Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Jeni (yes, that Jeni) on seeing the world through ice cream.
I’ve been a fan of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams for many years now. It is a bona fide cultural sensation with a plethora of unique flavor combinations (my fave is Brown Butter Almond Brittle). Recently, I’ve become interested in the Jeni behind the brand. She’s been recognized by Fast Company as one of the most creative people in the business. Even after a long flight home from Cape Town the day before, she was every bit as ebullient as I’d hoped when I met her at her office in Columbus, Ohio.
You dropped out of art school to make ice cream out of your house. Four years later, you took an ice-cream-making course at Penn State. How did that change things?
At the time, I had this little tiny stand. I didn’t have very much success, but I had enough to imagine what I thought would be possible. I wanted to become an expert.
The course was three two-week intense sessions at beginning of each year over three years. It’s not a culinary course. Instead, you learn the science of manufacturing ice cream. Haagen-Dazs sends their plant managers there. When I attended in 2000, I was with dozens of mustachioed men. I mean, not fancy mustaches, just broomstick mustaches.
I learned about stabilizers, emulsifiers, flavorings — all of the stuff I wanted to take out of ice cream. Soon after, I started a partnership with Snowville Creamery, a great, wonderful, local dairy with a guy who was an evangelist for dairy. He and I and started doing experiments, and our work has since upended the whole ice cream industry.
It was really my first science class that I excelled at. I grew up being told that I was an art and literature person, and that science and math probably weren’t my strong points, which is not true.
How your approach is different from the rest of the industry?
One of the biggest differences is that we never use ice cream mixes. We are ice cream nerds— rearranging the molecules, taking out the stabilizers, and use milk proteins to build texture. Because we create a new recipe for every flavor, we get more flavor in the ice cream. From the experience perceptive people get really tied to our ice cream because it just tastes better. It tastes stronger than what it’s supposed to taste like. And that’s because of that awesome molecular stuff.
You published a book in 2011. What was the impetus for it?
Food & Wine wanted a recipe that they could publish so that people could make ice cream at home. The problem with ice cream versus a turkey or gazpacho is that you really can’t do ice cream the way that I can do it at home. We have a $200,000 ice cream machine. You have a $49.99 ice cream machine. But I liked the challenge. I wondered if I could make ice cream that matches our flavor, texture, body, and finish within that limitation.
I did my first round of testing at home. I had had a baby, so I was home for a month and bored. So I put her on my back and started making recipes on the little ice cream machine. I got there eventually.
Which is interesting because in some ways you’re helping people consume less of your ice cream.
Yeah, but it’s a long process, and it’s hard to do. It’s so much easier just to buy it from a good ice cream maker.
But there’s generosity in that which is cool.
Well, it’s also an awakening for America to come back to ice cream. Ice cream can be so much more. You’re really scenting ice cream, not flavoring it. You can only taste five things on your tongue, sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, but everything else is in your nose. Ice cream can be a really beautiful experience. The book became a great platform to educate America on what we’re trying to do.
What role does Jeni’s play in the industry?
We want to set the standard. There’s a lot of ice cream artisans out there now who are putting that flag on their brand. But they’re still doing it in what I think of as the 20th century method. It’s not advancing ice cream. The idea of artisanal ice cream has become synonymous with being eclectic or millennial. In the beginning of the artisanal movement, the 90s or even the 80s, it meant more handwork and better quality. It’s not about quality anymore.
There are a few people out there making really great ice cream. Haagen-Dazs is fantastic. It’s my favorite ice cream next to Jeni’s. But there are others who aren’t following the same rules we do. In the end though, what’s in the spoonful matters the most. That’s where we stand out, and I think that people know that.
Who was influential in your world when you were growing up?
My grandmother. I had a pretty unconventional childhood and spent every weekend at my grandparents’ farm. They had several acres of land. We built a teepee in the forest where we’d make fires. The smoke moved differently in the fall than it did in the spring. I knew how every season in that forest smelled.
Is scent one of the reasons you wanted to make ice cream?
Absolutely. Scent was a big part of my childhood and my memories. I initially thought I wanted to be a perfumer. But then I made ice cream by mixing a few drops of rose oil into a carton of vanilla ice cream, and I was hooked. In a way, ice cream is edible perfume.
You have so many flavors. How and when do you get inspired to create new ones?
I always love going to the library. When I’m surrounded by beautiful sentences and words, it transports me, whether it’s a travel book, a cookbook or an actual novel. I’ll pick a random book off the shelf, open it up to the first page I see, read the first sentence I see and think about how I could find a way to make that into a flavor. You choose your own adventure that way.
What an interesting practice. How did you come to do that?
Well, for most of my life I couldn’t travel, but I loved dreaming about it. In fact, I started working at a French bakery because so many people from around the world worked there. I was making $600 a month when I first started the company so I would go to the library and get all the travel books. I still do that. And that would become how I would create flavors. Not recipe books (although those too) but travel books.
What would be an example, of where what you read in a book connected you to a flavor?
I’m interested in women who have achieved high levels in other periods of time. I’ve read every book on Marie Antoinette. When I read Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the book that Sofia Coppola based the movie on, I was developing flavors. Her Austrian roots took me to thinking about Riesling. That was when I started making pear Riesling ice cream. We also did toasted brioche with a butter and jam. When I read that book, my mind was almost experiencing it through scent and flavor.
You’re very invested in the science and the engineering of making ice cream, but the science of it isn’t central to your brand identity. Is that a conscious decision?
Yeah, because I feel like we’ve got that covered in our society right now. What we don’t have covered is humanity. We have heads of businesses saying, “We need to prepare people for work.” Whereas I would say, “We need to prepare people to think.” Who cares if you’re making the next gadget? Facebook and Twitter and Instagram didn’t make the world better until they connected their platforms to humanity. And I think the same is true for any innovation — connecting it back to humanity is really important.
We tell our stories as poetic, personal, emotional stories first, I love the idea of using ice cream to teach art, humanities, but also science and math. That’s whole brain thinking.
What’s something that you want the company to do more of?
Focus on community. The way the world is going, we’re not having enough human contact. There’s a lot more face to face contact that we can help make happen. Ice cream is such a pleasurable moment. It can bring your walls down, when you’re with somebody and have a cone that’s dripping, you’re a little more vulnerable. I always tell people to eat ice cream on a cone, not in a bowl. It makes the ice cream taste a lot better when you have to engage with it.
You have beautiful artwork in your office. Who’s the French woman on the wall?
That is the princesse de Lamballe, who was Marie Antoinette’s best friend. They were just in their little space, didn’t know really what was happening out in the world because they were not paying attention, but also, they weren’t able to pay attention. When they all came for them, she ended up being severely beaten up and her head cut off, put on a spike and paraded in front of Marie Antoinette’s window. I feel like her up there as a reminder that the most important thing is not letting yourself get disconnected from humanity.