“So, what do you like? What makes you smile?”
Journey Shannon’s eyes lit up as she explained the simple questions that define her business’ philosophy. As pastry chef and owner of Noir d'Ébène Chocolat et Pâtisserie, a specialty craft chocolate and pastry boutique, Shannon is bringing ethically sourced, single-origin, hand-tempered, bean-to-bar chocolate and artisanal baked goods to downtown Evanston, all while focused on building a community of inclusivity and approachability with her food.
Steps from the intersection of Dempster and Chicago, Noir d'Ébène’s cozy storefront offers refuge from the windy, bustling streets outside. Soul music greets customers at the door, and the comforting smells of freshly-baked brownies, steaming hot chocolate and caramelizing sugar linger in the air. The decorations are eclectic: high-contrast photos of the chocolate-production process cover the walls, and a Victorian sofa and decorative bird cage accent the space. Ornate Persian rugs spill across the wooden floors, and crowded wooden shelves teem with various confections. It’s small but pleasantly intimate. Walking into the store feels like entering someone’s home.
The inviting nature of the store matches Shannon’s energy. This energy is palpable as she details how a cacao bean turns into a chocolate bar, and it shines through in her behind-the-scenes Instagram videos. In one, she dances to Marvin Gaye in her kitchen while stirring a bowl of chocolate; in many others she greets her followers with a “great morning” and invites them to visit. It shows again as Shannon discusses the inclusive, loving community she’s trying to cultivate with her business.
It’s been a long road for Shannon to get where she is today. She’s been in and out of the culinary industry for 25 years, and she hasn’t always approached food the way she does now.
“As a kid I was in love with Burger King ... I couldn’t appreciate a home-cooked meal,” Shannon said. While her mother put fresh, home-cooked meals on the table every day of her childhood, it took decades of discovery and education for Shannon to adopt her current culinary sensitivity.
Her ventures into the food world had humble beginnings: in middle school, Shannon started by dipping grocery store cookies in premade confectioner’s coating, decorating them with nuts and raisins, and selling them to her classmates. When people eagerly purchased her creations, she found a recipe online and began baking her own cookies, initially making a trio of chocolate chip, peanut butter and raisin oatmeal. Shannon reflected with a laugh that she had no idea what she was doing at the time, but rather “was just on this euphoric high” because of the support of those around her.
Since her days as a junior high school cookie distributor, Shannon has graduated from culinary school at the Illinois Institute of Art and the French Pastry School. Beyond that, she attributes her growth to exploration through traveling, but shr also admits that putting her company on hold and working other jobs played an important role. In her extensive travels, Shannon has visited Malaysia, Hong Kong, Israel, Jamaica, Thailand and Australia, which has given her “a greater appreciation of self, the world’s flavors, cultures, smells [and] music.”
While spending time in Hawaii, Shannon stumbled upon Madre Chocolate, an award-winning chocolate producer, and she was introduced to the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate. Bean-to-bar refers to a production model in which chocolate makers work directly with cacao farms, transparently importing cacao beans without a middleman and emphasizing the importance of every stage of production.
After this initial introduction, Shannon went on to meet the ambitious owner of Manoa Chocolate, another company producing bean-to-bar Hawaiian chocolate. Shannon admitted that “prior to meeting them, I didn't know individuals or small companies making bean-to-bar, all I knew was Hershey’s, Godiva ... just big companies that you see in the grocery store.”
She said these two producers “really exposed me to – and opened my eyes to – possibilities that I didn't know existed.” Taking inspiration from Manoa and some knowledge from her time with Madre Chocolate, Shannon dove in and started buying the equipment she needed to begin making chocolate, settling into Evanston and starting down the road towards opening Noir d'Ébène.
While Shannon said that Manoa and Madre Chocolates are a lot further along than her, she has enjoyed the journey and the experience of it all. “It's amazing what you can do with flour, sugar, eggs, and a cacao bean and nut; how you can manipulate it and transform it into something so beautiful. I'm in love with that,” she said. Shannon explained there’s “always something to learn: you never get it. It's always, ‘I got this part, but there’s still here to go.’”
She embraces this learning process, still striving to learn more about the experiences of growers. “I want to understand. I want to be there with a machete in my hand, taking a cacao pod off the tree," she said. "I want to split it open, clean it out, ferment it, dry it. I want to do the whole thing.”
With all of this under her belt, it took 10 years and a pandemic for Shannon to finally get a chance to open up her business, serving her first customer in September of 2020. Even given the obstacles of operating a business during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shannon still seemed unfazed.
Her comfort comes from a belief that “you take your shot when you get it,” and the questions: “what are we waiting for? How much time do you have?” that she continually asks herself. After waiting 25 years, Shannon said she was going to seize the opportunity when it presented itself.
Shannon's years of preparing, learning and waiting have yielded an inviting shop filled with a wide selection of sweets. Mainstays including an array of thick, chewy cookies, ranging from her original trio to more gourmet options like bourbon-toffee-chocolate-chip. Depending on the day, counters could be lined by bright, fruity rhubarb tarts, deeply chocolatey brownies, miniature apple galettes, bread puddings, Moonpie-reminscent “dreamer bars” or handmade peanut butter cups.
The strictly chocolate side of things is equally plentiful. She offers dark, milk, buttermilk, or even goat's milk chocolates, and creations like dark chocolate rounds covered in goji berries, cherries and cacao nibs. For a purer experience, she supplies the Noir Bar, a bar made of complex dark or sweet milk chocolate with an intricate illustration etched on the surface. Shannon hand tempers all her chocolate in-house using the tabling method, a labor-intensive process involving repeatedly spreading and scraping up melted chocolate on a marble slab until a specific temperature is reached. This process, Shannon said, allows her products to have a uniform gloss and satisfying snap.
Stocking her boutique with this bounty of choices, there's one overarching principle for Shannon: “there's something for everyone in this space.” Shannon wants to build community at her store, saying, “the goal is to have darks and milks, goat's milk [and] buttermilk, gluten free cookies, gluten free pastries, vegan pastries, vegan savory items - because I want it to be the pleasure boutique, the community house for all of us, not just you.”
Shannon believes it’s impossible to successfully create a community without keeping this all in mind, so the diversity of items lining shelves aptly represent this clientele she hopes to serve. There’s options for every kind of person, a gesture towards making sure no one ever feels left out.
Shannon wants her store to be a space where she can show people that they’re not as different as they may think. She explained that “we all like to sway, and we all like to eat.” With her boutique, Shannon said, “I wanted to find a way to [show] that, and let us know our needs and our desires are really not that different from each other.”
Shannon invites anyone to enter her space, but she doesn’t want the focus to be on her. If you ask her what her favorite items are, she has a simple answer: “What I like does not serve you.”
Instead she asks those defining questions. “It's what do you like, and [then] I'll help guide you. But it's all about you.”