a Chocolate Production,” sometimes bringing in guest chefs. Soon she will offer some three-hour classes for non-professionals. Coppel also teaches in foreign countries; this year she’s been to Japan, Singapore and Scotland.
“I’m the only woman in the world who travels, doing chocolate,” she said.
It’s that networking that has made her famous among aspiring chocolatiers — that and her social-media accounts, where students see revolutionary designs.
“Melissa’s a pioneer,” said Evin Breton, a New York City chef who recently took one of her classes after learning about Coppel from his mentor. “She’s doing really great work here.”
John Kraus, a former instructor at the French Pastry School, who now owns pastry shops in Minnesota, knew Coppel as a student.
“She had a glimmer in her eye that made it clear she had goals to achieve,” he said, “and she did it.”
Of her work, he said, “I think it’s spectacular. It’s unique. There’s no one else like her. I’m just proud of her. It’s evident she paved her own path and that’s really pretty incredible.”
“It’s very easy to see who’s copying, who’s not copying,” Coppel said. “We live on images. “I don’t copy anyone.” Class prices vary.