Making vanilla to pay the bills: a talk with an ice cream alchemist
We live in a great food city. It's not New York. It's not San Francisco. And it shouldn't be.
Denver is more intimate and interconnected, with a culinary web stretching across the metro area. We have quirky shops, gourmet institutions, plenty of hole-in-the-wall joints and an active consumer base always looking for a quality bite. Denver's culinary reputation is growing stronger by the day, held together by fascinating people.
So I'm embarking on a gastro-journey to highlight the unique, quirky and, most important, delicious glue that's holding the city's culinary scene together. And I decided to start in Boulder, home to a true wizard:
Pete Arendsen, owner of Ice Cream Alchemy.
The low-key, 39-year-old Arendsen is from Chicago and went to the University of Illinois; he lives in Louisville with his wife, Lori, and his two sons, Quinn
and Dane. I visited him in his laboratory, which during the day is the factory for Boulder Ice Cream, where he dreams up new concoctions at the request of chefs around the state.
While Jason Sheehan has written about Arendsen, nothing could have prepared me for his ice cream creations, which are both divine and wacky. But our conversation was plenty tasty, too:
Westword (Tyler Nemkov): How long have you been in Boulder?
Peter Arendsen: About seventeen years. I came when Boulder was much smaller. I've done a lot of things since I moved out here. I've raced marathons professionally, I've been an electrician and I used to have a chain-scoop shop up on the Hill. It was called Glacier Ice Cream. The reason I got into working with restaurants was because I just made his recipes, but I wanted to my own thing and get involved with chefs. There's much more creative license going on this way. We can do four or five new flavors every week.
WW: Do you have a national presence?
PA: We don't. The problem is that, we were starting to get bigger and bigger but the national economy kind of tanked a little bit. I've talked to distributors on both coasts, but for now they're not taking any new clients.
WW: So have you sent samples around the country then?
PA: Not to the big restaurants. I have sent stuff out East to Ed Levine, the food writer in New York, and he's done a piece on us. There's an internet group of master chefs called Gigachef and they did a piece on us, so I sent some to them....Basically you have to firmly establish yourself locally and then you can send out to all those locations. It's also based on how many years you've been around. They don't care if you do a good product, they want to know how many years you've been in business: the longer, the less the liability. You're safer 'cause you have been established.
WW: How long has it been for you?
PA: We started about three years ago. It takes a long time just to get established, because so much of the chef community is word of mouth. You can make sales calls but they don't do much.
WW: To be established, don't you need your own place? Is there an ultimate goal?
PA: There is. We want to get as big as we can, but only to a point. I don't want to be making the same things over and over, I want the creative aspects and I want to work with chefs. If I make the same thing, I'll just be making widgets, only ten flavors all the time. Because of the type of person I am, we're gonna have to make something new, to work with a new idea. Granted, I will make vanilla to pay the bills.
WW: When you work with chefs, what is the process of creation like?
PA: It's very, very collaborative. He'll say, 'I've got this, what do you think would go well?,' and we'll talk about the different components, such as if it is sweet or savory. For example, I'm working with the chef over at Marlowe's. He has a new dessert, it's something with peanut butter, it looks really good. And I was just talking to him last week, and he says, 'Well, where do you wanna go?' He was thinking some sort of chocolate port ice cream, then I suggested that a marshmallow ice cream would go really good, and we work from there. He throws out a suggestion and we talk it over, going back and forth.
WW: What are some of the big successes and failures among your ice creams?
PA: It's funny, I haven't had a lot of failures, because I really listen to chefs and I take what they say really seriously. I'm always willing to be flexible and what's nice for me is that if I work with a hundred chefs I can learn from their individual palettes and and my palette continues to grow and evolve. I listen to them and am able to talk 'chef,' so I don't have a bunch of bad ice creams. Making it is a really simple process: It's just a cream or milk base and then freezing it. A lot of salesmen go to restaurants and just give them their line of products, but I always ask where they want to see their product go, because honest to God, I will listen and will make what they want.
As far as failures, it more depends on your palette than anything. I've had to develop a neutral palette. Say I don't like gorgonzola cheese, well, I have to put that aside to make a good gorgonzola ice cream. I
WW: What are some of the more off-the-wall creations?
PA: Oh, God, we've done so many. Like cornbread, cheddar and chive ice cream to go with chili. I like this lemon garlic tabasco I'm working on to go with an oyster.
WW: Is all of this an experiment or do you have a background for this?
PA: I don't. I was a foodie and I went to all these restaurants and ate there, but now I get to go through the backdoor and work with them. Sometimes I'm really star-struck.
WW: Are you just working nights?
PA: Weekends and nights We have a good relationship with Boulder Ice Cream and when they're not working I can use their space. It's win-win because otherwise, the machines are not being used.
WW: Finally, who is on the staff?
PA: It's just me. It's low overhead, but with those machines you can crank out ten gallons every eight minutes.
Together, we made a banana rum ice cream, and Arendesen made me take more pints to
try at home: banana rum, mint white chocolate, Red Bull sorbet, lemon
garlic Tabasco sorbet, bacon hollandaise ice cream. I lost all sense of
moderation in the few days those ice creams were in my possession.
For another taste of Arendsen's work, keep an eye on the Food Network; his creations will be featured on an episode of Unwrapped that will air sometime in March or April.