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A Conversation With Chef Keith Schroeder of High Road Craft Ice Cream

Chef Keith Schroeder of High Road Craft Ice Cream, Atlanta

WW: Well, the other thing I think you have a focus on that we got from the tour we went on the last time we were here was something I hadn’t really thought about before–the science behind the creation of the ice cream. Is the focus on that (well, that and the ingredients) what separates a Kroger ice cream from say a Ben & Jerry’s or you guys or something like that? Because you can taste the difference….is it a focus on that as well as the ingredients that provides that difference?

KS: I think to some degree moreso than the ingredients. Ice cream is such a complex food in its composition in that it’s liquid, solid and gel all at the same time. It’s kind of like you’re trying to preserve a state of being for as long as is humanly possible. I mean, think about the fact that when you eat a sandwich, it doesn’t morph as you eat it; it just disappears, right? Ice cream is morphing as you eat it–it’s changing texture and structure; some of it becomes liquid, and it’s incredibly experiential.

WW: Well, that’s the thing that you had mentioned that I’d never thought about before: that you can’t taste something frozen. It hits your tongue, has to melt, and then you start to taste it, which to someone like me who appreciates science when someone just says “Oh, by the way…SCIENCE!”, I was like, “That’s actually pretty cool.” But you’re right; it is changing in the experience. And that was the other question I wanted to ask you–it sounds like you seem to have that change in mind and plan for that change, like the order in which you taste something. Like for example, with the Aztec Chocolate you get the cinnamon and the chocolate right behind it, and the chili doesn’t hit you until a second later as it’s going down your throat, which I honestly never noticed until you pointed it out with the tour, and it seems like with a lot of other ice creams, the ingredients are cool, but they try to kludge them on your tongue at the same time.

KS: Yes, they’re monochromatic in their approach.

WW: That’s a great word.

KS: So you start with the understanding that nuance makes things more interesting. The more nuance you can provide in a taste experience, the more fun it is. Right? One of the inspirations (this is the silliest inspiration in the world, but…) the original Willy Wonka movie when Violet chews the gum [and] that’s the entire meal, “And now I’m tasting this, and now I’m tasting that”… I’m like, “That can be done, actually.” She’s not going to turn into a blueberry–I promise I won’t do that to people, but that can actually be accomplished over the course of taking this temperature. The benefit we have is that you’re starting with something frozen, and that’s why texture is so important to people as it relates to ice cream, because it’s the first real sensation. Your brain goes, “Ooo, smooth,” and then it says “Ooo, yum,” or “Ohh, stretchy,” and then it will say, “Ooo, sweet” and then all the other stuff goes [machine gun sound] right at the end….”Was that sea salt and chili peppers? No way!” I try to think that through when we compose a flavor.

WW: Right….and is that on a chart somewhere where you just go “Chilis hit at two seconds” and you can say “Let’s slide these over and see what it does” or is that just completely in your head?

KS: All of the best cookbooks ever end up on the “nice price” on Amazon. There’s one called The Elements of Taste by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky, and the problem with the book is that most of it is a collection of very, very complicated recipes (very chef-driven recipes), but the first couple of chapters speak about actually a framework for composing really lovely, elegant, complex flavor combinations. They talk about push, pull, punctuate, and selecting a platform, and so we actually use that very model in creating our flavors. So there will always be some element of bitter, even if it’s on the undertone–a lot of sorbets we’ll do a small shot of Campari or we’ll crush up the zests of the lemon and lime and let them steep inside knowing that some of that bitter is going to come out. There are times where we’ll make, like say, a lemon sorbet and we’ll squeeze all the lemons when they’re peak of season; we add sugar to it and it tastes cloying, like Chick-Fil-A lemonade, you know…which is lovely…..but it’s not complex. And so we take the pith and the rind and stuff and feel like that belongs in there for a little bit. And we do think about things like the amount of time. Same thing…I know you were pleased with your Caffeine and Cacao experience the first time…

WW: Oh yes.

KS: And that idea of steeping whole-bean coffee just to get that roasty-toasty nuanced flavor, avoid the grit and the bitter, was, you know, fun. A lot of it just has to do with reading, experience, and not necessarily thinking about ice cream as ice cream, but just as any other food.

High Road Caffeine and Cacao Ice Cream
Yeah. This stuff.

WW: And the other thing that struck me was that you talked about how you took over the handling of the ice creams in the restaurants because you wanted to ensure that the end-user experience, shall we say, was right, because some restaurants weren’t handling it or rotating it or all that stuff correctly. Now, one of the things I was curious about, because you mentioned it as well, is “freezer shock” (the reason ice crystals form in your ice cream). So I was wondering what can people do at home (because obviously you’re not going to storm into people’s homes and say “You’re not doing that right!”) to make sure that when they’ve got whatever ice cream that it’s the right experience?

KS: If you’re going to take the pint to the couch, be prepared to eat the entire pint; don’t put it back…or have someone that can help you finish the pint. My recommendation would be serve the ice cream out of the freezer into a container and get that container back in the freezer right away. If you’re in a paperboard pint like we have, maybe there’s some merit to putting a little sheet of plastic wrap over the top and then the lid on top if you don’t want the air to start circulating, because ice crystals will grow fast….you’ve seen that, when you put a little bit of ice cream back in the freezer you have that Superman Kryptonite-Matrix thing going on on top of the ice cream. That’s the result of that.

WW: Nice. Now, I was curious also about when you get requests from chefs for various and sundry flavor combinations and stuff like that. Are there any really strange ones you can share that you had requested?

KS: It’s a fun one too. The Iberian Pig [restaurant] always does fun stuff with us. We do a fig and sherry for them. One week they called and they were doing a savory preparation–I think it might have been some kind of crudo or raw fish–and they wanted a mustard seed ice cream. And we said, “So what are you doing?” Oh no, they were doing a tartar, a beef tartar type of thing, and I thought, “Wow, with tartars: the colder they are, the fresher the consumer perceives them,” so I was like “Good idea, guys…that’s awesome, because it will keep it feeling like it just came out of the refrigerator and not out of the back dock or something.” And so they asked me to do a mustard seed and so we did it with a real preponderance of egg yolk in it and not much dairy at all; it was almost like an egg yolk-based sorbet with lots of mustard seed and vinegar and sea salt…and it was awesome; it came out really nice. Now, it’s not something that you would eat in great quantities, but as an accompaniment, like “ice-cream-as-condiment” category, it was awesome. That’s probably the wildest thing we’ve done to date.

High Road Craft Ice Cream French 75 Champagne Ice Cream
Anyone can have champagne on New Year's. High Road had champagne sorbet they made themselves. They win.

WW: Now, have you ever gotten a request that you weren’t able to pull off because it just wouldn’t work?

KS: No.

WW: Really?

KS: Not yet. I’m sure it’s coming.

WW: Well, maybe not from the standpoint of the ability to create it, but the ability for it to come out tasting good like you would want it to.

KS: Yeah, the requests come in and if I think they sound…not sound, I will call the person back and sort of nudge them in a direction that might be more appropriate. You know, we got a call from someone a week or so ago who wanted the chocolate to be really dark–and this is something that a lot of the bean-to-bar chocolate producers are…having a hard time educating the public on, because there’s this perception that super-super-dark equals super-super-rich, equals super-super-lush, equals luxe, etc. It’s not the case; dark chocolate comes from highly-alkalized cocoa powder, right? So the all-natural cocoa powder that has the nuance and the acidity that makes it have an experience to the person tasting it like wine; it goes away when you alkalize the cocoa powder, so it can only be so dark and be delicious. And so then it’s like a philosophical thing of how customer-driven are you then? The salesperson comes back and says, “Well, the customer wants dark chocolate,” and I say, “Well, it is dark chocolate,” so it becomes a Who’s-on-First kind of thing. But the fact of the matter is that that was the first time I said, “no.” No. To honor my chocolate partner, Kristen Hard from Cacao Atlanta, who sourced this cacao, who got it on a container, who spent thousands of dollars to have this powder milled and brought to Atlanta just for me, no, I can’t go out and buy another kind of cocoa powder. Because she’ll smack me in the face [laughs], for one, and it’s too delicious to not force the issue. And those are the moments in time where you’re like, “this is the day that 99% of the business world would say I’m a stupid businessman.” Because it’s like the whole Bill Marriott thing: if the customer says cold coffee is quality coffee, then give them cold coffee and move on with your day. Or the whole Anthony Bourdain line in his book where he says “I pity the guy who loves what he does,” because we get in our own way from time to time. So that’s the “no.”

WW: Now, is there a flavor that on paper shouldn’t work, but does? Like when you think about it and you go, “That can’t possibly work,” and yet, once you try it….

