Naperville is a municipality located thirty minutes away from the city of Chicago in the state of Illinois. Here chef Elle Lei, acclaimed chocolatier, opened her chocolate store, SUGOi. This name comes from a Japanese word frequently used as an expression for amazing, awesome, wow, being awestruck or excited — the equivalent of when an English speaker exclaims, “Oh, wow!” Chef Elle Lei started producing chocolates and candies out of a commercial kitchen space in 2019. Her handmade and hand-painted treats have people saying, “Oh, wow”!
Her bonbons are so visually stunning, it is hard to know whether to classify them as chocolate or art. Her eye-catching bonbons in unique and varied flavors take a leap beyond everyday eye candy and deliver subtle, pleasing flavor bombs packed inside impossibly thin chocolate shells. Each piece starts with a hand-painted design to alert the lucky eater to what deliciousness awaits inside. She incorporates some Japanese ingredients—matcha, yuzu, sudachi—but also includes an eclectic range of other flavors.
Lei offers black sesame and ube malt balls, passion fruit caramels, and bonbons in such varieties as Chicago corn, Mexican hot chocolate, peanut butter and jelly, and raspberry rose and season-specific desserts, like this Ichigo Daifuku, or a strawberry-filled mochi, complemented in her version with whipped cream for a twist on strawberries and cream, as well as matcha powder.
“SUGOi Sweets is shaped by my experiences living in the east and west. Whenever l create something, I always try to consider both perspectives and make sure there is something exciting for both palates”
How has your personal journey taken you to create SUGOi Sweets?
SUGOi Sweets is the result of my culinary and personal journey. As a child I craved treats of any form. My mother would often return home from work with sweet gifts in her purse. As a child with no allowance to buy my own treats, this was the best moment. Fast forward many years to my adult self and I worked at my first restaurant job. This came in Louisville, KY while my partner pursued a degree. After working the line for a few years, serving hundreds of guests every night, we moved to the Chicago area and I started my first pastry job, making macarons every day and every hour. As time passed my mind wandered to other desserts and I started experimenting on my own, when an opportunity to live in Japan arrived. I quit the macaron job and moved to Kyoto. Armed with an unlimited Japanese Rail pass and love for Japanese food culture, I explored the country’s dessert and food scene. There were so many new things to experience and it was during this time I recognized there was still a lot to learn, but also that sweets treats can really make an impact in someone’s life by contributing to happy moments and creating enjoyable memories. Even if I didn’t realize it at that point in time, it really planted the seed for what was to become SUGOi Sweets.
I returned to Chicago and the restaurant world with an energy to continue honing my skills and dreamed of ways to translate my ideas into something all my own. After working in a confectioner position at a “boutique” grocery, I decided it was time to do my own thing and spent the next few months researching and brainstorming, basically creating the building blocks of SUGOi Sweets, which was born in the spring of 2019. SUGOi Sweets is shaped by my experiences living in the east and west. Whenever l create something, I always try to consider both perspectives and make sure there is something exciting for both palates.
Did you have in mind what SUGOi was going to be like?
Honestly, I had no clue. All I have ever wanted to do is create things and share them. The first time I sold something of my own was at a neighborhood street fair, about five years before SUGOi Sweets was born. With no research or marketing, I brought a bunch of macarons and mochi I made that weekend. It seems like such a funny combination but that’s what I was into at the time, and I just wanted to get these things I was making at home out into the world. Fast forward a couple of years and I was posting bonbons on social media when someone said they wanted to buy them. That is when I thought it had potential and I started to consider it seriously. I never forced SUGOi Sweets to be anything that did not feel like a natural step forward. I went from playing around with chocolate to hand tempering thousands of bonbons to now having my own little storefront. From that first day it’s always been about the relationship between myself –sweet treats – customer. The characteristics of that relationship may change over time, but I believe it’s always been fundamental to SUGOi Sweets and will continue to be.
“I do have this constant internal pressure building to bring out new and seasonal flavors. I have a lot of flavor ideas in my head and in my notebook. Many of them are concepts in different stages of completion”
How do you choose when it is time to create a new flavor?
Most of the time I feel like it chooses me. While not necessarily new flavors, existing recipes are ever evolving, tweaking a few things here and there. But I do have this constant internal pressure building to bring out new and seasonal flavors. I have a lot of flavor ideas in my head and in my notebook. Many of them are concepts in different stages of completion, some are waiting for that perfect pairing flavor, others need another texture added, or are just waiting for that inspiration to finish off the shell design. While I have forced the advancement of those stages in the past, I am in a place now where I don’t want to launch anything prematurely. But, once those pieces naturally come together I can test them with friends and make final tweaks if needed before launching.
One challenge as a small business owner is always finding the time to be involved in this process. So often I am in production mode and probably not nurturing those new ideas as much as I should. But even when I am ready, our customers need to be ready for something new. While they like to revisit favorite flavors, I also want to excite them with something new. When I feel myself getting too comfortable with my current lineup I know my customers are too. That’s when it’s time to give us all a little something new and I need to create time to nurture that process.
What do you like the most about your day?
