View photos of the fundraiser.

ZenKitchen co-founder Dave Loan is not only planning to reopen his gourmet vegan restaurant. He's looking at doubling the number of nights it offers jazz.

ZenKitchen co-founder Dave Loan (left) happily surveys the room at Tuesday's 'Great Chefs Go Vegan' fundraiser. ©Brett Delmage, 2014
ZenKitchen co-founder Dave Loan (left) happily surveys the room at Tuesday's 'Great Chefs Go Vegan' fundraiser. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Speaking at a packed fundraiser for the restaurant Tuesday, Loan said that there were still a few stumbling blocks to overcome before he could get back in business. But he hoped to open in three to four weeks, and preferably by the end of June.

He said he was overwhelmed by the support ZenKitchen had received from the community.

“A few weeks ago, I gave up. I cried a lot, and I told the staff we were done. And then voice after voice said 'We need to take action here.' ... You guys lifted me up and gave me the courage to fight.”

“I have been so touched and so overwhelmed by the community, by our friends, by our customers. I thought of us as just another little restaurant that was having some trouble, and the response has been unbelievable. I had no idea ... it makes me tearful all the time.” He choked up at this point.

An on-line donation campaign at gofundme.com has so far raised $7,140 (of a $20,000 goal). Tuesday's “Great Chefs Go Vegan” event raised about $10,000, Loan said. 74 tickets at $100 each were sold in advance, and at least one more ticket was sold at the door. A silent auction raised further funds, including a bid of over $500 for a cooking class and dinner with chef Caroline Ishii (the original ZenKitchen chef and co-founder).

Jazz was an important part of the fundraiser. Ten prominent local jazz musicians, almost all of whom had played at the restaurant, volunteered to perform.

Vocalist Peter Liu coordinated the event's music. “When I first heard about of the news of ZenKitchen closing, I was really quite upset about it, on a few levels, because not only is it wonderful food and it's the only gourmet vegan restaurant in town, and that closing was definitely a blow on a restaurant level. But as a jazz venue, they programmed jazz regularly for a couple of years, very successfully, and having some of the best players around town and even some visiting people playing there.”

“For this venue to disappear means quite a blow to the jazz community and so I really felt I wanted to do something – to try to help raise some money to help it to get restarted.”

ZenKitchen had run regular Sunday jazz shows, first brunches then weekly dinner shows, since July, 2012. Liu was one of their first performers and had continued to sing there occasionally. “They really treated the musicians there so well. I was fortunate enough to play there a couple times and had a really wonderful experience. They were really supportive of live jazz in a way that I think few restaurants have taken on at that level of support.”

He was very happy to see the overflowing audience Tuesday. “The way everybody's rallied around it has been incredibly inspiring, and very hopeful for me to see.”

For this venue to disappear means quite a blow to the jazz community and so I really felt I wanted to do something – to try to help raise some money to help it to get restarted. – Peter Liu

The music started with Liu singing standards with bassist Normand Glaude, guitarist Bill Gobby, and clarinetist Scott Poll. They were followed by a quiet but intense duet of guitarist Garry Elliott and bassist John Geggie. Vocalist Nicole Ratté sang standards and Latin numbers together with Glaude and Elliott, and the last set was another engaging duet between two guitarists, Roddy Ellias and Tim Bedner, the curator of the ZenKitchen Sunday jazz series.

Ratté said she was “glad to have sung and I was glad to have listened to other musicians and I was amazed at the response, both from the musicians and from the people. It was a success, and it was very touching to see that.”

ZenKitchen is “a venue that encourages jazz, and good jazz. It needs to stay,” she said. But she had another reason to support it as well: “It's an atmosphere that I really love, and I celebrate my birthday and my daughter's birthday there every year! So we want to continue going there every year, too.”

Visual artist Nancy Green said she donated a piece of her art to the silent auction because of the positive and welcoming experience she had with the owners of ZenKitchen. She said the restaurant respected her art, took care in handling it when she displayed it there so it stayed in perfect condition, and even passed on feedback about the art that they gleaned from their customers.

ZenKitchen closed May 22, after the Canadian Revenue Agency seized its bank account for HST arrears. After Loan announced the closing, there was an immediate offer of help, from both the jazz and restaurant communities. Liu offered to assist with a fundraiser, as did Chef Tarek Hassan of food truck Gongfu Bao, and Chef My Van Tran from the Shanghai Restaurant. Okhee Choi quickly offered her Korean Palace restaurant (next door to ZenKitchen) as the fundraiser location. Auntie Loo's joined in to provide vegan desserts. The Shanghai's inimitable China Doll, a Chinatown institution, emceed the show.

Most importantly, an angel investor stepped forward, Loan said, to bankroll the restaurant so that it could not only pay its back debts and reopen, but also expand. He said he could not yet identify the investor: “at this point [he] isn't quite ready to announce his name.”

“He's come forward and offered a significant amount of investment in the restaurant to get it back up and running, but also to improve it. He wants us to convert the second floor into dining space, he would like us to do other improvements to the restaurant, and that should be able to get us going.”

If everything goes well, the improvements will likely include more jazz, on Tuesday or Wednesday nights. “Our investor loves that we're doing live jazz, and he would love to see us offering a second night. Our Sunday night service is dinner with jazz in the background. What he would like us to do is to have a night where the focus is on the music. So lounge-style, people would have to buy tickets or pay a cover at the door for that one, but the focus would be on the music with a little bit of food and drink service as well. But with the idea being not interrupting the music – really there to hear some great jazz.”

The musicians have brought in a whole new audience to ZenKitchen. People who come for the music and stay for the food, and then keep coming back. – Dave Loan

The Sunday jazz nights definitely will continue, Loan said. “Sunday nights have really gone well. We've got a very solid jazz audience coming in at this point. It's difficult because there's some diners who are more interested in just having dinner and conversing, but it's a restaurant first, to be honest, and we always hope that people will appreciate the music. But there have been some magical moments when everybody's just quieted down and listening to the music. We've also had some impromptu performances by friends of the musicians who have come in, somebody who stood up and played clarinet, or somebody who stood up and sang. One of our servers has got up a couple times now and sang: she's quite talented. And that's great.”

“The musicians have brought in a whole new audience to ZenKitchen. People who come for the music and stay for the food, and then keep coming back.”

The restaurant is also looking at returning its roots with a menu more reflective of “the stuff we used to do” and “more familiar flavours”. Loan told the fundraiser that he'd been working with Ishii over the past few weeks to redo the menu.

But there are still some stumbling blocks.

“There's still some outstanding issues including renegotiating with our landlord and settling with past staff who still need to be paid – I'm hoping tonight's fundraiser will assist with that – as well as paying suppliers that we still owe money to. And, of course, taxes that need to be dealt with as well. So lots of issues yet. We're gradually moving forward but we're not there yet,” Loan said.

The money raised Tuesday “is essentially going to go to pay staff who were working for ZenKitchen when we closed and didn't get their last paycheque. The goal is to go forward without having left behind staff or suppliers who went unpaid, so that we can start with a clean slate.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage
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