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From welder to chocolatier

Larry Jensen displayed some of his chocolates and foil-wrapped cordials during the Park Rapids Art Leap last month. He's marketing them at area farmer's markets right noiw.1 / 2
Jensen's chocolate "tortoises" are made witih penuche, not a traditional caramel-chocolate combination. They get rave reviews.2 / 2

Jackpine Savage, meet Julia Child.

This real-life story of a jack-of-all-trades turned Northwoods chocolatier is the tale of Guthrie resident Larry Jensen.

The farmer-welder-black-smith-machinist-pipe fitter-handyman saw opportunity when Ainsworth Lumber Co. idled, then eventually closed its Bemidji plant in October 2008 due to the stagnant home-building economy.

Jensen had been there 10 years as a welder. Before that he'd worked a series of jobs farming, fabricating, welding and using his skills as companies needed.

"It started out Potlatch and ended up Ainsworth and then when they closed they were offering the people laid off programs for retraining them," Jensen explained.

"So then that's when I made the decision to switch professions and go to school. I wanted to become an artisan bread baker with a wood-fired brick oven," he said.

"In order to do that I had to go to an accredited school. The nearest one was Le Cordon Bleu (College of Culinary Arts in Minneapolis) and it ended up being a 15-month course."

State retraining programs picked up the $40,000 in tuition costs, which Jensen admits he could not have afforded himself.

"My main thrust was bread baking," Jensen said upon entry to the shi-shi chef school.

"They also had a couple courses in culinary and then they had a course or two in cake baking and decorating and then they had a couple courses in chocolate and a couple classes in standard piece decoration and blowing sugar, candy making, a pretty well-rounded curriculum," he said.

"One course was in chocolates, tempering chocolate and candy making and fudge and penuche and divinity and so forth.

"Anyway of all the things that I picked up, I discovered I really enjoyed making chocolate," he said. "There's a whole lot more to chocolate than buying a Hershey or a Dove bar."

Jensen's epiphany occurred even though he didn't consider himself a "choco-holic."

"I'm not as attached to it as some people," he said. "I like it but having been raised in northern Minnesota I was never really exposed to good quality chocolate very much until I got down to the school."

But there was something about the art and science of making chocolates that appealed to Jensen's palate and piqued his curiosity.

"It rivals winemaking," he said. "Some of the techniques and varieties available, it's the equivalent of wine. There's different plantations where chocolate comes from, different elevations, soil conditions, they use a lot of the same terminology for chocolate as they do for wine: 'It's got an excellent finish' or 'it's got a reddish taste or it's flowery' and I thought whoa."

An aficionado was born. "I think I'm gonna do chocolates until I can build up a little bit of a financial bankroll and end up combining baking artisan bread with making chocolates," Jensen said.

He's currently marketing his chocolates and cordials at "farmers market type things, just kind of building a customer base."

The costs of building or leasing a commercial kitchen are daunting, he said.

"I have checked out property, renting of a certified kitchen in the area," he said. "If I start selling a lot of chocolates, if the product is really in demand, I'm going to have to do that or find a bakery or something before I build my own.

"To establish a brand new, from scratch, commercial kitchen, one of the places I was looking... a basic small kitchen was $50,000 for the essential starting. That's a lot of chocolate!"

In late September, Jensen showed and sold his chocolates during Art Leap while wife Paula displayed her metal art.

Larry Jensen's inventory includes a chocolate tortoise (not a classic turtle) that studio guests drooled over, and liquor-filled cordials made with Bailey's Irish Cream, Cointreau, Kahlua coffee and other rich fillings, each individually foil-wrapped.

He won't divulge any more. Trade secrets, he whispers. But he admits it's a time-consuming process of tempering the chocolate and fussing over it. He was a fusser as a welder and he wants this product to be equally artful.

He laughs as he displays the covered glass platter, decked out in a worn flannel shirt, ball cap and work boots.

"I'm definitely looking forward to my mission to bring a little cultural taste to northern Minnesota," he said.

He can be reached at 218-224-3283 in Guthrie.

And no, he won't call his business Jackpine Julia's.

Sarah Smith is a reporter for the Park Rapids Enterprise, a publication of Forum Communications Co.