In May, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights hosted a gala event at which architects from across the country got their first peek inside the CMHR.
One of the guests was Antoine Predock, the New Mexico-based architect who designed the building. Also in attendance was Constance Menzies, owner of Chocolatier Constance Popp, a chocolate boutique/café at 180 Provencher Blvd. that was recently named one of the primo places to eat in Winnipeg by the international travel guide Lonely Planet.
Menzies was on hand to present Predock with a fitting gift — a solid, scale-model replica of the museum, fashioned entirely out of dark, Belgian chocolate.
"We worked with a local artist, Denis Duguay, who also does (snow) sculptures for the Festival (du Voyageur)," says Menzies, noting it took her and Duguay a couple of months to duplicate the museum's signature features, right down to the Tower of Hope. "Antoine Predock was beside himself when he saw it; he couldn't believe we made it for him."
A couple of weeks later, Predock sent Menzies a copy of his book Architectural Journeys as a token of his appreciation. He penned a personal note on the inside cover describing her as a "choco-artist" and telling her how much he enjoyed her "choco-monument."
Thrilled, Menzies began leafing through the tome. That's when she spotted a typed dedication at the top of page 4 reading, "To Constance... "
'Our goal is to share Winnipegwith the rest of the worldthrough chocolate'
"I was like, 'Wow, how nice is that? He had a special edition of his book printed, just for me.' "
Not so fast: After Menzies began telling friends about Predock's message, one of them pulled her aside and whispered, "Uh, Constance, you do know that Antoine's wife's name is Constance, right?"
When Menzies shared that story with Predock in an email, he replied, stating, "I guess my dedication now has a dual meaning, doesn't it?"
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Remember that television commercial from the 1970s — the one that asked, "How do they get the caramel in the Caramilk bar?"
Well, here's another choco-centric head-scratcher: How did a corporate environmental manager for a leading furniture company become one of this nation's foremost chocolate chefs, to the degree her chai tea truffles, chocolate-covered roasted almonds and Manitobars — confections made in the shape of the Keystone Province — have been enjoyed by Olympic champions, Oscar recipients and members of the Royal Family?
The answer to that question begins in, of all places, Churchill.
"Churchill was fabulous; I think it's what made me and my two sisters so adventurous and willing to take chances," says Menzies, whose father, a former National Harbours Board employee, was transferred to northern Manitoba from Montreal in 1974. "We stayed there until the late '70s then moved to Winnipeg for the start of Grade 5. Our mom tried hard to refine us but I don't think (Churchill) ever left us; I still feel like we're a bit rugged — a bit street-edgy."
Menzies studied geography and natural resources at the University of Manitoba. She spent a year living and working at Riding Mountain National Park before catching on with the City of Winnipeg, where her portfolio focused on riverbank erosion. In time, a "super-fabulous" job at Palliser Furniture opened up, and Menzies was on the move, again.
"Around that same time, I had started making really good food at home — breads and cheeses and things — which led to chocolate, which led to buying moulds and really getting into it," says Menzies, who also found time to write. Her play, Passage to Paradise and Pandemonium about adventurer Don Starkell's ill-fated Arctic kayak trip, was staged at the 2002 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival.
Every once in a while Menzies would bring a batch of her bonbons to work. One day, in between nibbles, her supervisor told her, "Constance, you need to do this for real."
Menzies juggled careers for a few months, working nine-to-five at Palliser and peddling her creations to gift shops and bistros in her spare time. But there weren't enough hours in the day to do both, she quickly discovered.
"Quitting my job was hard at first, but not because I was scared or anything. What made things difficult was I really loved what I was doing," says Menzies, who, after leaving Palliser Furniture, spent 10 months honing her craft at chocolate academies in Montreal, Chicago and Brussels before opening her first store (Popp is her ex-husband's surname) on Portage Avenue in December 2007.
Because of her deftness at incorporating homegrown ingredients — things such as hemp, flax seed and birch syrup — into her chocolates, Menzies has been courted by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba to present her goodies to the likes of Sandra Bullock, Pierce Brosnan, Céline Dion and "that Rebel Yell guy" (we think she means Billy Idol) at star-studded events across the continent.
The person she enjoyed meeting the most, though?
"Justin Trudeau came into the shop a couple of weeks ago and I was completely and utterly... I couldn't speak," she says, reaching for her phone to show off a picture of her and the federal Liberal party leader.
Menzies' present-day digs, which she moved into 16 months ago, offers visitors an area to sit down and enjoy a coffee or espresso along with a slice of biscotti. She hears from customers all the time — people who pester her to open a location in their end of town — but for the time being, she is content with building her brand and coming up with as many new recipes and designs as possible. (Yes, she sleeps with a notepad next to her bed, in case she wakes up at 3 a.m. with an epiphany.)
Menzies throws her head back and laughs when she is asked if her occupation is anything like what was depicted on the screen in Chocolat, the stylish, 2000 film about a woman, played by Juliette Binoche, who establishes a chocolate shop in a picturesque, French village.
"I love that movie — I watch it once a year, at Easter — but to answer your question, no. We don't just decorate and talk about our emotional troubles all day long."
In time for the holidays, Menzies and her staff are putting the finishing touches on a chocolate Golden Boy — no Winnie the Pooh controversy here; He'll have "parts," she jokes — which will also be on sale in the gift shop at the Manitoba Legislative Building.
"For every shop we're in, we always try to come up with something unique. We created an ulu (Inuit knife) for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, for example. We think of ourselves as ambassadors for Winnipeg.
"Our goal is to share Winnipeg with the rest of the world through chocolate."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Sunday, December 14, 2014 at 11:29 AM CST: Replaces photo
12:44 PM: Adds slideshow