The American Dream of yesteryear is a fossil, relegated to the status of poignant lore and the occasional reminiscence of now extinct white picket fences, accessible home ownership and lifetime security at a steady job. It’s still out there, unicorn-like in its elusiveness, occasionally spotted dashing through a forest wooded with student loan debt, a decade of economic sluggishness and the exponential entropy of the American family. But, if 25 years in business has taught me one thing (anything), it’s that the real fun, the real challenge, the thing that keeps me getting out of bed in the morning and the anchor that has kept me from swirling down the rabbit hole is the pursuit of the dream, not the realizing of it. And that brings me to my new favorite chocolatier of all time, Chef Ashley Drake aka The Chocolate Lush.
Ashley Drake is pursuing “the dream” in all of its 21st century glory. Working a full time day job, caring for her kids solo, hustling her wares at private events, dedicating precious square footage of her apartment to chocolatiering equipment, fulfilling orders for her regular customers and setting up for booth sales at local venues – yep, that’s it folks – today’s American Dream ain’t gonna come to your door and introduce itself. It’s there, but only for those like Ashley who manage their lives and every minute of their days and nights with the discipline and focus that it takes to do…more.
Starting her second business, The Chocolate Lush, in January of this year (her first was a lemonade stand at age 8), Ashley was, all of a sudden, all over town. It seemed that every other post on my social media feeds was filled with chocolates and redheads. Now, personally, I’m a big fan of redheads – my Mom was one…and I’m gonna stop there before it gets weird.
Chocolate, though, I know bupkis about. I’m not a big sweets eater. Other than the box of sampler’s my Mom use to bring home once or twice a year and them damn, addicting peanut butter cups, I could barely tell you the difference between dark and light chocolate if they were sitting next to each other under a bright light.
Even so, I had met Ashley at an event last year at a now defunct restaurant where she had filled multiple roles from the kitchen to the front of the house. As a result of all the social media attention, including a Top 25 finalist finish in a Callebaut chocolate contest, I was vastly interested in what she was doing, why she was doing it and what was driving her to turn her life into the ever so rewarding living nightmare that owning your own small business can be.
Ashley Drake’s pretty much the poster child of the soon to be overnight success that only took a decade to be realized. While ultra-visible now, due pretty much to sheer hustle, her beginnings in the food and beverage industry were pretty dang humble. Already an expert at keeping lemonade at a perfect 33.4 degrees on a hot summer day, Ashley traveled with learner’s permit in hand at age 15.5 and started her journey to instant, glorious chefdom at…Panda Express. Hey, but the good news is, it was all uphill from there! She used her time at the Panda well, though, learning wok cooking from the chefs there – a skill that pretty much completely eludes most chefs in this country.
Then there was a bit of a crossroads for her a couple of years later. As a talented high school musician, Ashley had spent her summers at band camp. Fo’ real.
She had options to parlay that musical talent into something bigger, in the form of college offers and an invitation to join the United States Marine Corps Band. Seriously.
If you don’t know how talented and disciplined a person has to be to play for the Marine Corps Band – think about this – in the Marine Corps, you’re a Marine first. If you fail at band, pick up a rifle, my friend, ’cause you’re still the best of the best, you’re simply gonna make a different kind of music.
But, fate intervened and reason prevailed for Ashley, as much so as it can for any soon to be high school grad. A visit to her school by the Art Institute of California intrigued her as much as it appealed to her common sense. Music was a crapshoot, she realized, but hospitality will be around forever. Being a chef seemed more stable, so, off she went to get her culinary A.S. degree, graduating with honors.
Since then, Ashley has worked just about every position there is to work in the restaurant industry. In the kitchen, she’s worked all stations from savory to pastry. She’s been in front of house, management, bookkeeping and catering. She’s been in fine dining, casual dining and neighborhood dining. Her current gig is with Snake Oil Cocktail Company, a cocktail and bartending catering company that specializes in “kitchen” quality recipes for their cocktails, not the same ol’ stir and shake chum that anybody with a shaker can do. In other words, Ashley’s got chops.
And, now, Ashley Drake is taking what she knows and making a run at entrepreneurship and all that it entails, creating and selling chocolates. It started as a hobby. Something to burn up her considerable excess energy in a past that’s more distant than forgotten. Then she started selling the chocolates to make extra money for the holidays. From there, of course, the next step was to use her every waking minute to build a business out of her chocolates.
Overachieve much, Ashley Drake?
And despite my disdain for all that is sweet and sticky, Ashley made me some chocolates. They felt like a blind date at first. Pretty, a little mysterious, tons of promise, but, with the potential for a lot of hidden crazy to come bursting through. Then I ate one. And another. And there were flavors like Spicy Mayan, Strawberry Balsamic, Coconut Lemongrass – hey, these things were good!
And the blind date ended perfectly, with a lingering, sweet and tart at the same time, lightly naughty, faintly spicy kiss of all that is right with chocolate that left me slightly breathless.
Here’s the Rundown on Ashley Drake, The Chocolate Lush:
It’s hard to miss Ashley Drake. She’s all over the place. She does booth sales regularly at public friendly places like Catalina Offshore Products and Quigley Fine Wines. Find her on Instagram or Facebook as well to keep up with what’s current and new. Her chocolates are being served by Master Chef Season 6 winner, Claudia Sandoval as well as Bracero Cocina and the new FishBone Market in Liberty Public Market.
After trying her chocolates, I asked Ashley to make up a special batch to give all of our guests at a recent dinner party. They were so popular that one friend freaked out, leaped out of her moving Uber and fluidly sprinted back into the house and kitchen to grab her forgotten chocolates before dashing out the back door, somersaulting over the fence and tumbling back into her ride as it circled around into the back alley. Then again, maybe she remembered while she was still at the front door – the night was a blur…
Either way, you can contact Ashley Drake via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to place your order for your next party, special occasion, blind date or whatever. Me? I don’t like chocolate. Cheers, my friends!