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When one of Toronto‘s hardest working and talented chefs teams up with one of the city’s equally talented artist and filmmakers, the result is – unsurprisingly – a fine fusion of playful design and food. If your love of colour and shape rivals your love of sweets, look no further than Toronto’s hottest new chocolate shop, Chocolates x Brandon Olsen (CXBO). Brandon Olsen is no stranger to Toronto’s food scene; as former chef de cuisine at two of the city’s top restaurants – Bar Isabel and Black Hoof – he’s spent the past 15 years honing his craft. While chocolatiering began as a hobby, it’s now his full-time gig, working alongside fiancé Sarah Keenlyside, a filmmaker and artist. In December 2015, the two launched Chocolates x Brandon Olsen and opened a storefront on College Street in June 2016. Together, Sarah and Brandon bring their respective talents to CXBO, creating an undeniably unique approach to chocolate-making that is evident in every aspect of CXBO – whether it’s the inventive flavour combinations, imaginative designs, or playful packaging.
None of Brandon and Sarah’s hustle and passion should come as a surprise, however. Brandon managed to swing an internship at the then-number one restaurant in the world, when, at the age of 22, he wrote Chef Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s The French Laundry every week for six months until he was finally offered an apprenticeship. After two short months, he was working at Keller’s new restaurant Ad Hoc and contributed to the bestselling Ad Hoc cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. His recipes have been featured across the globe, including Vice Munchies, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and more. Sarah, meanwhile, has been making waves in the art world. You may have caught her recreation of iconic movie character Ferris Bueller’s bedroom at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel in January 2016, and even if you didn’t, you likely saw it on Instagram. Since debuting in Toronto in January 2016, the installation has been exhibited in both Chicago and Niagara Falls, seen by over 7,000 visitors.
The Culture Trip caught up with Sarah to chat all things chocolate, design, collaboration, and how CXBO came to be (Tinder may or may not be partially responsible).
With your background as an artist, and Brandon’s roles in Toronto’s restaurant scene, the fusion of art and food is really apparent at CXBO. Could you elaborate on yours and Brandon’s prior experience, and how CXBO came to be?
Brandon and I have an interesting story – we met on Tinder! Which I think is why two people from such disparate practices happened to meet. We probably would never have crossed paths otherwise – he was chef de cuisine at Bar Isabel at the time, working from noon to 4AM almost every night, and I was running a video production company and doing art projects, which generally made me a day person that went out for fun at night. I’d eaten his food a few times at Bar Isabel and the Black Hoof before I met him, and without Tinder, that would have probably been the extent of our connection.
Brandon’s background includes working at many of Toronto’s top restaurants (he was chef de cuisine at Bar Isabel and The Black Hoof) and then two years working for Thomas Keller in Napa Valley, first apprenticing at The French Laundry for a few months and then working at Ad Hoc, which at the time was just opening. I know that experience was incredibly formative for him, and you can see the influence of both restaurants in the way he approaches everything he makes, whether it be food or chocolates.
My background both as an artist and filmmaker specializing in films about art. You can see what I mean by that here: https://vimeo.com/channels/inkblot. In terms of my art practice, I focus on large-scale, temporary installations for exhibitions like Nuit Blanche. My last project was recreating Ferris Bueller’s bedroom at the Gladstone Hotel for their Come Up To My Room exhibition in January this year. It was an insane idea, but somehow I pulled it off!
I really think my approach to CXBO is as a producer, rather than just an artist; I’ve found that the same skills can apply to just about any project whether it’s a film, an artwork or a chocolate shop. I always see my role as being the person who figures out how to get things done and connects the right people and things to the project at hand. For example, our amazing graphic designer Ryan Crouchman is someone I have worked with on video projects, and just knowing people who are that talented is half the battle.
Located just west of Dufferin, on College, you’re in the heart of Brockton Village – a relatively quiet neighbourhood with plenty of independent shops popping up, from handbags to coffee shops. What made you choose the College St. location?
Affordable rent! We wanted a space where, first and foremost, we could produce the chocolates, so location was secondary. A huge part of our business is custom work and ordered by email or phone, so we didn’t really care how busy the store would be. That being said, the area we’re in is really picking up – lots of young makers are starting to occupy the storefronts, many of which had been empty for a long time. One of our biggest surprises after opening our doors is how much traffic we see in the store each day – people come from all over the city to pick up our chocolates. Instagram has really done a lot for our business to get the word out. We spend a great deal of time working on our page (with the help of a company called Switchboard – they really got our Instagram game going), so whenever we post something new, we see an increase of traffic coming in.
How does CXBO stand out from Toronto’s chocolate crowd?
I think our chocolates really convey the magic of candy through our use of colour and playful shapes. There’s a reason Willy Wonka is one of the most beloved movies of all time – I think people love colour and beauty just as much as they love deliciousness. The chocolates also express this in a design-minded way – we’re not heavy-handed about it, but the chocolates do reference our favourite architects (like Buckminster Fuller who designed geodesic domes) and artists (like Jackson Pollock). And lastly, I think the flavours are really incredible – Brandon’s background as a chef really shows through the unique combinations he develops for our collections. I’m pretty sure some of our flavours are totally unique to our company.
For the most important of questions: what are yours and Brandon’s personal favourites or recommendations for people coming into the shop for the first time?
Our concept is a little different. Many chocolate shops carry a wide variety of flavours all the time, but we offer a small number of flavours and change them frequently. We have three offerings at any given time. We have our Classic Collection of nine different flavours that come in boxes of nine and 18 pieces. We also have boxes of just salted caramels in nine and 18 as well. Our third collection is the one that changes – we always offer a limited edition box; we usually just make 100 boxes, and when they’re gone, they’re gone! Those collections always have three different flavours and just come in boxes of nine (so three of each flavour). Our latest collection is called The French Collection, and the chocolates are inspired by the flavours and colours of French macarons. All our collections come in hand-painted boxes.
We also do special collections for the Drake General Store – we’re just working on the newest one now of fall-inspired flavours/colours. Again, we make them 100 boxes of that collection, and when it’s gone, we create a new collection.
Wednesday to Saturday: 11am – 7pm
Sunday: 11am – 5pm
Monday and Tuesday, by appointment
Chocolates x Brandon Olsen, 1132 College St, Toronto, ON, Canada, +1 416 588 CXBO (2926)