The Downtown Tastemaker: Meet Jin Caldwell

Jin Caldwell

It took time for Master Chocolatier Jin Caldwell’s father to accept what his daughter chose to do for a living.

When he sent her to Denver, Colorado at 19, he anticipated his daughter would return to Seoul, Korea to work as a doctor. But after six months, Caldwell dropped out of medical school to pursue a different kind of science.

“I wanted to be in the real world and work,” says Caldwell. “I wanted to obviously study English in a fast way, so I chose not to be with a lot of Korean friends. I wanted to be more into the American world and learn real things.”

If you ask her today what she loves most about her job, she’ll tell you it’s the meticulous process she goes through to make that perfect Matcha truffle. Though Caldwell opened her first retail store at Downtown Container Park in July, JinJu Chocolates originally launched online in 2011. It already counts among its wholesale clients such major properties as the Palms, Caesars Palace and the Cosmopolitan. So, yeah, she may not be the doctor her father always dreamed … but she still preserves life, in a way. The shelf life of chocolate counts, right?

Caldwell’s love affair with chocolate began as a slow burn. Her family owned restaurants in Korea, but when she moved to Denver, she soon realized her passion lay elsewhere, and found herself a job as a waitress. It didn’t take long for her to realize she preferred the atmosphere at the back of the house to the front of it. She watched the chefs peel, chop and garnish daily. She noted the many ways you could peel a head of garlic without the method ever mirroring that of your neighbor.

Through this observation, Caldwell realized food, like art, allowed the expression of creativity. Caldwell chose chocolate as her medium not only for its artisan appeal, but also for the science of it.

“I think the beauty about baking and pastries is everything has to be precise and it needs a lot of discipline. So I like that a lot,” Caldwell says. “Chocolate, more so than pastries. One degree or two degrees off in chocolate work, it’s not gonna work.”

Caldwell’s decision to leave medical school and enroll in Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona may have upset her father, but her post-graduation successes sweetened his sour feelings. Caldwell hit the kitchens of Sin City in 1996 as a baker at Green Valley Ranch. After building her resume there, she set her sights on the Bellagio—and renowned pastry chef Jean Philippe Maury.

“One day I had an interview with him … (though) I actually didn’t have an appointment,” Caldwell says. “I kind of went in there and I brought my portfolio of photos and my resume and I said, ‘Chef, I really would like to work for you. Please give me a chance.’”

And she got it.

Maury tested her on her ability to make everything from a chocolate sculpture, to bonbons, to European truffles. Afterward he surveyed her work, and to Caldwell’s dismay, he told her in so many words that it—well, it sucked. But one thing caught the French pastry chef’s eye: something that can only to be described as the Jin Caldwell touch.

“My product is very, very clean,” Caldwell says. “When people see my product, they know that’s done by Jin. It’s very creative, but at the same time, it’s flavorful. I have a very nice feminine touch.”

Maury hired her that day because of it.

She spent two years at the Bellagio before joining the opening team for the Wynn. Caldwell admits the life of a chef life wasn’t all glamour; she worked 18 to 20 hours a day and pretty much ran on fumes.

Success began to follow Caldwell everywhere she went. In 2007, Caldwell’s all-female team earned a silver medal at the National Pastry Team Championship. She received emails from several female culinary students who had watched the competition and felt inspired by Team Caldwell’s work. Caldwell says she felt “empowered” by the support even though an all-female team hadn’t been her intention; it simply happened that way. The Pastry Arts & Design Publication also nominated Caldwell for “Top 10 Chocolatiers in North America” in 2009.

After leading the research and development team at MARS Chocolate Incorporated for six years, Caldwell decided to launch JinJu Chocolates in 2011. The store was an exclusively online venture, with 90 percent of the business being wholesale. But her plans for JinJu took a turn when she met Zappos Founder Tony Hsieh at a marathon Caldwell participated in.

“I was really intrigued by him and how he came to Vegas and how he grew Zappos from ground zero,” says Caldwell. “I was really inspired.”

Connecting with Hsieh encouraged Caldwell to immerse herself in the Downtown Project. By 2013, Caldwell began mapping out the launch of her first retail store in Container Park.

“I knew that Downtown would be a perfect spot for me personally, because I adore Downtown,” Caldwell says.

In her spare time she enjoys the local flavor. She frequents First Friday and bar hops. She dines at Carson Kitchen and loves Stuart Shane’s drinks at Grassroots juice bar.

“I think we need a place like (Downtown),” she says.

Caldwell says she’s constantly thinking of ways to help Downtown to grow and mature. If given the opportunity, she’d even take a chance on … farm-to-chocolate?

“I can partner with a cocoa farm…maybe it’s gonna be Peru, and they are the only ones sourcing all my beans,” Caldwell explains. “But then everything else, I use in my chocolate. It could be herbs, spices, lemon, orange—any kind of thing that I can imagine to incorporate into my product. I’d love to do that.”

Caldwell’s plans aren’t limited to just her business. With Downtown’s rapid growth, Caldwell says she’d like to see more housing crop up. And she hopes, one day, that the stereotype of Downtown being a dirty, crime-ridden slum will fade.

“Everybody needs to take a piece of pride and come out and participate every day,” Caldwell says. “I think once we do that, we’re going to grow our community. I want everybody to come out and join us.”

JinJu Chocolates, 707 Fremont St, (702) 348-9407

Vegas Seven