KS: To date…I think because our flavor profiles are so inspired by cultures and not necessarily creativity, the general answer to that is…no, because we’re relying on existing things, like Brown Butter Praline is just a sophisticated riff on butter pecan, so they all have their inspiration in things that are pretty mainstream. I’m looking at the Negroni right there, though, that’s one of those things were people might think, “Well, how the hell do you make that into a tasty frozen dessert?” because Negroni is really bitter and funky. So that doesn’t seem to make sense–in fact, most people don’t like the Negroni cocktail, right? Because it’s got so many bitter components to it, but in the form of sorbet against fresh fruit or citrus, it’s…lovely. And that’s one of the ones where you have people say “I didn’t think I was going to like it based on the ingredients you said were in it, but that’s pretty nice.” You know. No one ever goes, “I love it and I want to eat the whole pint!”

WW: So when you’re at home and relaxing, since most of the world will grab a pint of ice cream, what do you grab for your junk food? Baby carrots, perhaps?

KS: No, no, I grab ice cream; sometimes I grab other people’s brands of ice cream. I am…I will publicly confess that I’m a Klondike bar fan. I like the…In fact my Klondike bar of choice is the caramel pretzel one that’s on the market…I think that’s pretty lovely. And then I’m a cookie guy–I love cookies. So that’s what I grab.

WW: And the great thing about that is, probably with you cookies can be considered research, and are therefore tax deductible.

KS: [Big smile.] That’s right. That’s right.

WW: One final question occurs to me. Because you are an example of having had an idea and are now sitting in basically the concrete actualization of that idea, watching that idea explode. You got on the cover of Food Porn International. What would you say to somebody else who is sitting somewhere with an idea, and they just have the idea, but they would want to do the version of what you’ve done in whatever field they’re in. What would you say to them?

KS: Sure. You have to, first of all, plan. No discussion will take place until the business plan is written. So you can have the best idea in the world, but you have to get it in the way that any potential stakeholder will understand. And in hindsight, our initial business plan was just that–a business plan. And I felt that intuitively. Write a plan that talks about your culture and your values and every single thing that needs to happen in order for you to continue to want to work for your idea. Because if you don’t, there may come a time where the idea gets morphed by the other stakeholders where you would have to wrestle control back, right? And usually, if you’re getting investors, they’re going to be more powerful than you are, because you’re too busy working on your passion than thinking about how to finance it. So that’s #1.

And then #2 is, there is no way to get on the Dean & DeLuca cover. There’s no way to do it. It just happens. And it happens by doing what you do repetitively to such a tedious degree that most people start quitting around you. And that happened. Most people who have ever worked at High Road don’t work here anymore, and it was because they get to a point where they’re like, “It’s the sixteenth hour of making ice cream. I don’t know that I can do this anymore.” And to that, you have to say, “I understand.” Because it’s your passion, not theirs. So you have to shape some kind of reality around that or work really, really hard to vet for the right partner–to make sure that they share your passion super, super viscerally. Thomas Keller talked about it in the French Laundry Cookbook: if you are not a fan of the tedious, then…food’s not your thing. Because peeling carrots is tedious. And unless you can get roped into the zen of that….you know, squeezing lemons is fun for the first aroma, but on your fortieth case of squeezing lemons, your arm starts to get sore. So, it’s the old practice-makes-perfect.

High Road Craft Ice Cream: Chef Keith relaxes with coffee
Keith and one of his fellow chefs enjoy one of their ingredients. It's all the name of research. And science.

And the last piece of advice (if I even have any to give) is that you have to talk about it a lot. So when people ask if they can spend time with you to talk about what you do, you have to say yes, over and over and over again, a thousand times, and do it with gratitude and joy and be thankful. I’ll never forget when I ran New England Culinary Institute, Alton Brown came to speak to the students and we had dinner together at the restaurant at the school. And it was called The Tavern and it was a casual restaurant. I said, “Alton, I have dinner planned for you tonight,” and he was like, “I really don’t want to do fine dining,” and I said, “At the pub, man.” He said, “Oh, cool. We’ll have a burger or a steak–I’ve been traveling all day.” And people came up to him all night. I mean, there must have been dozens. And I said to him, “This must drive you nuts!” And he goes, “Listen, man, if these people weren’t coming up to me, I’d have a real problem.” So that has always resonated with me. If people are coming in and allowing you share things that matter to you, have fun talking about it. And that’s it. I wish there was some kind of formula to give out, but there’s not. It’s a here thing. [And he points to his own chest.]

Thanks so much to Chef Keith…sorry, Food Person Keith…for taking the time out to talk to us. If you want to find out more about High Road (I urge you to), check out their official site, their Facebook page and their Twitter feed. Apart from Dean & DeLuca, they can be located at Whole Foods and have been known to show up at other retail locations. You can also order from them online directly. Bear in mind, they do factory tours every Saturday from 10am to 4pm…and they usually have flavors that are only available at the factory. Yes. Their Facebook presence will tell you more.

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