The craving for something cold to drink or eat, starts to builds up as soon as the sun starts warming our days. Practically nothing screams summer more than ice cream. Even for people who don’t love this chilly delight, there are places in the world where these people can be turned into liking it. Places that serve the most exotic flavors. Think of roasted almonds with figs, quark with honey and sesame, mango that actually tastes like mango or an amazingly easy going (John) Lemon. And if you’re really adventures, you can go for the likes of herring, mustard, goat cheese with raspberry syrup, beer or tomato with a dash of vodka.
These are just a few of the over 800 flavors, ever created by one of the best ice cream makers in the Netherlands. We were very fortunate to spend some time with Roberto Coletti [R] and his partner in crime Carlina Coletti De Lorenzo [C] of Roberto Gelato ice cream, and talked with them about quality, passion, family, Italy and the need for creation.
You both come from a long line of ice cream makers. Is that what makes you unique, when you compare yourselves to other ice cream makers in the Netherlands?
[R] You would think that both our families would be the thing that sets us apart from other ice cream makers. Our grand fathers started the first ice cream salons in the Netherlands over 80 years ago. Or the fact that we come from villages inhabited by ice cream makers. These villages are empty during the summer, but during winter you’ll only see cars with foreign license plates. Because all the families come back after months of hard work abroad. These would be the usual presumption.
[C] I think, what makes us unique, is that it was our choice to make ice cream. However we were trained to do something else. So we could have other careers if we wanted to. But the choice to go into this direction came from our hearts and we believe that’s what you can taste in our product. And then, of course, we have our heritage which comes in handy. We both speak Italian, we know many people who are in the business and we know the mentality of the farmers who grow the ingredients we use for our product.
[R] Just think about what that means. In the Netherlands there is only one school where you can learn how to make ice cream. In Italy there are over 50. And we can go to all of them to get inspired and to talk with people who are just as passionate about ice cream as we are. The same goes for our relationship with the farmers. If you don’t know them, you can’t just go there and start knocking on doors asking for tips, tricks, their secrets and produce. You first have to realize what the mentality of these people is. You first have to get to know them.
And looking around in the Netherlands, we don’t know of many colleagues who have a tradition of forty, fifty or sixty years in ice cream. There aren’t many grand fathers or great-grand fathers who also lived for their ice cream. It’s something that is deeply rooted in our genes and our way of living. We’re only open for seven months, but we think, breathe and live ice cream twelve months a year. Passion can’t be contained by seasons. So our story, what makes us special is basically us. The way we live. The way we create. The way our passion translates into ice cream. And how we choose to not have secrets. Because secrets can be bought. Secrets can be stolen. We have experience and that, you can’t take away.
Would you describe it as a calling?
[R] No, not exactly. Because I only really learned how to make ice cream when I was about thirty. You know, I believe you first need other experiences before you find your way to true happiness. After school there comes a time you just have to work. You need money. You take almost any job, just to make ends meet. After a while you mature and you start to think: “does this make me happy?”. And if not. Why not? So you start to look around, and experiment until you find your true passion. There are plenty of ice cream makers who start making ice cream from a young age on, because they have to, because they feel it’s their calling or because they want to. But then, it becomes work. It’s that first job they’ve taken. I don’t say it that often anymore, but from the moment I started the ice cream parlor, I stopped working.
In the beginning I wasn’t as fanatic as I am now. But the village we return to during winter – the one with all the foreign license plates – does something with your state of mind. It is just a weird experience and it shapes who you are and who you become. At one point I learned how to channel my emotions into ice cream. Just like a painter puts his emotions on canvas. It became an outlet and that was amazing. The ice cream parlor became a place where we could share our feelings with others in a beautiful, delicious manner. It also helped to keep the amount of ice cream I made in control, and we didn’t have to throw it away.
The village and the suppliers you talk about, sound like being from a different world all together. Not accessible for outsiders. Are they shielded off deliberately from others, so you can keep the experience within a tiny group of ice cream makers?
[C] Oh absolutely not! A lot has to do with the language barrier and an understanding of Italian mentality about doing business. Many Italians don’t speak any other language then Italian, so a basic understanding of the language is necessary. If you want a certain type of hazelnuts of which the farmer doesn’t have much, it helps a lot if you can ask him in Italian. It tears down walls. You can’t just e-mail or call them and expect it to happen.
[R] You know, negotiations in Italy happen around the dinner table. Not at the office. At the office you shake hands and have the formalities. That’s why Dutch banks and airlines couldn’t make it work in Italy. They came in and started waving their business cards and expected wonders. That’s not how it works in Italy. You sit down, have a cup of coffee, talk about the weather and ask how the other one is doing. In between a glass of wine and a plate of pasta you talk business. That’s how it works. If you get that, you’re halfway there. Then, the only thing left to master is your product. And that’s where experience, passion and determination come in.
