Technically I spend 20% of my work time in a kitchen, it could be much more. It isn’t a normal kitchen because what I do there isn’t really normal cooking, at least not to me. I have all the equipment that our shops have, dipping cabinets, chocolate melters, blenders, pumps for caramel and syrups, waffle cone makers, yogurt machines and lots of freezers, at all sorts of temps. But there is no fire, though I have played a lot with heat on ice cream. Cooking at work is limited, there are boundaries and rules and lots of things to consider but when I am starting a new project I remove myself from those boundaries, if I don’t, I get too caught up in the end game and that binds me creatively.
The cooking I do for work is a process that starts way in left field, usually in New York and usually far removed from anything having to do with ice cream. New York because of the concentration of interesting food and because most ideas that aren’t trends yet, start there. Most of my food related travel doesn’t happen in Manhattan. I spend more time in the not so trendy parts of the Boroughs, where it feels grittier, worldly and more real. I wander and I am deliberate. I travel with a list of things I want to see and try, but more often than not, the things I find that I take back to my kitchen are those I just trip into. I sketch, take pictures and write a lot on these trips. Every combination and strange idea gets recorded. And not all my food projects need NY, but when I am going beyond what I have tried before, NY is where it starts.
As a company we don’t venture outside normal ice cream desserts frequently. It is too risky and hard to get buy in from the people who own our shops. And while innovation appears all over my project plans for each year, innovation on those official documents means figuring out how to make another cookie, hot fudge, whipped cream sundae into something kind of new. Only about once a year I get to travel into real innovation territory, a place where very rarely anything I create will actually make it to the big time. In that place, I am developing things that no one else is doing and things that could potentially add to our business if given the right love.
These recipes do different things in your mouth that you don’t expect from ice cream. You have to think about what is happening versus just consuming. And these recipes are not always for everyone. There are only a couple people in my office that can go really far to left field with me, but I have been cooking for them for a long time. And sometimes one of these recipes gets close to prime time. Sometimes the audience widens and I present to a couple hundred people at a national meeting. And some like it and some very noticeably hate it and in most cases they all say there they say no way in hell they are going to sell it. I have developed a very thick food skin.
But once and a while one passes through. Gets past the grueling process that involves hundreds of tastings, testing and training and poking and fiddling. It goes through months of Ops war, in which it gets thrown around in every way possible, in search of failure, by field people. And I revise the recipe, monkey with how to serve it and figure out how to teach a kid behind the ice cream counter how to make it. And it is a lot about a sales pitch, not to customers but to our own people. We have to convince them that this product is going to make a difference to their business. A really tough sell, most of the time.
People who do this work call these recipes their babies. These are not the recipes that you are just playing with, the ones that die on the kitchen counter, they are the ones that you have put your heart and soul into and by the time they get through the process, months and sometimes years have passed. By then my NY exploration is foggy and I am still a little bruised by the constant questioning and disbelief that whatever I have made will actually sell. And by the time my babies get their place on a banner or poster, my work is done, I turn them over and they become everyone’s. I watch the sales and hope they sell because for our business it means we are not stuck in the same old thing and for me that means more time in the kitchen, more opportunities to reach and potentially more recipe babies to share.