By Frank Sabatini Jr.
South Park chocolatier cooks up a jackpot on the Food Network
As one of the rare entrepreneurs in the country with a knack for weaving chocolate and caramel into savory dishes, Will Gustwiller accepted an invitation from the Food Network to be a contestant on a special episode of “Guy’s Chocolate Games” and ended up $16,000 richer because of it.
The segment was a spinoff of “Guy’s Grocery Games” hosted by Guy Fieri. Gustwiller was among four competitors vying to survive three elimination rounds of cooking for up to $20,000 in prize money. The episode was taped in November in Santa Rosa inside a closed set, replete with food-stocked aisles resembling a commercial grocery store.
Gustwiller, a member of the LGBT community who has often supported Mama’s Kitchen and San Diego LGBT Pride on behalf of his Eclipse Chocolate Bar & Bistro in South Park, was sworn to secrecy about his win until the program aired on Feb. 12.
In round one, the contestants were tasked with constructing an “ultimate lunch” using the base ingredients of German chocolate cake. Gustwiller wowed the judges with cocoa-glazed pork tenderloin while incorporating coconut and pecans into a side dish of Chinese long beans.
The second battle involved making a chocolate dessert on a “shopping” budget of $15.55. He delivered with s’mores complemented by frozen blackberries and spiced drinking chocolate.
Proceeding creatively to the final round, he squared off with remaining contestant Steven Oliver, a personal chef also based in San Diego. They were required to cook a “romantic dinner” using porterhouse steak with chocolate elements. Gustwiller rose to the occasion by matching the meat to cocoa-balsamic, cocoa nib noodles and asparagus.
“It was a stressful experience. I had only 30 minutes to make each dish, which goes by really fast,” Gustwiller said, adding that the actual production of the show is more elaborate than viewers realize and the episode took a day and a half to shoot.
“There are 90 people that produce four seasons of the program each year,” he revealed. “All of the food inside the grocery store set is real and at the end of the day, they donate it all to charity.”
Gustwiller’s prize money was ultimately determined by a frenzied scavenger hunt for certain products in the grocery aisles, with each find netting $4,000.
“I found four of them,” he said of the finale.
Since launching Eclipse Chocolate 10 years ago in North Park, and then moving into larger digs in South Park six years later, Gustwiller has sold more than 750,000 hand-molded, hand-wrapped chocolate bars he produces at the bistro.
With a master’s degree in sculpture from San Diego State, the Ohio native began experimenting with truffle and chocolate bar recipes in his home and eased into selling the products to local hotels and at farmers markets.
“It was my primary interest to become a functional artist, but you have to sell a lot of artwork to pay the bills,” he said. “So my chocolate hobby was a practical solution at becoming a self-employed craftsperson because chocolate is something people can interact with and explore.”
Gustwiller soon took the concept further by offering multi-course brunches and dinners infused with chocolate, vanilla or caramel.
They’re served daily at the bistro amid a retail section bursting with chocolate bars and truffles in numerous flavors. Some of the confections incorporate fresh produce dried in-house, as well as botanical oils used instead of cream for his new line of vegan truffles.
His savory dishes run the gamut with creations such as crispy quinoa fritters accented by cocoa mole and garlic puree; eggs Benedict with burnt caramel Hollandaise sauce; pork and grits with vanilla sea salt; and many others that don’t typically embrace confectionary components.
As for the dishes he made on the Food Network, they will likely appear on the bistro menus sooner or later.
More recently, Gustwiller began inviting consumers into his world of chocolate-making with “build-a-bar” workshops, held once or twice a month on Thursday evenings.
For $25, participants craft two large bars from a choice of 32 different ingredients while enjoying a cocktail, glass of wine or non-alcoholic beverage included in the price.
“The workshops allow people to stretch their culinary muscles,” Gustwiller said, noting that consumers can also customize the bars online at eclipsebuildabar.com and then have them shipped to anywhere in the country.
While steadily growing the business both in South Park and online, Gustwiller has maintained a three-year relationship with Daniel Youngren, whom he met at a local food event.
“We’re a pretty classic couple running a small business,” Gustwiller said. “He helps with administrative, sales, payroll, everything.”
When asked what he’ll do with the show’s prize money and the national recognition he gained from it, Gustwiller said he plans to spend it on solar energy for the bistro while remaining open to outside investors interested in his green agenda.
“It’s our mission to build a solar panel array so we could be America’s first solar-powered lunar-themed chocolate company,” he explained to judges on the show.
Eclipse Chocolate Bar & Bistro is located at 2145 Fern St. For more information, call 619-578-2984 or visit, eclipsechocolate.com.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.