The first time I pulled up to Chef Michael Poole's Hot Chocolat, I expected a boutique chocolaterie with dainty truffles displayed in neat tiers behind a glass window. The reality was something different. Parked in a cramped lot across from the YMCA on SW Snoqualmie St, I learn that the squat structure in front of me is, in fact, a commissary kitchen, which Poole explains after I call him from the front seat of my stuffy car.
Poole is easy to talk to over the phone. Conversation flows, despite us being total strangers. We chat for half an hour, covering a range of topics from our travels (him through France, me across Turkey), to the local Africatown project (I had discovered him on their Instagram page) to, of course, chocolate-making (he was testing out new flavors for Mother's Day). I ask him to sit for an interview; he invites me to come by the next day. We set our rendezvous and I veer off the hot asphalt towards nearby Lincoln Park, determined to make the most of my drive into Seattle's far West.
The next day, I meet Chef Poole in the early afternoon. He's tall and Black, with a gold hoop in his left earlobe like a pirate. Although he's in his sixties, the man doesn't look a day over forty-five. He greets me with a wide smile, snaps his mask back on, and shows me inside. The single-story warehouse is similar to a concrete basement, complete with unattractive fluorescent lighting. Huge commercial stoves line the walls. Across the way are folks cooking around a steel table.
Poole has his own room in the commissary kitchen, separate from the others. It's narrow and no larger than a trailer. Every counter is covered with plastic chocolate molds, pieces of paper, and personal tchotchkes. There are two chocolate sculptures on a desk to the right. In dark noir, a miniature red riding hood faces off the big bad wolf. A milky bust of a woman sits just below, her face only half-finished but her hair carved into decadent locs.
Poole stands behind a tall kitchen worktable as we start our interview. Behind him are bowls of cocoa butter melting in a makeshift double boiler. Their contents in firetruck red and marine blue, the bowls bubble and spit like a series of small cauldrons. Pots of powdered color are arranged in bins on a desk to the left of the heating system. I spy gold, mango, violet, magenta, and green. This is what Poole uses to dye the cocoa butter from creamy beige to their vibrant shades. The whole operation feels like an artist's studio gone edible.
"'Hot' like a firehouse and 'chocolat' like the French" is how Poole would describe his chocolaterie, which operates not as a brick-and-mortar patisserie, but rather online where customers can send in orders or reserve pastry-making classes. A firefighter and firehouse cook for just shy of four decades, Poole trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and other culinary institutions around the world while on sabbaticals from his city job. His rigorous learning led him to master the craft of chocolate and macaron-making, and he eventually started Hot Chocolat in 2011.
Poole remembers his days in the firehouse fondly, despite the challenges of being a young Black man at the time. He became a firefighter in 1980, right around when the City of Seattle began actively recruiting minorities and women into the department. Integration was a tense affair. "There was a lot of pushback," Poole remembers. At the time, municipal stations were, without exception, staffed by white men. He was the first and only Black firefighter in his district, although there were other minorities from his cohort stationed nearby.
"The next class after mine was pretty much all women," Poole tells me. "Then they had a choice: you could either have a woman... or you could have a Black guy!" He says sardonically, "What a choice! And at that time, them not wanting women in the fire department trumped not wanting the Black guys in the fire department. And you just had to deal with it. But my attitude was: 'I ain't letting them run me outta here.'" At this point, he chuckles from his gut, a deep laugh that punctuates his story like a splatter of paint.
Poole became a firehouse chef by chance when he was looking to transfer positions to a post downtown. The Belltown fire station happened to be hiring, but there was one caveat for Poole: he needed to know how to cook. "I can cook!" he convinced the Belltown captain emphatically. And just like that, Poole became responsible for everyday dinners, plus breakfast on weekends, for a crew of twelve-plus burly, hungry firefighters.
Poole quickly learned to cook for a large group. After familiarizing himself with classics like red sauce spaghetti and smothered meatloaf with gravy, Poole began bringing in recipes from magazines such as Bon Appetit or Gourmet. He even picked up some chef gigs outside of the fire station, catering for fashion shoots down in California or slinging Jamaican food at local street fairs. Poole introduced Seattleites to jerk chicken and beef patties in the mid-80s before Caribbean cuisine standbys like Island Soul existed.
While we speak, Poole brings out a tray of chocolates for me to try. They're beautiful, splattered in striking splotches or lightly misted in ombre tones. He tells me how he went to Paris first in 2000 to study culinary arts, after a friend took lessons at Le Cordon Bleu and encouraged him to do so too. After coordinating a sabbatical with his firehouse team, Poole flew to Paris for a six-week intensive at the institute. "The French chefs there would rough me up too," he laughs. "But after getting on with the fire department, like I said, ain't nobody gonna run me outta here, okay?"
Poole graduated as class valedictorian at Le Cordon Bleu, and after a stint at his friend's chocolaterie, he started bringing cacao confections into his catering gigs in Seattle. Eventually, his chocolates became so popular that he decided to make it a business on its own in 2007, first naming it MDP Signature Chocolates before rebranding to Hot Chocolat in 2011.
We're refocused on the chocolates now. They're lined up like chess pieces on the chrome baking sheet. I pick one up between my index finger and thumb, a white chocolate lemon meringue, and split it in half between my front teeth. The filling crushes against my palate, and I'm reminded of a scene from the movie Chocolat, in a Catholic confessional when one of the hapless victims to Juliette Binoche's chocolaterie professes her lust for "...buttery filling. And it melts, God forgive me. It melts ever-so-slowly on your tongue, and tortures you with pleasure."
I go down the line, popping truffles into my mouth, one by one. There's gooey sea salt caramel, dark chocolate ganache, and tropical mango-passion, but the butter-yellow lemon meringue remains my favorite, which surprises me. I hoard bars of rich, dark chocolate in my cabinet for habitual snacking, and tend to despise anything under 75% cacao. But something about the lingering notes of childhood custard and zesty citrus hooks me. "I've never tasted anything like this," I tell Poole, and he chuckles pleasantly.
From firefighter to French chef to gourmet chocolatier, Michael Poole has lived his life at a gradual crescendo. Over the last few years, he's begun to establish a rhythm that feels right for the pace of his work. "I take a lot of pride in what I do," Chef Poole admits, "and I'd like to feel like I'm at the top of my game now."