Collaborative Ice Cream

Field NotesThe Frontier

A quick note about this section

The creative process is one of constant discovery. You’re always looking for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Along the way, some things stand out and we put them in our Field Notes. This is a collection of ideas, places, people and things that we’ve found that we think are worth sharing and that all loosely fit within the theme of the issue.

Ice cream will never be the same. With flavours that include ‘Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese’, ‘Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons’ and ‘Toasted Coconut with Candied Macadamia Nuts’, an ice cream company is changing the way we think about this dessert. On Yelp, one customer wonders, “How do they pair such perfect flavours together?”

Photography by
Leela Cyd Ross

That, as it turns out, is the key question.

Effusive praise for a given product can be found in every corner of the internet (along with withering criticism), but there’s something else going on when it comes to Salt & Straw, a Portland ice cream shop that has now expanded to L.A.

What’s striking here is not the unusual flavours. We’ve all heard about candied bacon ice cream. The Food Network seems to be a battle ground of chefs trying to out-weird one another these days, with the trickle-down effects evident at your local restaurant, even the supermarket.

What’s unique about Salt & Straw is how they do it.

“We envisioned our ice cream as a platform or a soap box to tell stories from… it’s this storytelling epicentre for the food community”, says Tyler Malek, Salt & Straw’s head ice cream maker.

Tyler, as it turns out, has the ability to turn a seemingly inedible concoction into something people actually want to eat.

Malek is not a mad scientist holed up in the garage or basement with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. His test kitchen is the community. His ideas are behind virtually every storefront in the community.

Since he started just a few years ago, he’s been collaborating on ice cream flavours with local restaurants, food trucks, famous chefs, breweries and chocolatiers. The flavours stem from the melding of Tyler’s brain, and that of whoever he’s collaborating with.

tyler malek1

Salt & Straw was the dream of Kim Malek, Tyler’s cousin, a then 40 year old marketing veteran (once Director of Frappuccino at Starbucks). Her dream was to open an ice cream shop. Tyler, who had always had a passion for cooking had come up with a few ideas for unusual ice cream flavours.

“When we first started, I went to Goodwill and I got three ice cream makers for $3 a piece,” he says. “Just these little tabletop ones, just to make sure I knew what I was doing. Actually my first one was a bone marrow ice cream base and it was pretty bad. But it was pretty cool. I thought it was this fun marriage of textures and fats.”

salt and straw carrot carrot

The bone marrow flavour was later refined (bourbon-smoked cherries were added). In the early days, Tyler made a list of 60 flavours he wanted to make. So far he’s made 54 of them. Tyler, as it turns out, has the ability to turn a seemingly inedible concoction into something people actually want to eat.

The collaborations begin when Tyler sits down with local restaurateurs, chocolatiers and food truck owners to create a new flavour. “If we’re starting from scratch, it starts with kind of a seed idea… it can start anywhere, even a pun. A couple years ago we wanted to make – for Father’s Day and Graduation months during June – a six pack of pints. But the pints would be ice cream. And so we were reaching out to brewers. I’ve got one great friend who is a brewer. And we start there, we’re creating our own flavour. We just start tasting beers and thinking about the ideologies of the different yeast strains he really enjoys using and the different ways of extracting flavours from malts”.

gooey brownie

Malek will meet with owners and delve into what flavours are inspiring them at that moment. Or he’ll come up with a new ingredient he wants to try putting into ice cream. They’ll work closely to combine their ideas into a cold confection. “It kind of starts with more of a big picture. What ingredients that they have used in the past that have really inspired me and what dishes in particular resonate with me. And maybe what ingredients I think are cool that might come out of left field that I think might help marry ice cream and their menu… and going from there and really sitting down for an hour and talking, drawing a map of the way they think about different flavours and ideas.”

Salt & Straw will often produce five varieties of one flavour to see what’s working and what’s not. They will find out how their collaborator feels about it and how they can make it better. Inevitably, a lot of ice cream is consumed in the process. Each collaboration brings something different, even if it’s in the same category. Different chocolatiers have their own philosophies and methods behind chocolate making. The unique element in each flavour comes from this collaboration between ice cream shop and the specific flavours and food philosophies of those they’re working with.

Malek is not a mad scientist holed up in the garage or basement with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. His test kitchen is the community. His ideas are behind virtually every storefront in the community.

Salt & Straw is making ingredients work that have likely never been served frozen. “I’ve learned everything, arguably everything from the people I’ve collaborated with”, says Malek. Such as how to properly temper chocolate or different ways of burning caramel. Beyond the creation of the flavours, Tyler wants Salt & Straw to be a moment in the customer’s day. It’s also a chance for Malek and the other staff to tell the story behind the ice cream. They’re eager to tell people about the flavours and where they came from.

One way they measure success is through a particular metric: “We call them OMG counts. People honest to god saying, ‘Oh my god’. It’s something special. ‘It’s not what I was expecting’ is the goal. Kind of beating their expectations”.


Collaborative Tasting Notes

Below are some of the ‘flavour maps’ that Tyler draws when he meets with restauranteurs, food truckers, chocolatiers and other culinary professionals to make his storied flavours. Study the sketches, along with his commentary.

tyler sketchbook 1

Nong’s Khao Man Gai serves only a couple dishes out of their Portland food carts and brick & mortars; specifically chicken & rice. This is a look how to translate that one sigular dish into ice cream.

tyler sketchbook 2

The Potato Champion sketch is a brainstorm for a collaboration with a local food truck here in Portland where every dish has french fries! We’re making a Poutine flavored ice cream together.

tyler sketchbook 3

The Viking Soul Food is a food cart in Portland that makes Norwegian comfort food using Oregon ingredients. This sketch is an exploration of the various flavors that are unique to their business and how they might interact with ice cream.

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