Kristine M. Kierzek
Brett Lipshutz and Didier Leplae have always appreciated a good home-cooked meal, especially when shared with friends. In recent months, they continued to find ways to connect via Zoom gatherings. During those online dinnertimes they started talking business.
Inspired by their love of food and travel, Lipshutz and Leplae co-founded Happy Chik Chickpea Tofu. Based on a Burmese recipe, their shan style tofu isn’t really tofu in the traditional sense. Made with chickpea flour and salt, it is soy-free, gluten-free, and vegan. In July, they began selling at the Fondy Farmers Market, and sold out their very first weekend.
Currently, they are selling at the Fondy Market the last two weekends of every month, and while they work to increase their sales outlets, they are taking individual orders via Facebook.
Didier: My background is mostly as a musician and film composer. I have played in several bands in Milwaukee over the years, and about 15 years ago I started a business with Chris Smith, a local filmmaker who moved away. He and I, and Joe Wong, started a business doing music for commercials and TV and film. I grew up in Shorewood, to parents who were from Europe. My mom is from France. My dad is from Belgium. I went to UWM.
Really, I just like to cook. I cook all the time. Me and my wife, we eat at home almost every meal, especially now during COVID. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Milwaukee Kitchen, a YouTube cooking show. … I was a quasi host of the show for a while. I don’t have a background as a professional cook, but I am interested in food. My wife and I love to travel and try food from all over the world. My wife and I went to Burma a couple of times. I loved the food in Burma and we found out about this shan tofu with chickpeas. I had it in Burma and loved it. When we came back home I learned to make it. A few months later I was talking with Brett and found out he loves to make it, too. Why don’t we start a business.
Brett: I came to Milwaukee in 1992 as a bassoon performance major at UW-Milwaukee. I quit music school and ended up doing tours with Trinity Irish Dance in Chicago, a few Celtic albums for Narada, worked with the Milwaukee Rep. I ended up going to get a master’s degree in French and linguistics, lived in Paris for a year, in West Africa, then came back here. I was the director at Alliance Francaise and teaching at University School of Milwaukee in the language department. I left in August to pursue some bilingual French and English software training in Canada … then we couldn’t travel …
I’m also obsessed with food. The other thing is I am allergic to dairy, so a lot of the foods I research and cook have to do with my diet. Our tofu is dairy free, but it can have a cheese-like quality.
Didier: When we were first conceiving of this business, we had some doubt about whether we wanted to use the word tofu. First of all, it is not like tofu, it is not made from soy. It is completely made from chickpeas, but it seemed like tofu was the easiest way to give people an idea of what it is.
Brett: When you look at the word tofu, it comes from bean and fermented in Chinese. A chickpea is kind of like a bean, so it kind of makes sense, except ours is not fermented. Ours is cooked fresh.
Need to know
Brett: Chickpeas, that’s one of the things that is tolerated for Crohn’s, and for diabetics this is a low glycemic food. It is corn free, gluten free, dairy free, soy free. All these “frees” make it sound like it has no taste, but that is not the case.
Didier: It is a really simple food. The basic ingredients are chickpea flour, water and salt.
Brett: We use ingredients for flavor, like turmeric or chiles.
Learning as they go
Didier: We are selling something people don’t know about, so we’re having to convince people to try something they’ve never tried before.
Brett: And we can’t give samples now because of COVID.
Didier: People are still surprisingly interested and want to try it.
Favorite way to prepare
Didier: There are so many things to try. When you cook it, it has a creamy, silky texture.
Brett: I take the chile tofu and broil it in sticks, then chop it up and make tostadas with it. That’s my favorite lately.
Brett: We were at Indian Groceries and Spices, 10701 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, getting some chickpea flour. We had tried five or six brands. It was figuring out which one was fine enough, which one didn’t leave a bitter taste. I was putting the flour on the conveyor belt. This couple in front of me wanted to know what I was going to make. Then the owner of the store asked me about it and said, “I have a lot of Burmese customers and I’d love a sample.” We went back the next week and gave him a sample. Then he got down a 10-pound bag of chickpea flour for me, and it is it is their brand, Nirav, that he started with his brother.
Didier: They’ve been around since 1972. His wife (Bharti Sanghavi) has a vegetarian cookbook they sell in the store. Their website is one of the biggest distributors of Indian groceries in the country. I had no idea.
Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected]