GOLD COAST — Dan Cohen is not a pastry chef. He never liked to bake. He is not big on sweets.
One Passover during college, as a friend raved about the macaroons his family ate for the holiday, Cohen was like, "Huh?" His wasn't a macaroon-loving family.
Yet here he is, making a career out of the chewy coconut cookie he calls "the ugly sibling" to the prettier, shinier French macaron.
Cohen, 33, is the creator and baker of Danny Macaroons, a newcomer to Chicago's artisan food scene. His nearly 50 varieties of macaroons range from Salted Caramel, his most popular, to Spiced Pumpkin. Already a hit in New York, Cohen said he is poised to open a production facility here by early fall, "maybe sooner."
He started in 2010, in the kitchen of his apartment in New York's Spanish Harlem. In that time, he has gone from hand-delivering his macaroons to coffee shops to getting on the shelves at Bergdorf Goodman to supplying Fresh Direct, a New York grocery delivery service and his biggest customer yet.
His cookbook, "The Macaroon Bible," is due out in October.
In mid-January, Cohen moved to the Gold Coast to be with his girlfriend (also his publicist), though macaroon production remains in New York. His treats have been picked up by a half-dozen restaurants and shops, including JP Graziano Grocery in the West Loop, Belly Shack in Bucktown and, just last week, The Goddess and Grocer in the Gold Coast.
Expanding to other cities — or countries — isn't out of the question.
"I have to get to Australia. Australians love them," Cohen said. "If you look at Google search terms for 'macaroons' and 'coconut,' the top countries are, like, Canada, the U.K., Australia and the U.S."
"I've had trouble keeping them in stock," said Jim Graziano, owner of JP Graziano, where a four-pack sells for $11. "They're not cheap, but you get what you pay for, that's my motto. They're awesome. My wife loses her mind for them."
On Saturday, an unassuming Cohen, wearing a sweatshirt and knit cap, stood at a small table inside The Goddess and Grocer, 25 E. Delaware St., a small pile of cut-up macaroons at the ready. He wasn't quick to call out to customers, but if they happened to glance his way ...
"Please, have some macaroons," Cohen said to three shoppers. "They're really delicious. They're better than you think they are."
That's the thing about macaroons. They're forgettable, or just plain bad.
"Most people have a relationship with coconut macaroons and coconut in general that's really not great," Cohen said.
And here's the thing about Cohen: He isn't using some cherished family recipe. After telling his mom about that macaroon conversation with his college friend, she replied, "Why don't you make them?"
He searched online and cobbled together a bunch of recipes into one "that sounded like something I'd want to eat, because I don't love sweets," he said.
When his uncle's 90-year-old mother-in-law tasted his macaroons at a Passover gathering in 2010, "She did the whole Jewish grandmother thing. 'You should sell these,' " he said in his best Jewish grandmother voice.
Two weeks later, he took a batch to his favorite cafe, intent on bartering them for coffee. Instead, they wanted to sell them. It wasn't long before he left his job at a software startup and began baking full time.
He's since refined his five-ingredient base recipe. His macaroons are at once crispy and chewy, not cloying or fake-tasting.
"It's way cheaper to use artificial coconut flavoring, or sub in flour for some coconut," Cohen said. "I don't do anything other than not cut corners."
Marcy Meckler, a customer at The Goddess and Grocer, could tell the difference.
"Usually, they're so dry, no flavor," she said, chewing on a salted caramel nubbin. "These have a lot of taste and texture to them."
She bought a four-pack.
For all his success in such a short time, Cohen works simply. He and three employees bake by hand in 100-piece batches. He figures his hands alone have formed at least 100,000 macaroons.
He likes pushing his product face-to-face — walking into a cafe to ask if it might sell them, or handing out samples. He'll be at the Steppenwolf Red or White Ball April 5 at Venue One, 1044 W. Randolph St.; at the April 7 Fashion Rocks benefit at bellyQ, 1400 W. Randolph St.; and at Bow Truss Coffee, 406 N. Wells St. on April 26.
The last event is a popup sale, no tickets or fancy attire required: just a guy behind a table, with macaroons.