Carol Gancia, a Queer Asian chocolatier, launched an Out & Proud collection to celebrate her Filipino roots and her LGBTQ community in San Francisco.

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Kokak Chocolates Out and Proud SF Pride Truffle Collection
Credit: Kokak Chocolates

Owned by Carol Gancia, the Kokak Chocolates shop is located in the Castro, at the corner of 18th Street and Sanchez, in San Francisco. While the Castro is a queer neighborhood, it's extra special to see a clearly lesbian, woman-owned shop. Though that alone would get me to stop in, it's the chocolates that have wooed me westward from the Mission, where I'm visiting family. 

When I peer in, I see immediately that the store is gorgeous, warm and inviting, with soft pastel colors and an undulating bar that urges you to pull up a seat and engage in some chocolate and a chat with Gancia. The truffles and boxes are neatly arranged, ready to be packaged and personalized with a notecard and a ribbon for your favorite person.

"When I opened the shop, I thought, 'Am I going to label Kokak as LGBTQ,'" Gancia said. "I decided I need to make a stand for who I am and be proud of who I am with my chocolates—Asian, a woman, LGBTQ, a business owner."

Storytelling comes naturally to Gancia, a former broadcast journalist. "The decisions I make at the shop are about building memories around chocolate, and making people happy with chocolate." To Gancia, that story centers around her identity and helping others be proud of who they are. 

Gancia first learned about chocolates as a little girl growing up in The Philippines, when her engineer uncle would bring gourmet chocolates home from his travels across Europe. Her interest piqued, she came to the U.S., where she studied with chocolatier Melissa Coppel and pastry chef Stacy Radin at the International Culinary Center in California. After her training, Gancia began incorporating flavors from her Filipino upbringing into her chocolate like kalamansi, mango lemongrass, and pineapple coconut.

Gancia is particularly grateful to the San Francisco LGBTQ community, which has nurtured her success and cheered her on, and in whose company she first owned her identity. "I didn't even call myself gay even if I was with a woman for a very long time, until I moved to San Francisco." When Gancia started going to the Castro to dine and play, she found liberation in the queer community surrounding her. 

That's why Gancia was particularly proud to open Kokak Chocolates in the Castro on June 16, 2020—a rough time for any entrepreneur, but especially for a brand new venture. A year later, she's celebrating not only surviving as a new business, but thriving as a lesbian Filipina woman boss. 

Gancia has two chocolates that clearly outline who she is: One is her limited-edition Freedom 1896 Artist Palette Heirloom Bar, which is 70% dark chocolate, shaped like a palette, and painted with the colors of The Philippines' flag to represent the country's long journey to freedom and the first brave Filipinos who revolted against the colonial power. 

"1896 was the first big attempt to get away from Spanish colonization—an attempt against a colonization that lasted for over 300 years," Gancia, who grew up in The Philippines, said. "Freedom is so universal, and it's our right."

The second, called the Out & Proud SF Pride Truffle Collection, is a box of 16 chocolates celebrating San Francisco Pride: a passion fruit truffle that declares "love is love is love;" a hazelnut gianduja praliné flaunting a rainbow Pride pattern; a house-made peanut marshmallow; and a banana caramel bearing very Filipino tropical leaves. 

You can also combine the 1896 and Out & Proud collections into one gift set called the Love + Freedom Chocolate Gift Set, which emphasizes the intersectionality of being Asian and being queer.

"I thought about the name of the chocolates, and I wanted the name to mean something to me and to a lot of people like me. 'Out & Proud' is probably shocking to some Filipinos, but for people to be okay with us being gay, even in conservative countries, we need to shine a light on it," Gancia said. "People like chocolates, so they'll associate that with something positive, because being gay is a wonderful thing."

Gancia's chocolates may just have the power to spread love. Her single origin dark chocolates have a complex, unique flavor derived from a rare and precious heirloom cacao variety called Arriba Naciónal. Naciónal is one of the oldest cacao varieties in the world and considered a national treasure in Ecuador. Not only does this chocolate draw important income to Ecuador for local farmers, but it also supports local ecology by creating habitats for birds and other animals. Gancia's Naciónal is produced by a fair-trade, sustainable collective in Ecuador, and the taste is intense yet balanced, lightly-roasted without a bit of bitterness.

 "The great thing about Naciónal is that it's not a hybrid—it's unadulterated," Gancia said. "It's the most chocolatey chocolate for me, grown for flavor and not for maximum yield, so the taste is the purest in the best possible way." Gancia says that Nacional's flavor derives from the cacao seed, the way it is grown by farmers, and how it is fermented. 

It's not just that these chocolates are tantalizingly delicious breaks in my dreary afternoons—it's that I feel seen by Kokak's collections, as a queer Asian woman who's madly in love with food. Gancia and her staff painstakingly produce so many aspects of these artisanal chocolates in-house. The Out & Proud SF Pride collection is a gorgeous gift I'm proud to send to friends, hand-painted with designs created by local artists. Meanwhile, the hazelnut paste in the rainbow-patterned chocolate is housemade—almost unheard of in the artisanal chocolate biz. Gancia and her staff work in small batches, toasting raw hazelnuts, grinding them into a paste, mixing it with chocolate, and piping it into chocolate shells. Like Gancia, these chocolates are beautiful inside and out, and anchored by personality, taste and identity. 

Gancia hopes to reach out to suppliers in the southern Philippines who raise rare single origin cacao—despite the cost. The chocolatier also hopes to proudly exhibit her queer Filipina pride in the LGBT community. "I want to show an example to the business community that it's ok to shout out that you're an LGBTQ shop. You have so much to be proud of who you are, however you define your uniqueness as a person. As a woman, an Asian woman, a Filipina woman who comes from a very conservative Catholic country, Pride is personally a big celebration for me and I want to infect people with that positive energy around celebrating being an LGBTQ shop."