Outside, a winter storm brings swirling winds and crystalline flakes that blanket every mountainside, car hood and front stoop in sight, but in a hidden corner on Scott Lane, the warm orange glow and sweet scent of a chocolate maker’s shop beckons. This wintertime oasis smells of freshly baked croissants and French press coffee, and its quiet nooks welcome any passerby with a wish for warmth and the desire to while away an afternoon. At Atelier Ortega, time slows down as you are transported to a picturesque pocket of the Old World, where chilly winter days are best passed in a café, hunkered down with a berry compote crepe and a warm cup of hot cocoa in hand.
Atelier is a French word meaning an artist’s workshop or studio, and Jackson’s own Atelier is home base for the creative talents of world famous chocolate maker and pastry chef Oscar Ortega. The European vibe of his cozy café is an homage to Oscar’s time spent working in France, Italy, England, and Spain during his culinary coming of age. Originally hailing from Mexico City, Oscar travelled to Europe in his early twenties to feed his burgeoning interest in the world of cuisine, and by age twenty-four he was already working as a chef de cuisine alongside seasoned chefs from all over Europe. Oscar is intense yet easy to laugh, creative yet focused, and he grins as he tells us, “In Europe, I decided to become a professional chef. It’s not like I made the decision…it just grabbed me.”
Oscar soon realized that to be taken seriously as a chef in Europe, he needed to go to school. He scoffs as he tells us, “It was important for me to have a school background, especially because I was not from Europe, and if you’re not from Europe, they don’t believe you can cook. But I always believed in myself, so I didn’t really care.” Still, Oscar welcomed opportunity and enrolled in the Cast Alimenti School in Italy. While Oscar was in school, the Italian team was preparing to compete in the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie a highly regarded and anticipated pastry competition, and that year the Italian team happened to win. A wistful look clouds Oscar’s espresso colored eyes as he remembers, “when I saw the perfection and the creativity in the chocolates, cakes, gelatos, and plated desserts, it was fantastic, and that is when I said, this is what I want to do.”
Chef Ortega, who has since won the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie for his home country of Mexico, plucks glass jars from his workshop’s shelf, revealing several handcrafted hot chocolate mixtures. Oscar lifts the lid of the first jar and offers it forward. Bright notes of cinnamon and allspice fill the air, and he explains that the mixture is a traditional Mexican hot chocolate. The second jar contains his unique Spicy Mexican Cacahuatl blend, and it smells entirely different- deep, peppery, exotic. These hot chocolate concoctions are just one of the many interpretations of Oscar’s medium, and a perfect expression of his mission to give customers “the perfect bite of sweet.”
When Oscar first arrived in Jackson, as he puts it, “the world of confections didn’t exist,” and that perfect bite had yet to be defined. Selling crepes to cowboys and fromage to farmers became, and still is, a gratifying challenge to the astute chef, who stuck to his guns and kept turning out masterpieces such as his smooth, rich hazelnut mousse topped with a delicate pistachio macron. Chef Ortega’s crepes rival any you might find on a cobbled street corner in Paris, and choosing between the sweet, signature Oscar Ortega chocolate and the savory Brie and prosciutto may prove too tough a call.
Cradling both crepes in your arms, slide into a leather booth and devour them both in between sips of coffee from a miniature French press, spending a cozy afternoon away from the fray and always, always eating your dessert first.
To sample Chef’s world class pastries and chocolates visit Artelier Ortega at 150 Scott Lane or Coco Love at 55 N Glenwood across from the Wort Hotel.