Meet the Maker: Tim Gearhart of Gearharts Fine Chocolates
, by Erin Byers Murray
, by Erin Byers Murray
The leap from cooking with military precision for ranks of the US Marine Corps to creating delicate, luxury chocolates is not at far as it seems. For Tim Gearhart, one role set him up to succeed in the other. “Little did I know when I was cooking in the Marines that I was setting the stage to a future career,” he says.
Gearhart is the pastry wizard behind Gearharts Fine Chocolates, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based chocolatier whose whimsical flavors and designs rival what you’d find in Paris. He got his true start in the kitchen in Charlottesville, his hometown, during high school in the 1980s. He then went on cook in the Marines and afterward, enrolled in culinary school before starting his pastry career—which took off quickly.
“I [took] my first job out of school as a pastry assistant and within a few months the pastry chef unexpectedly left,” he says. “The property management had an open mind and I liked the challenge so I very quickly had a baptism by fire! I really never looked back from there.”
Gearhart went on to work at several small luxury properties around the world, from a 1,000-year-old castle in Scotland to a luxury dude ranch in Wyoming. His hands were in all aspects of the pastry programs wherever he worked, including after-dinner mignardise and petit fours. “I developed a real interest in chocolate making in particular. I loved the attention to detail and the repetition,” he says—a direct nod to his days in the Marines.
He eventually landed back in Charlottesville where he worked with chef Bill Hamilton at his eponymous restaurant Hamiltons’ at First & Main. He and Hamilton formed a strong partnership and together started conceptualizing an artisan chocolate shop.
“When I was ready to take the leap with [Bill] to open something, we couldn’t think of a more perfect community,” he says. “Being a ‘small’ southern college town, Charlottesville can be an incredibly diverse and worldly place.” This was the 1990s and artisan chocolate was in its infancy (along with microbreweries and coffee houses). Their approach would be to apply traditional techniques to modern flavors, with a little added flair. “It just all fell into place at the right time,” he says. They opened in 2001.
What started with “a small bowl and two dipping forks,” has grown into a production of 12,000 pieces a day. “It can be quite a challenge to grow as a company and still keep that same quality every single time, all year long,” he says.
Gearhart takes inspiration from his many travels and pastry experiences to reimagine flavor combinations, such as a salted caramel swirled with miso and studded with toasted black and white sesame seeds. Cardamom and rose, mint and Kentucky bourbon, and tequila and lime are just a few of the unexpected pairings in his signature line.
What continually drives the artisan maker is creating a finished product that has a lasting impact. It’s all about making people happy and finding particularly unique flavor profiles to make them pause. “It is a great joy to watch people stop and say, ‘wow, I never expected that!’”
And there’s more to come. He’s currently working on a new set of solid chocolate bars incorporating flavored chocolates, like strawberry, raspberry, caramel, and passion fruit. A new version of their Malt Caramel will soon contain milled crystal salt. (Both new products will be out by late summer or early fall.)
“It has grown beyond what I ever thought possible,” Gearhart says. “I still love working in the kitchen after all these years. And I still love chocolate and the simple happiness it can bring to people.”