This Ocala chocolatier is a budding businessman with big plans for the future.
Michael Sterczewski is quick to offer his business card and tell you that reinvesting profits is one key to his success.
Michael, the head “chocolatier” at Dream Chocolates of Paris, is 13 years old—and is one smart cookie.
The ambitious pre-teen is enrolled in the Cambridge Program at Belleview Middle School, which prepares students for the demands of secondary education by “giving them a jump start on college and career readiness.” He is also building a Lego village, complete with a huge railroad layout, with his older brother, Kamil, and loves video games.
You could say Michael is a typical kid in many ways, but then he reveals a table laden with his “signature couvertures” and other tasty desserts. Couverture chocolate contains more cocoa butter and is considered a more high-quality chocolate. The superior flavor and texture is ideal for making Michael’s fine candies, such as truffles, chocolate bark and hand-dipped pretzels.
His business card, which bears an image of the Eiffel Tower, carries the tag line “The Exclusive World of French Sweets.”
The energetic entrepreneur works diligently in the kitchen to create his delicacies and then packages them in containers designed to fit the customer or the occasion. One customer, for example, was a bride whose wedding had a blue and silver theme, as Michael learned when he asked her about what she would be wearing and other aspects of the event, “so I could match the colors inside the box with ribbon,” he shares.
Michael’s repertoire includes many dishes native to his mother’s homeland of Poland, such as savory pierogies and sweet and crisp chrusciki, a pastry often called angel’s wings.
His mom, Ewa Sterczewski, carefully guards the secret family recipe for chocolate, but graciously offers a taste of everything on the table bearing the fruits of her son’s labors, such as a decadent cheesecake with a crushed graham cracker crust and luscious layer of cocoa-rich chocolate ganache on top.
“This reminds us of Christmas because we always make it for Christmas,” she says with a lightly accented lilt while offering a single-serving dessert cup of cheesecake. “We bake it throughout the year as well, but we must have it during Christmas. The bottom can be whatever you want, then the cheesecake, which is all homemade, nothing from powder or pre-packaged, and we have chocolate on top. This is dark chocolate, cocoa and other ingredients.”
COMING TO OCALA
Ewa and her husband, Tomasz, are both from Poland. She says his grandmother filled out paperwork for a lottery for him to receive a green card to come to the U.S. He got the card and arrived here in the mid-1990s.
“He worked construction in New York City. His best friend said, ‘You know the English language perfectly. You just don’t belong to the environment of construction. You’re young and presentable; why don’t you join the armed forces.’ He asked him to go to a recruiting station and fill out the paperwork for Marines, Air Force, Army and Navy and they said whoever will take you first, this is where you’re going,” she recalls. “The Marines took him, and he went straight to Parris Island for boot camp. He was in for 16 or 17 years.”
She says when Michael was 2 years old and Kamil was 9, during her husband’s last year in the military, they were taking a last walk in a favorite park in Beaufort, South Carolina, when they encountered people coming ashore from a cruise ship.
“We we asked the people where they were coming from, they said Florida. One lady said, ‘I’m from Ocala.’ I asked her, ‘What is Ocala all about?’ and she said, ‘horses, family-friendly and nice schools.’ We kind of were in the middle of deciding where we would like to live so we said okay, let’s give it a shot and go to Ocala. So, we packed our belongings and we came just because of this lady.”
Now, Ewa is a realtor and Tomasz owns his own trucking company. Kamil, a graduate of the Belleview High School Cambridge Program, recently graduated from the College of Central Florida and will attend the University of Florida to major in architecture.
IN THE KITCHEN
During the pandemic, Michael began helping his mom make meals for the family.
“He can cook chicken noodle soup. He makes pierogies stuffed with mushrooms for Christmas dinner,” she notes proudly. “He makes the pierogies from scratch, from mixing the ingredients through making a dough, shaping the dough and cutting it and then stuffing it and cooking it; all by himself.”
It was during the months of partial confinement, when they were doing schoolwork at home, that Kamil and Michael devised a plan to make and sell chocolates.
“A few years ago, me and my brother decided that we could, maybe, make a business out of chocolates,” Michael says. “So, we just decided to start making chocolates and then put them on Facebook and hopefully sell them. But then we kind of just got uninspired. A year ago, I just got inspired and I took up the business again.”
When asked where the name came from, he offers, “I’m enthused about Paris.”
Although Kamil no longer works in the kitchen with his brother, he does help with packaging the chocolates made by Michael.
As for his favorite things to make, Michael hesitates for a moment before saying the top three are the cheesecake, his special dipped pretzels and the chrusciki.
“The cheesecake is my mom’s recipe. That’s why it tastes really good,” he asserts. “For the pretzels, I melt the chocolate—it’s my special recipe—and then I take the bare pretzel and dip it and then cool it down. The chrusciki is traditional Polish and French. You do not bake it, you fry it. You make a dough, make whatever shape you want out of it, and fry it, then sprinkle it with powdered sugar.”
Ewa and Michael offer a plate of chrusciki, along with a cup of mint tea. The crispness of the pastry is the perfect balance to the delicacy of the aromatic tea.
“In Europe, we have teatime in the afternoon, so this is for afternoon tea or coffee,” Ewa explains. “The tea is made with fresh cut mint leaves. You just put them in the teapot and pour in boiling water.”
MARKETING AND MORE
Michael says his customers range from wedding planners to businesses to relatives of teachers. To explain the variety he offers, such as chocolate coconut squares, biscotti, Jello cheesecake mini cups, and dark, milk and white chocolate bonbons in various shapes, such as hearts and roses, he says, “It is just to have a variety of desserts and flavors for all my customers.”
“He was invited by a wedding and event planner in Belleview to her event in her beautiful barn wedding venue and sold out his chocolates within the first hour,” Ewa notes. “There was a line of people who wanted to buy his chocolates.”
She says he made chocolate boxes for a huge bridal shower for his schoolteacher’s niece for “her gorgeous event in Disney World.”
“He gets invited very often to the VyStar Credit Union to have his table set up for holidays like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day,” she adds, “and now he will be preparing for the Christmas event at the World Equestrian Center.”
Michael is a big fan of Amaury Guichon, a French pastry chef who has a series on Netflix and is co-founder and head instructor at the Pastry Academy. He also keeps tabs on WEC’s Executive Pastry Chef Yohann Le Bescond, who recently made it to the final round of the Food Network’s Summer Baking Championship.
Dream Chocolates of Paris is registered with the state and Ewa proudly says that Michael “does it all on his own. He even pays his dues by himself. He is all independent. Both my kids are very talented.”
As with any business venture, start-up capital and maintaining a revenue stream are critical components. Michael admits to getting some help from his family to get going, but says that now, “I make the chocolates and sell them and the money I get from that I use to make more chocolates.”
While he still needs to navigate a final year of middle school and then high school, he says he plans to “take culinary classes in a college or university and then I want to go to Paris and learn from masters in pastry.” OS
To learn more, go to fb.com/dreamchocolatesofparis