When I walk into Diplomat Bakery (6168 London Road), I breathe in the intoxicating aromas of freshly baked pastries, cakes, and cookies, as well as of brewing coffee. As I’m eyeing the tantalizing baked goods in the glass display cases, Gerald Stenson comes out to greet me. Stenson, the pastry chef and co-owner, is soft-spoken and exudes a quiet confidence in his craft, developed over years of hard work and experience.
Stenson hails originally from Enniskillen, a town in Northern Ireland, where he grew up eating the traditional Irish baking of his mother. Soda bread, wheaten bread, and, of course, scones were often in the oven at home.
Young Stenson, who liked working with his hands, initially had an interest in carpentry, but eventually decided to go into culinary arts, enrolling in an apprenticeship program at hotels in Northern Ireland that lasted a year.
Although Stenson liked cooking, he was particularly drawn to the exactitude of baking and pastry arts. “It’s a science in itself. You have to have all the ingredients weighed properly. And it’s not going to work out if you just eyeball things,” he explains.
His talent took him all over the world, starting at the Hilton Amsterdam Hotel. From there, Stenson lived and worked in an impressively diverse range of places, including Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia, Bahrain, Nigeria, and Australia. He even spent two years working on Hayman Island, a private island situated off Central Queensland in Australia. The globe-trotting gave him a wealth of knowledge about different cultures, cuisines, and pastry-making techniques and flavours. “I traveled a lot when I was younger and absorbed all sorts of information and experience,” Stenson says.
Eventually though, Stenson felt the need to settle down and claim a more permanent home for his young family. An uncle who was living on Vancouver Island convinced him to move to the Lower Mainland in 1991. After arriving here, Stenson initially felt discouraged and over-qualified for many of the baking positions available at the time. He briefly worked a graveyard shift at a bakery before landing a job at an airline catering company.
While crafting desserts for airplane passengers, Stenson started to yearn for a business of his own. In 1994, he and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to open a bakery, which they ran on a part-time basis while Stenson continued his catering work. In Bahrain, the two used to like going to the Diplomat Radisson Blu Hotel, inspiring them to name their new establishment, Diplomat Bakery.
Stenson was determined to bring something different to Richmond with their bakery. “I tried to implement European-style cakes, with not too much sugar. I wanted to use good quality ingredients, like butter, Belgium and Swiss chocolate, and fresh whipped cream. Consistency and quality were very important,” he says.
They decided to open in Steveston since they felt the area suited their family-run business and old world baking ethos. “I like Steveston. The village is laid back. It’s quieter, without the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s quaint and people are nice,” says Stenson.
From their very first location on Moncton Street, they initially only produced cakes for wholesale distribution to local places, like the Albercorn Inn, Costco and GM Place (now Rogers Arena). A single delivery would involve 70 to 80 cakes that Stenson had to whip up in a flash. Despite the bustle of high volume production, it was an exciting time, with Diplomat Bakery supplying baked goods to the Vancouver Canucks, the Vancouver Grizzlies, and a host of celebrities who were performing at Rogers Arena. For example, Stenson remembers Bette Midler eating his pastries when she was in town giving a concert.
In 1996, the couple decided to expand into the space next door and open a retail location. Stenson was growing tired of the wholesale business and wanted to build a loyal clientele through more personal relationships. And so, over the next twenty years, Diplomat Bakery worked hard to earn a place in the hearts and discerning palates of customers living in Steveston and beyond.
These customers come for their favourite cakes, such as the tiramisu (mascarpone cream cheese, vanilla sponge cake, and espresso-soaked lady fingers), the triple chocolate mousse cake (dark, milk, and white chocolate mousse; chocolate sponge cake; ganache coating), and the diplomat cake (regular or chocolate flaky puff pastry, vanilla butter cream, vanilla sponge cake). Inevitably, when he takes a cake off the menu in order to make room for others, some of his customers will clamour for its return.
One forkful of their cakes and you will be an immediate Diplomat Bakery convert. The cake is delicately light, the mousse silky smooth, and the flavours easily showcases high quality, fresh ingredients.
Since his start working in the hotel industry, Stenson’s passion for baking and pastry making has not faded. He particularly likes making Danish pastries, such as ones filled with raspberry custard or cream cheese.
He also takes pleasure in inventing new things, like a vanilla sponge cake, layered with matcha butter cream, that he has in the works. Valentine’s Day will see him experimenting with heart shaped cakes (last year, he made small chocolate raspberry mousse cakes), chocolate dipped strawberries, and chocolate tulip cups filled with mousse.
Another exciting recent development is the moving of Diplomat Bakery this past September to a new shop on London Road, just across the street from their previous location. The new space is chic and streamlined, while still exuding the welcoming warmth of a neighbourhood spot. I was struck by the high ceilings, the abundance of natural light from the many windows, as well as the sleek marble countertops and silver pendant lights. A rolling garage door on the side will also allow for outdoor access and seating in the summer.
Also dominating the space is a brand new espresso machine. “Before, we were not well known for coffee and we really wanted to improve on that side,” says Stenson. Diplomat has upped their coffee game with staff who were trained by a professional barista and with high quality roasted beans from Oughtred Coffee in Delta. Diplomat Bakery now offers a full range of coffee beverages, including a chai latte and London Fog. Stenson says that developing their latte art is next on the list for their drink program.
Despite all these exciting changes, the core of Diplomat Bakery remains the same: a shop committed to the integrity of their products and family business model. The couple’s two children, Mark and Adele, have grown up with love for and involvement in the Bakery. While Adele is a nurse and currently has less of an active role, Mark draws upon his business education as he helps out with marketing and operations.
And each member of the family continues to enjoy Dipomat Bakery’s delicious cakes, pastries, and other baked goods, like muffins and cinnamon buns. For Stenson’s last birthday, they celebrated over slices of Black Forest cake. The family’s favourite cake consists of chocolate sponge cake, kirsch flavoured fresh cream, and cherries – it’s decadent, but utterly delicious. “Everything in moderation is good,” says Stenson. And judging by the number of customers who come from all over the Lower Mainland for their cakes, Diplomat Bakery has certainly become a destination for their heavenly sweet offerings.
Recipe: Shortbread Cookies
- 875g soft flour
- 60g corn flour
- 60g rice flour
- 500g butter
- 375 sugar
- 150g egg
- Mix the butter and sugar together without creaming the mixture.
- Add the egg, then sieve the flour into the mix.
- Mix to a smooth dough.
- Roll dough into a 1″ diameter cylinder shape.
- Refrigerate for a few hours.
- Cut cylinder into 1/4″ slices, then put these onto a non-stick tray or use greaseproof paper.
- Sprinkle top with coarse sugar and bake at 300F for approximately 15-20 minutes.
- Let cool, and enjoy!