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I’m from New York. It’s impossible to not associate food with people and places. It was never about just being fed. Conversations about food were connected to neighborhoods, streets, families and their cultures. Choosing what to eat was more about where you wanted to go as anything else. For a kid in New York, eating was a journey almost every day.
Clearly this was going to color my career as a chef. I’ve worked with people from everywhere: Gambia, Eritrea, Argentina, Ecuador, The Philippines, Thailand, Florida and Vancouver. I’ve tasted a lot of food from a ton of places. And that experience has influenced my understanding of global commerce, economics, consumer behavior, language, linguistics, music, art, culture and food. Food offers an easy-access opportunity to marvel at the puzzling synchrony that is the smallness and vastness of our world.
My mother said, “I won’t eat what’s advertised” because she believed marketing and advertising did nothing but discolor and dilute the truth of places and people. So produce came from Sid’s Farm Stand (seasonally, when it was open), bread came from the bakery, and wine came from the winery. There was always a place or person (or both) clearly connected to our food — whether money was tight or not.
I extended those lessons from my mother when I entered the world of professional kitchens by listening to my colleagues from all over the world, taking notes, shopping where they shopped, and cooking what they cooked, with them. Consequently, I have no signature dish (I could never answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction).
I shudder at the term “my food” (Oh really, you’re Mother Nature? Congratulations!), and instead have worked for decades, day and night, to become a credible educator, an ambassador of food and culture. This wasn’t going to happen by my twenties, or even sprout in my thirties. I’m 40, and I’ve just scratched Earth.
I wanted to create a reverent food company that honored its products’ influences, where each item introduced pays homage to its source. From the concept team and craftspeople involved in the making of the product to the folks delivering the product (the chef, the waiter, the cashier, the UPS guy), it is important (to me, to High Road Craft Ice Cream, to people who live for food) that stories are shared — honest, unfiltered, romantic, respectful stories — about the product’s inspiration and origin.
More questions than answers
Product development that ventures beyond commerce for commerce’s sake requires a methodology that blends resourcefulness, inquisitiveness and adventure. The goal is twofold: to honor and to attract.
What people eat is an indicator of climate, one’s access to the outside world, our priorities, and our values. Start by honoring origin, and then explain to the folks you’re trying to attract why what you’ve crafted is compelling. When that’s achieved, you’ll find that people will line up to try something “new” or “different.”
Remember that it’s only new or different to those you’re trying to attract. And you’re honoring the people to whom this flavor combination, technique, or ingredient deck is normal. You’ve not only introduced a product, you’ve built a cultural bridge.
It’s not all about finding a rare or heirloom ingredient from a remote or exotic locale to make a product compelling, either. We can find inspiration from classics of commerce (a street-pretzel, a hot dog, an ice cream cone). Find that someone, somewhere, who kindled greatness and weave their beautiful story, authentically, into a product. Family restaurants can be celebrated. Historic moments in time can be highlighted. The glory of a particular landscape or terroir can be explained.
Products can even influence tourism by celebrating a street or a neighborhood. Engage thought leaders from the food and beverage world, from chefs and mixologists to celebrated writers and bloggers, and honor culture (pop- or otherwise) by extending the dialogue and by becoming curators and craftspeople all at once.
The democracy of ice cream
Ice cream is a vehicle for the democratization of the enjoyment of exceptional ingredients. It’s a relatively affordable luxury — even at its most expensive — and is almost universally consumed. Even when category alternatives are introduced, they are still (rightfully so) interpreting or trying to parallel the gloriousness of ice cream.
It’s malleable, too. Like with bread or cookies, you can highlight a particular ingredient or flavor pairing in a way that’s quite focused. It’s a playground for textural contrast, and bright, clean dairy is an incredible canvas for ingredients — from coffee to chocolate to cashews to chilies. And cold is cool. Think about it. What else is consumed — ideally — frozen?
At High Road, we don’t develop flavors myopically, and we’re fully conscious of the possibility that sometimes (maybe even often) a flavor won’t fully resonate. In our journey to celebrate our planet’s culinary fabric, we believe strongly that we (along with other emerging specialty food companies) can influence a new normal, where homogenization is reserved for the pasteurizing room.