On a production day I like that I am actively creating. When a production day goes well, you see the tangible results of your effort and that is pretty special. But also, when a production day is riddled with mistakes, we get to create solutions and learning moments. These days are equally special, if not more so because of the progress born from the experience. On a design day I also like that I am creating, but exercising a different part of my brain. While production days can drain you physically, creative days can sap your mental energy. But when it’s going well, and I feel that creative flow, there is a real purity in that satisfaction. On a day I am working in the store I like interacting with the customers. I enjoy listening to their feedback on my flavors. I am also genuinely curious about their life in addition to what they love eating and thoughts about certain food trends. We get to create relationships with those that stop in weekly. These are personal connections that I would not have if it was not for SUGOi Sweets. And I cherish these interactions, even if they are just brief moments in our day. It’s important to stay connected to people.
“Regarding the look and the general aesthetics of my bonbons, I get a lot of inspiration from graphic designers, illustrators, and photographers. For the flavor part l am mostly inspired by other desserts for example ice cream, pastries, or even beverages and cocktails”
What motivates you to go to work?
This is an easy one… my customers. I do everything I can to get a reaction from those that walk into our little shop. I deal in the currency of smiles and delight. Seeing people get excited about your creations is highly satisfying, borderline addictive. When someone from the neighborhood walks into the store the first time and I see their face light up with excitement I feel a sense of satisfaction that I don’t think can be duplicated in many other settings. Seeing those smiles is my “dopamine loop”. If their joy is my pull then my push is not letting them down. Like everyone, I get really tired during the busy season, but the fear of having an empty display case pushes me out of bed and into production mode. And when I see them having a SUGOi moment, I know my effort was worth it.
Where do you get your inspiration to design your bonbons?
It really varies, each bonbon has their own little story. For example, the matcha bonbon was part of our original collection. While living in Japan we experienced multiple tea ceremonies and was introduced to “matcha dessert culture”. High-end dessert shops and department stores had it on their menu and novelty stores had walls full of inexpensive matcha desserts. I knew it had to be in my first collection. But what about the design? Green was the easy choice. But what then? The gold represents the Kinkaku-ji (golden pavilion) in Kyoto, Japan, which was about five kilometers from our neighborhood. Once I had the colors determined I needed to find which design form best exemplified matcha. The brush swirl was the best technique I had at the time that represented the whisking action of preparing matcha. You can do so many things with bonbons, from the look to the flavor, to the texture, even the packaging. You can pack so much into these little vessels the possibilities are endless. Regarding the look and the general aesthetics of my bonbons, I get a lot of inspiration from graphic designers, illustrators, and photographers. For the flavor part l am mostly inspired by other desserts for example ice cream, pastries, or even beverages and cocktails.
“I feel I am just scratching the surface of mochi potential and I am really excited about where it will take me. Sometimes the simplest combinations win me over”
What is your favorite mochi flavor and why?
I feel I am just scratching the surface of mochi potential and I am really excited about where it will take me. Sometimes the simplest combinations win me over and I still have never found anything I do not like about the first daifuku mochi I made… fresh strawberry with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of matcha powder. It reminds me of my time in Japan, my first daifuku mochi experience, and most importantly… it always puts a smile on my face. There’s a reason why strawberry daifuku mochi is classic and the best in my opinion. The contrast of the texture; juicy fresh strawberry wrapped inside the chewy tender mochi. Let alone the striking visual of the strawberry cross-section. While I have some recipe ideas I am really excited about, I will never forget my first mochi love!
What do you think sets your bonbons apart from the rest of the crowds?
I try not to really focus too much on the industry trends or what other people do because looking back, I found all my signature designs and stand out flavors are expressions that came from my heart and my own experiences. For example, l am a big fan of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. With the love for colorful minimalist aesthetics, I incorporated the dot design in bonbons and it has become my signature design. One of our most popular bonbon flavors, Chicago Corn, comes from a previous work experience where I made loads and loads of Chicago Mix popcorn (a combination of caramel popcorn and cheddar cheese popcorn) from scratch; popping the kernels to caramelizing the popcorn. So, this flavor is very personal to me.
Overall, I try to make things that are true to me and that I believe will excite my customers by playing around with flavors and different influences. Chocolate can be both deliberately fun while also being high-quality. If I can achieve this combination its possible this makes my bonbons unique. For SUGOi Sweets I work hard to execute the best chocolate bonbons while also bringing “wow” moments to my customers. But I also do not take myself too seriously because doing so has the potential to constrain my creativity.
“When customers say ‘these are almost too pretty to eat’ I like to reply, ‘let your camera eat first’
What is more important to you? Look or taste?
While I believe taste should never be compromised, the short answer is they are equally important for SUGOi Sweets. I am certain we cannot have one without the other and I think we can, and should, have both. Personally, I get the same enjoyment from watching customers ogle the display case as I do from seeing their expression when they taste my bonbons for the first time. During the creation phase, I spend about the same amount of time “designing” bonbons as I do creating their recipes. You should see all the illustrations in my draft book, it’s kind of funny to go back and look at their evolution from first mockup to the final bonbon in the box. That same evolution is present in my recipe book. Which tells me how much attention I give to both. And when customers say “these are almost too pretty to eat” I like to reply, “let your camera eat first.”