Inside Palo Alto's newest chocolate shop, Shekoh Confections, two aprons from the prestigious l'École Vahlrona, a professional pastry training program in Tain l'Hermitage, France, hang on the wall. A plaque boasts that gaining admission to the program is as hard as breaking into a bank vault. However, when owner Shekoh Moossavi discusses her trip to France that took place 10 years ago, she portrays the accomplishment as an escape more than an achievement.
In 2012, Shekoh Moossavi shuttered Shokolaat, her downtown Palo Alto restaurant that ambitiously combined French cuisine, patisserie, baking and confectionery. The building was to be converted into a mixed-use project, and Moossavi was only offered one year of tenancy when attempting to renew her lease. Meanwhile, she was finalizing a divorce with her now ex-husband, who was a partner at Shokolaat and at the couple's first restaurant, Gervais in Saratoga (which closed in 2009 under different ownership). They also partnered on Pastry Smart, a wholesale bakery and confectionery in San Mateo.
In the preceding years, Moossavi had lost both of her parents, who had inspired her love of cooking. One of six sisters growing up in a household in Iran constantly bustling with guests, Moossavi treasures the carefree meals of her childhood. Moossavi's father was the first person she ever cooked for, and she still remembers how he pretended to enjoy the "horrendously bad" dinner she prepared.
Paired with an all-consuming kitchen lifestyle, these personal challenges overwhelmed Moossavi. Referencing how airlines instruct passengers to put their own oxygen masks on before assisting others, she says, "I was not giving myself the oxygen first, and I was trying to help everybody. So after a while you suffocate."
About one week after signing the divorce papers, Moossavi packed two suitcases and headed off to Paris, hoping to "start fresh." "I went to a place where I had no memories. I didn't know anyone," she says.
While l'École Vahlrona provided Moossavi with extensive technical training in chocolate, the time also allowed her to rest and reflect on her love of cooking. Moossavi points to one evening at Gervais that she thinks of frequently. With the clock nearing midnight, a man entered the kitchen with compliments for Moossavi and an unexpected request: He asked to paint her portrait. Puzzled, Moossavi agreed. The man was watercolorist Arne Westerman, and this painting, which he gifted to Moossavi, now hangs opposite the aprons in Shekoh Confections.
Moossavi eventually found herself longing to return to the Peninsula, the first place she truly considered home after leaving Iran for stints in Belgium and Florida. "I was very young when I left Iran and I always felt like I (was) passing through ... when I came to the Bay Area, it instantly felt like I'm home," she says. She says she treasures driving to beaches, farms and San Francisco in the same day and the kindness of customers she has served over the years.
After a few years working in Texas and a second trip to l'École Vahlrona, Moossavi returned to the Bay Area in 2018 with a new lifestyle that valued balance and developing personal connections outside the kitchen. She started working on Shekoh Confections, her first business to bear her own name, and began the search for a retail location while selling confections to wholesale and online customers.
Moossavi's chocolates harness French technique but reflect her experiences traveling across the world. These influences start with her parents, and Moossavi says that cooking is a way of holding onto their memory. "Every time I'm in the kitchen, (it's like) you see a ghost around you and you're the only one who sees them," she says. "Those memories are with you. And those people are with you."
The Persian Rose, a vibrant, red heart-shaped chocolate, has two layers made up of rose petal marmalade and rose water white chocolate ganache, in a clear nod to one of Iran's most well-known products. Moossavi says that as soon as she starts preparing the marmalade, she recalls the scent of roses in her family's garden. She will eventually serve a menu of her own blended teas in recognition of the drink she started enjoying before she could walk.
Moossavi also uses flavors that she finds comforting from a variety of cultures. Drawing together the lavender fields of Provence, France, with local wildflower honey, the Honey Lavender chocolate is flavored with Moossavi's own lavender extraction. Caramel is one of Moossavi's favorite childhood treats and flows out of the golden Caramel and Praline, and an upcoming peanut butter and jelly chocolate will feature nut butter made in-house with a specialized machine.
Reflecting on the decadelong journey that led to opening Shekoh Confections, Moossavi says she feels excited about her return to the Bay Area.
"It's always very difficult to come back and start from the beginning again. But honestly, I believe that if you have that burning desire in your heart, that you're willing to work very hard, anything is possible. And I'm the living proof," she says.
Shekoh Confections, 2305 El Camino Real, Unit B, Palo Alto; 650-384-6322, shekoh.com. Instagram: @shekohconfections.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.