We spoke with Lesia Kohut, owner and executive pastry chef of LPK’s Culinary Groove. Lesia founded LPK’s in 1998, and earned a well deserved reputation for her beautifully cultivated desserts made with organic and fair trade ingredients. We found out why LPK’s had to recently close shop, why she didn’t choose to use cheaper ingredients, and the one thing we all need to know and share to make people care about the food we eat.
What did you want to accomplish when you started LPK’s Culinary Groove?
For me, this is a three part answer:
When I first started LPK’s in 1998, I wanted to make sure my clients received the best tasting, most beautiful cakes, pastries and chocolates I had to offer. I used the best quality ingredients I was aware of, each order was custom-designed to that specific client’s needs and special celebration, and each dessert tasted as delicious as it looked beautiful.
When I opened LPK’s retail location on Queen Street East in 2008, the store was meant to be an extension of what I was already doing out of my basement for the previous ten years. Not only did I want to provide clients with the most beautiful, and best tasting desserts in Toronto, but it was important to me that people recognize LPK’s as a vegetarian company, we use as many certified organic and fairly traded ingredients as possible, and that we offer a large selection of vegan and gluten-free desserts as well, so people who may not otherwise eat (delicious) desserts, could now do so.
The most important part of this answer though, was wanting to build a relationship between people and food by fostering an awareness of “who and where our food comes from”. This became the most integral part of our mission, and was realized once we started participating in several local farmers’ markets. Evergreen Brick Works was our first, with a total of seven markets per week at the height of our final year.
By actively participating in these markets, LPK’s was able to connect directly with local, organic farmers and food artisans, then champion them by using their amazing ingredients in our menu, ultimately making our clients part of that connection as well. Initially our menu was all sweet, but eventually we offered savoury items as well including our gluten-free rice focaccia, paninis, pizza, and a daily lunch menu at our retail location.
Why do you believe it didn’t succeed?
I think LPK’s did succeed on many levels. We did make Toronto’s best tasting organic, gluten-free desserts and baked goods, and were so proud to offer an extensive vegan selection. We did use as many certified organic, fairly traded, and (eventually) local ingredients as we could. And, we continually talked about who and where our food comes from, so we could nurture that connection with our clients.
Where it didn’t succeed was financially. For that, there are many reasons: location (not nearly as much retail traffic as we’d hoped for or needed); starting a retail business in the fall of 2008 as the global economy collapsed; running a business with high labour and ingredients costs; not having enough time to do effective marketing; and, my not having enough of a head for business.
Perhaps the most significant reason it didn’t succeed though, and the toughest one to swallow, is that for the most part, people – individuals and businesses – are still not willing to spend money on good food (organic, fairly traded, made by hand, grown and produced with love and respect). And of those who are, most of them do so sparingly and only when it’s convenient.
Why didn’t you start using less expensive ingredients in order to increase your profit margins?
Our mission at LPK’s was “Delighting our clients by treating them, our ingredients and our world with love and respect.” Every ingredient, every recipe, every decision, every part of our process was based on that statement. Using less expensive ingredients would have compromised our goal and our ethics. It was not an option.
What cheers you up?
Music, sunshine, the moon, bright colours, Mylana’s (my daughter’s) goofiness, Glenn’s (my husband’s) smile, something nice happening to someone I care about.
What’s your favourite dessert to make?
Almond Torte with Mocha Buttercream. It’s the gluten-free version of my baba Stepha’s Almond/Hazelnut Torte I grew up with. I remember her every time I make it, and even see her hands in mine at times. It’s a very temperamental recipe, so great care has to be taken when making it. And, because I use certified organic, fair trade and local ingredients in it, and have made it gluten-free, it warms my heart and feeds my soul on so many levels.
What’s your favourite dessert to eat?
Same as above. : )
What has the experience of closing a business taught you about yourself?
I’m not sure yet. Although LPK’s retail location closed months ago now, the consequences of that action are still ongoing, and are mostly personal. Lessons are still being learned.
What I do know, is it has been the most painful, devastating experience of my life, and the frustration felt by the shattering of the vision I believed in with every fibre of my being, and worked so incredibly hard for has shaken my faith – in myself and in people in general.
Perhaps once I’m on the other side of this experience, and enough anger and sadness have subsided, I’ll better understand the reasons for this personal and financial loss, will accept them with grace, and will be able to move on.
What has it taught you about others?
Again, this is tough to answer. That’s not to say I know everything there is to know about others. But, I knew I would be supported, which I was. And, I figured there would be those who would judge and criticize and be ready to say “I told you so…”, and they did.
I can only hope people realize it is up to all of us to help make the world a better place, whenever we can. Because food plays such a large role in our lives, it’s one of the best vehicles for making a difference – on a daily basis.
What is one thing we all should do in order to make people care about the food they eat?
Be aware. Know who and where your food comes from; make healthy, responsible choices regarding what and how you eat; and, then share that knowledge and power with others.
How do you want LPK’s to be remembered?
I don’t know if LPK’s is done, so let’s put that fork back in the cutlery drawer.
For now though, I would like people to remember LPK’s as having lived up to its mission of “Delighting our clients by treating them, our ingredients and our world with love and respect.” I would like to think we did our very best with what we had, and what we knew to enrich people’s lives by purposely learning and sharing more about who and where our food comes from, and by providing the best tasting organic, vegetarian/vegan and gluten-free desserts Toronto had to offer.
Work-wise, I don’t know. But I do know I will remain connected to food and sustainability in some way.
For now, my family and I are still very much dealing with the aftermath of the store closing, and will for some time. It continues to be challenging, but I suspect and hope that at some point, it will get easier.
How many times a day do you eat dessert?
When I was at LPK’s, I ate sweets every day, but it was more snacking on ingredients than enjoying a finished dessert.
Now, one of my favourite things to have is a mix of organic, fair trade bananas, almond butter and raspberry jam, or a bowl of homemade organic trail mix.