BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – Our ice cream shop is finally open for business. Eighteen days in, and life has completely shifted gears. Long days transition to long nights, little sleep, and no breaks. Is there such a thing as free time when you’re starting a business while raising a family? Mohan and I are first-time business owners, so it has been on-the-job training of the trial-by-fire variety as we try to figure out operations. Our business partner Sam Mason, on the other hand, is no newcomer. He’s been shaping the food landscape as an innovative pastry chef for decades (two actually). This post is about him.
Sam rocks. In the culinary world, he’s built a reputation for his quasi sci-fi techniques in creating playful food pairings and for blotting the salty-vs.-sweet line between dinner and dessert. As pastry chef at Wylie Dufresne’s molecular gastronomy mecca wd~50 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he’s won national recognition for his hypermodern reinterpretations of classic sweets. He was the affable chef host of IFC’s Dinner with the Band and challenger to Iron Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef, where he made skirt steak ice cream. Today, he’s doing the Brooklyn business thing, with a dive bar (Lady Jay’s), a high-end mayo company (Empire Mayonnaise) and now – with us – a new-school old-fashion ice cream parlor.
Holiday: You’ve been a pastry chef for a long time, almost two decades. How do you keep things exciting in the kitchen?
Sam: I change the menu all the time. In less than two weeks of being open, I’ve already made 18 flavors. I try to do new stuff every day to keep things fresh.
Holiday: What’s the most fun you’ve had making a dessert?
Sam: Everything I did at wd~50, because it was a super creative atmosphere. Everything we did was interesting to us. We cooked for ourselves. We didn’t really cook for the patrons. It sounds awful, but it’s true.
Holiday: Would you say that you make the ice cream at OddFellows for yourself?
Sam: Yes, but at the same time I think I have a good idea of what people want, so that makes it easier.
Holiday: You’ve promised nontraditional flavor pairings like tequila cream with pineapple, salted peanut cream and cola, and toasted sour dough cream. Where do your ideas for these unconventional combos come from?
Sam: Stored information in my head from 20 years of doing this. I tend to think things over before I go in and mess around. It saves a lot of time and money. Some flavor combinations will sound completely random, but share something in common that’s kind of hard to quantify. You’d be surprised at what works … like banana parsley. That would be a great ice cream flavor.
Holiday: Two of our first ice cream flavors at the shop included Chorizo Caramel Swirl and Maple Bacon Pecan. You’re known for mixing savory with sweets in your desserts. Do you find traditional ice cream too sweet for your taste?
Sam: I’m not a big fan of sugar. I’ve got more of a salt tooth.
Holiday: Why did you decide to specialize in desserts then?
Sam: I choose desserts in culinary school because it seemed more focused and more creative. In hindsight though, it’s not. I think savory can be just as creative as sweets. It’s just the way you approach it. But the climate of food back then was different. Savory was very boring and wasn’t creative at all, but now that’s changed.
Holiday: Change that you were part of...
Sam: I’d like to think so. I definitely influenced the way Wylie’s food began to look on the plate, as well as with all the pastry techniques he started using. Then Alex Stupak took it even further. I think you can see a lot of Alex and me in Wylie’s food now, just as you can see a lot of Wylie in my food.
Holiday: And in your ice cream too?
Sam: Sure, there’s a lot of Wylie in my ice cream. Wylie just loves ice cream. When I was at wd~50, I’d always find him late at night with the freezer door open eating ice cream. He’d pile up my brown butter ice cream with brown butter cake. That was probably his favorite.
Holiday: What about you? If you were an ice cream flavor, what would you be?
Sam: I’d have to say toast ice cream. I just love toast.
Holiday: Do you cook during your off-hours?
Sam: I do, quite a bit. I like to do pasta, pork chops, gnocchi … pretty comforting stuff. I’m all for making a big bowl of mac ‘n ‘ cheese too. Well, when I used to be home. I haven’t been in my house a day in the past three weeks.
Holiday: Has a girl ever tried to impress you with her cooking?
Sam: They usually don’t cook.
Holiday: I guess it can be intimidating cooking for an award-winning chef.
Sam: I don’t think it’s so much intimidating as I just offer to cook so often.