By Claudie Benjamin
Kee’s Chocolates are the creme de la creme of chocolate morsels and bars. These handmade chocolates that have secret recipes created by Kee Ling Tong are sold in a tiny store at 228 Columbus Avenue opened in October 2019.
Kee tends to speak about her route to success in this extraordinarily refined niche as if it were a matter of luck and chance. But, the details leave no doubt that Kee’s stubborn determination, perseverance and creativity have led her to the vocation that she loves. An important reward is also that she knows that her chocolates have achieved a loyal following and received awe-inspiring media coverage. “I’m always in the kitchen,” says Kee, who makes her chocolates with one assistant. The stores are staffed by part-time workers.
During the pandemic when she had to notify one ongoing customer that her Christmas holiday gift order would be delayed or postponed because it could not be delivered within several days of the preparation that Kee says is essential for these perishable edibles. The customer responded, “I love your chocolates and don’t care when they arrive, I just want to support you.” Kee explains the importance of eating the chocolates relatively soon after they are made, “One thing I do emphasize is that I don’t use any sugar or preservative to prolong the shelf life of the chocolates hence I suggest consuming the chocolates within 7 days.”
Born in Macau, Kee was two when her family moved to Hong Kong. About three years later they moved again, this time to the United States. “They were seeking a better life and came to New York. My father always worked in restaurants. My mother was a seamstress. It’s the typical immigrant story,” says Kee. At first, the family lived on the Lower East Side. Then they moved to Chinatown. “It was easier because they didn’t speak English.” Kee went to public schools. As a result of taking a HS internship at JP Morgan she was then offered a job. The money was amazing. “Imagine a 16 year-old getting a $2000 bonus.” Along the way she completed college, went on to work for Paine Webber and Bear Stearns investment bank, dealing with options. Her last official corporate job was a Marsh McLennan.
But, after 16 years, she knew the corporate world wasn’t offering what she wanted out of professional life. “It wasn’t creative or satisfying.” It did, however, provide her with a financial cushion of savings to explore options. She gave herself two years to have fun while exploring the possibility of a culinary profession. She completed training in 2001 at the French Culinary Institute in NYC.
Intrigued and inspired by the possibility of chocolate, she happily accepted an internship in Béziers in the South of France, only to learn once she was there that the demand for chocolate was minimal in summer and everything was closed in August. “I made wedding cakes and croissants.” On her return, as she describes it, “9/11 happened and there was no work.” She gave herself five years to try to establish herself on her own as a chocolatier.
She opened her first shop, a small (now closed) store at 80 Thompson Street in SoHo. Initially she intended to sell both flowers and chocolates, but after a flower shop opened two doors down, she focused on chocolates alone. Experimenting with flavors, she consulted with a former instructor about making chocolates filled with Crème Brûlée. It sounds objectively delicious, but her advisor was discouraging about how long this custard preparation would last.
Since Kee felt strongly both that her chocolates should be eaten between 2-7 days of creation and that Crème Brûlée was a good idea, she persevered. And, then in 2006, a hugely appreciative piece about the chocolates appeared in the NY Times Style Magazine, Holiday 2006: “Kee Ling Tong does it all by hand, fresh every day. Best passion fruit bonbon extant. The black sesame, blood orange and blended pepper are merely extraordinary. Hands down, the best chocolates in New York City. Maybe the world.” The business surged. The Crème Brûlées, the signature creation, are timeless best sellers.
Kee’s recipe’s are all her own. Kee started out with ten flavors and by now has created 49, which include jasmine, green tea, saffron, pistachio, lavender and salty caramel. “The only flavor I haven’t been able to work out well is guava,” says Kee. A personal preference for savory flavors, intuition about what will combine well with chocolate, (Avocado? Maybe not) and response to new flavors from assistants defines the new additions. About 35 flavors are available at a given time and the variety is rotated. In addition to bite- sized bonbons, bark and chocolate bars are also sold.
And, those incredibly tempting raspberry pink-hued bars, what are they? “Oh ruby chocolates are my latest offering. It is a new (4th chocolate that joins dark chocolate, milk and white chocolate varieties.) It has that fruity flavor and no food coloring or artificial flavoring.”
Kee likes having her business in a miniscule store because she feels she can manage every element well. “It all has to be good.” Her kitchen is in a commercial building where each unit contains a different kind of business. “I’m next door to a hairdresser.” What does this Upper West Sider do when she’s not inventing flavors or stirring and molding chocolate? Kee laughs, “I binge on TV shows.”