National Chocolate Cake Day falls annually on Jan. 27 but before we get around to the story of Chocolate Zen, a boutique bakery at 553 Osborne St. where chocolate is the name of the game 365 days of the year, co-owner Douglas Krahn would like to take this opportunity to apologize to VH1’s 15th greatest pop culture icon of all time if he came off as aloof or standoffish the lone time the two of them met.
In 2003, Krahn worked as a pastry chef at Green Gates on Roblin Boulevard. That summer he was commissioned to prepare a birthday cake for actor Richard Gere, who turned 54 while he was in Winnipeg shooting the romantic comedy Shall We Dance?
Later, a crew member approached Krahn again, this time to ask if he’d be interested in working with Susan Sarandon, cast as Gere’s wife. One scene called for Beverly (Sarandon) to give her husband John (Gere) a chocolate cake for his birthday. Peter Chelsom, the film’s director, wanted the writing on the cake to be in Sarandon’s own hand so they were hoping Krahn could show the Academy Award winner how to properly use a piping bag.
He’d be happy to, and one afternoon while he was hanging around the set, Jennifer Lopez, who was playing Gere’s character’s dance instructor, approached him to say hello. Only problem: he had been given strict instructions by the production crew not to interact with J Lo, no ifs, ands or buts.
"In my head I was all, my god, I’m two feet away from Jennifer Lopez, but at the same time I didn’t want to get (heck) for not doing as I’d been told," Krahn says, standing in Chocolate Zen’s kitchen area, flanked by his business partners Betty Lai and Barbara Rudiak. "I ended up blurting out something stupid like, ‘I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to speak to you,’ before turning away."
Krahn was four years old when his mother taught him how to roll German-style buns in their Gretna-area homestead, and 18 when he moved to "the big city" to take a job at Grandma Lee’s, a bakery and sandwich shop formerly located on Pembina Highway. ("Now you’re dating yourself," chides Rudiak.)
He eventually enrolled in Red River College’s commercial baking program — he’s currently a member of the program’s advisory committee — and after netting his diploma he was hired to prepare desserts at bygone dining spots such as Dubrovnik, formerly on Assiniboine Avenue, and the Royal Crown Revolving Restaurant, currently the site of Prairie 360.
Krahn was working at Nesbitt’s Desserts in the mid-1990s when Lai, a Red River College student, arrived there on a job placement. The two became fast friends and in the ensuing years baked side by side at the aforementioned Gates on Roblin, as well as at Breadworks Bakery & Express Café, which used to be in Cityplace.
Lai, whose parents once owned and operated a Chinese restaurant in the Weston area called Lai’s Garden, guesses it was around 2004 when she and Krahn mutually agreed to strike out on their own. She laughs, recalling the first time they set foot in what is now Chocolate Zen, back when it was a mothballed Thai restaurant.
"Talk about gross," Lai says as she delicately brushes melted, white chocolate onto tart shells, explaining it adds flavour and protects the shell from getting soggy.
"She’s right, it was absolutely horrible in here," pipes in Rudiak, a friend of Krahn and Lai’s who helped them renovate the space but didn’t join them as co-owner until 2013, when original partner Danielle Barkman asked her if she wanted to purchase her share. While Krahn and Lai are in charge of everything coming out of the oven, Rudiak’s primary responsibility is the business end-of-things.
"It was all this disgusting shade of orange... we literally had to peel stuff off the walls and floor to see what we were up against," Lai continues. "But the location — five minutes from downtown and 20 minutes from the Gates (on Roblin), where we still catered a lot of weddings — couldn’t be beat so Doug and I were like, where do we sign?" (Interesting sidenote for rock ’n’ roll buffs: Rudiak’s lower level office is situated steps away from where the Tragically Hip took the stage in 1988, back when the building Chocolate Zen occupies was known as Corner Boys, a popular watering hole that featured live acts in the basement.)
After settling on a name — Krahn and Lai had worked in their fair share of "crazy kitchens" where staff screamed back and forth to make themselves heard, so they opted for a tag that denotes tranquility — it was time to come up with a day-to-day menu. Krahn says many of the selections in their display case nowadays — that includes a lemon raspberry torte and their signature dish, a chocolate zen cake, a chocolate sponge layer cake finished with dark chocolate ganache — were available when they first opened in the fall of 2007.
"We have a list of so-called greatest hits that our regulars count on being here when they pop in on a whim," he says. About those regulars; Rudiak says it’s not uncommon to pick up the phone and have the voice on the other end request a replica of a wedding or birthday cake they ordered from the bakery five or 10 years ago. Besides an online gallery showcasing some of their work — those who love to travel will go gaga over a wedding cake made to resemble a pair of leather suitcases, complete with edible luggage tags — they also have a card catalogue dating back to their days at Green Gates, with a description of almost every custom dessert they’ve created through the years printed on individual files, along with who it was for.
While the fallout from COVID-19 definitely affected their bottom line — during a "normal" year, Chocolate Zen turns out in the neighbourhood of 40 wedding cakes in July and August alone; in 2020 that number was closer to 10 for the entire, 12-month period — it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Besides in-store traffic, Chocolate Zen also supplies desserts to around 30 Winnipeg restaurants, some of which, like Kristina’s on Corydon, have been customers for years.
Also, they’ve catered a number of virtual events, including a gala in support of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that saw Krahn personally deliver dessert to 50 guests who were "attending" the online affair from the comfort of their own living room. (Krahn used to get around town behind the wheel of a hearse — you know, desserts to die for? — but they were forced to part ways with that vehicle a while back when it became increasingly difficult to find replacement parts.)
"Like so many other businesses, we’ve done a lot of pivoting these last however many months and that’s kept us on our toes, for sure," Rudiak says, standing near a mounted television set Krahn and Lai amuse themselves with during the day, particularly when programs such as Cake Wars or The Big Bake are on. ("I watch some of these shows and am like, ‘You call yourself a professional baker?’" Lai says with a laugh.)
Also, if you’re looking for a silver lining amid all the pandemic news, here’s one: if this had been a typical January, there is a good chance you wouldn’t have been able to head to Chocolate Zen with any regularity for your macaron, gingersnap or (you had us at schmoo) shmoo torte with caramel and Skor/pecan mousse fix.
"Typically we close for a week or two every January because with so many people resolving to lose weight in the new year, it’s always been our slowest month of the year, no doubt about it," Krahn says. "But since we’ve been working reduced hours anyway — for the time being we’re only open Thursday to Saturday — this year we decided not to take our usual break and judging by the comments we’ve received, our customers seem pleased that’s been the case."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.