Self-taught chocolatier Carol Gancia opened Kokak Chocolates in 2020 in SF's Castro District. (Courtesy of Kokak Chocolates)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
I have a bite-sized confession to make: I originally planned to write about San Francisco’s Kokak Chocolates last month for Valentine’s Day.
At the time, the LGBTQ woman-owned chocolate business was preparing to debut a love-themed set of flavors, including “Heat of the Moment,” which is a combo of dark and white chocolates with Mexican Comapeño chiles sourced from the woman-owned Boonville Barn Collective. But I wasn’t able to make it happen.
To be fair, my first child was born just days ahead of my scheduled interview with Carol Gancia, the self-taught Filipina chocolatier who founded Kokak — so I spent the following weeks, including Valentine’s Day, with a small, heartwarming human in my arms instead.
But Kokak, it turns out, is just as good in March as it is in February — or any time of year, for that matter. In fact, having to wait that extra month infused me with even more desire to taste the premium Bay Area chocolates, which are filled with joy and spices in all their flavorful forms.
With creative options that defy the conventional notions of chocolate — Kokak’s seasonal flavors include pizza and ramen, for example — Gancia doesn’t play it safe. Instead, she enjoys challenging herself to push past her comfort zone, a trait she gained when she first immigrated to California from her native Philippine islands.
Rooted in her vibrant Asian Pacific heritage and driven by a passion to connect with ancestral flavors through rare, organic ingredients like Ecuadorian Nacional cacao, Kokak is more than just chocolates. It’s a way, Gancia says, to tell others, “I love you just the way you are.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ALAN CHAZARO: When did your appreciation for chocolates first begin?
CAROL GANCIA: I grew up on the Philippine islands. I was lucky, being from a middle-class family, to have an uncle who was a sought-after engineer. He got contracts that had him travel abroad, around Western Europe, where they have quality chocolates. He would bring them back home — dark chocolate, mint, even liqueurs. I had a chance to taste those, not realizing my love of chocolate came from him. I [later] realized chocolate is a memory, a happy memory.
How did that translate into you becoming a professional chocolatier?
I make chocolates in the form of truffles and bars. I do it every day with two other chocolatiers. The kind of shop we have is tropically inspired and based on my background. We’re a couple blocks from Castro Street on 18th and Sanchez.
When I was growing up, chocolate was in the background; I always had chocolate in my pockets. But I started out as a journalist broadcasting in the Philippines. I got involved in video production and continued that work in the U.S. [after moving here in 2004]. I even worked as a producer for “Check, Please! Bay Area” on KQED. I produced for Jacques Pépin, and that helped me improve my palette. You read the recipe, and plan it out with the executive producer. That’s how I learned informally about the culinary world.
I was still producing, and after 20 years — about five years ago — I was eager to do something different that I would be scared about. I was too complacent [as a video producer]. I wanted to feel what it was like to start something and be clueless. I decided to learn about chocolates and sell on the side until it became a full business [in 2020]. Sometimes I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still learning, and I still operate a video production business.
What does the word “kokak” represent for you?
Kokak literally means “ribbit” in English. I was conceptualizing the name of my shop and noticing the [other] chocolate brands and names. It was usually last names or serious words. I wanted to make a splash, [since] I had no background in chocolate. I chose Kokak and added an exclamation point because I wanted to represent myself and who I am. I studied in the Philippines, and my campus had lily pads, beautiful flowers, ponds and frogs. Kokak reminds me of my home — the wonderful tropical life. It’s a conversation starter as well. Customers ask me what it means, and I can tell the story of the Philippine islands. My shop is more than selling chocolates. It’s an experience, a borrowed memory.
Your Filipina heritage is an important aspect of your identity. Tell us about how that emerges in your variety of chocolate flavors.
I think of kalamansi — it’s a lime in the Philippines and is abundant there. My mom would make me hot kalamansi juice when I was sick. But in the summer, it was served cold, like lemonade. We included that as a popular flavor at Kokak.
We opened our shop during the pandemic, and we had a lot of time to think. We had about 50 recipes I created from the start, and we rotate that throughout the year. My favorite is our guava truffle — all made from scratch. Coconut pie is another. There’s a place in the southern part of metro Manila where they make buko pies — coconut pies. They’re not sweet, they’re just full of coconut meat. That’s a memory and an inspiration for our truffles.
Do you serve anything besides chocolate?
We also have our cacao porridge. Growing up in the Philippines, every Christmas season we make champurrado — it’s a [beverage] mix of chocolate and rice. A long time ago, in the 1500s, there was trade happening between the Philippines and Mexico. Mexico brought chocolates to us. Back then, most [Filipinos] were rice farmers. It’s a testament to the friendship between Mexicans and Filipinos — champurrado. That’s available year round, and we offer dine-in at our shop as well.
What’s your connection to the Bay Area, and how is that reflected in your business?
As far as flavors, we have Earl Grey, which is a very San Francisco afternoon tea I enjoy with the ladies. I don’t always get to do that much these days (laughs). I looked for Earl Grey and infused it with berry and chocolate for the filling. The Earl Grey tea we use is organic, fair trade and local. We also have coffee truffles, and the coffee is local.
As much as we can, we keep our ingredients local. I can get tea from the grocery, but we find really premium teas from here. Same with our dairy. You don’t want your truffles to taste faint. Our truffles stay fresh, and the flavors are punchy.
We also identify as an LGBTQ shop and ship all over the country with our Pride-inspired chocolates. One of my favorite things is reading note cards that we write to ship for our customers. One customer wrote, “Dear [Anonymous], I love you just the way you are. From Mom.” It made me teary-eyed. And made me realize I was in the right place.
Who are some of your favorite chocolatiers right now in Northern California?
I like chocolates not just for flavor but also meaning. I like to support female chocolatiers, too. The reality is that if you sum up all the chocolate makers, it’s still very male dominated. There are two [local chocolatiers] who are my competition but also my friends: Socola and Jade Chocolates. We meet up every once in a while. We’ve done events and have camaraderie. I love this industry because of that. In the video production business it’s competitive. But in chocolate, we help each other. We’re excited to see each other at the pop-up events. It’s supportive in a weird way. That’s motivating.
For someone like me, who doesn’t usually go out of their way for chocolates, what makes Kokak worthwhile?
I’m a small business owner. I never dreamed about earning billions of dollars and growing an empire. I enjoy the human-to-human touch. I want to connect with people. We’re already making less profit than a factory setting.
I made a tough decision that cut into our profitability [with] our biggest ingredient, which is a rare cacao. It’s the first domestically grown cacao tree [in the world] from several thousand years back. I let that melt slowly in my mouth and imagine what our ancestors were tasting years and years ago. This rare [Nacional] cacao in Ecuador is grown for flavor, not yield. A lot of chocolate growers sell ingredients for much cheaper, but they are from chocolate strains that were grown for volume production. Flavor is less of a priority.
Nacional wins over that. The genetics of the chocolate that we use is the same as our ancestors tasted.
Kokak Chocolates (3901 18th St., San Francisco) is open Tues. 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wed. through Sun. 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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