You have tons of idea’s regarding flavors. Grass was a flavor I saw coming by as an experiment. How does that work. And what happens to the people who give your experiments the benefit of the doubt?
[R] It’s pretty straightforward. I have an idea and I want that idea to become reality. I’ll do whatever it takes to get it done. Sometimes I really have no clue why people love what I’ve just created, but it makes me incredibly happy if an idea pans out.
[C] But you’re not a mad scientist, creating just to be creating. No matter what other people think. [R] haha no, a bit mad, maybe [C] No. But I can see what happens to you when people come by, just to say thank you, or bring you some flowers as a thank you, or leave a message via twitter. That gives you incredible amounts of energy. [R] It’s so rewarding to see how people react and it’s beautiful to be surrounded by so much positive energy. It makes you want to do more and make it even better. That’s how, for instance, the Mai Prima originated. This is a flavor I create, that I have never made before. And I make a new Mai Prima every few weeks. It can be anything. Like grass. Hey, so many animals eat it, there must be something delicious in there. At the same time that comes with a certain pressure. But that is part of how I work and how I keep pushing myself. [C] And he does the same when we have dinner with friends. He creates something completely new, even though he can grab any recipe that is waiting on the shelf. It’s just how he creates. And the feedback we get because of this mentality, makes the fifteen to sixteen hour workday’s, seven day’s a week, doable. People tend to forget that there is still a lot of cleaning up and administration stuff to do when the parlor closes its doors. [R] Oh but that’s not part of making ice cream, that’s part of your job. Just like grocery shopping isn’t always fun, but is part of making a lovely dinner.
[C] And when it comes to flavors, the list is endless. He just keeps on going. Of course, with the Mai Prima he committed himself to make a new flavor and people expect that as well. But often we encounter flavors or ingredients without realizing it. Just now, there was a tomato boycott with Russia. So we bought a lot of those tomatoes and created tomato ice cream. But Roberto wouldn’t be Roberto if he didn’t give it an extra kick. So he added a dash of vodka to spice it up. [R] Polish vodka, not Russian haha.
Does this drive, to keep creating, ever work against you?
[C] Not necessarily against us, but it definitely doesn’t make our life easier. Creating a delicious product and being a perfectionist while doing so, demands a certain attention to detail and perseverance when it comes to our ingredients. They are the core of our product. We only want the best ingredients. Even if this means that our hazelnut supplier isn’t the same as our pistachio farmer. And before we new, we had around fifty different suppliers for our ingredients. Whereas most companies try to limit that amount. Why do they do that? Because it’s cheaper and because it’s easier. Just think about delivery time. Cocoa takes a week, hazelnuts a month and spoons maybe two months. So you really have to be on top of your game to have everything lined up perfectly.
[R] And that is what we do to maintain the level of quality that we want. If it gets harder for our suppliers to produce enough, we just have to try harder to get what we can from them. And again, this is where our close relationship with our suppliers comes in handy. Without quality ingredients, you can’t make quality ice cream. We work with smaller farmers and if we wouldn’t have our orders in order, it could happen that our supplier is out of hazelnuts. You could order hazelnuts somewhere else, Morocco or Turkey for example. But there is a reason why we chose this particular farmer and we don’t want to go for second best. With larger companies, you pretty much never run out of supply. They simply top off a certain ingredient with product from a different farm and mix it up. There’s nothing wrong with mixing. But we just don’t want that. My father used to say: “Place your order for olive oil at the company, that at that specific moment doesn’t have any.” Then you know for a fact that they don’t top it of with oils from a different estate. Plus, we know exactly where our product comes from and that’s important!
Are you able to share your passion with others in terms of collaborating or creating together?
[C] Oh for sure. It starts with the people who work for us in the parlor. They say you can’t choose you family, but you can choose your friends. The same goes for our staff. Luckily we can choose who works for us. We like every single one of our employees, and they all love ice cream. So it’s very easy and fun to bounce ideas off them. They also know a lot about ice cream and all the flavors we sell, including which ones contain sugar, chicken eggs for people with an allergy or intolerance for any ingredients. Pretty much all our ice cream is gluten free, so that’s an easy one haha.
[R]The employees taste every single flavor and they make suggestions as well. This helps the process and also helps to fill our list of new flavors. I have to hurry up with that list though. Otherwise I’ll be dead before I’ve made them all.
[C] The collaboration with our staff is great. Because they are just as passionate, they want the best for Roberto Gelato. For example we had one of our employees suggest somebody who grows fruit in the neighboring city [Zeist] called Westeneng. That’s where she always gets here fruit and she talked to the owners, told them about the salon and suggested that we should talk about collaborating. It’s not as easy as it sounds. They have to get certified by us. So our quality-checkers have to work closely with the supplier to make sure they use, for instance, ground water as irrigation so we know for sure the don’t use additional chemicals. It’s a lot of extra work, but we now have a new supplier of strawberries that taste a lot better and this is because somebody who works for us recommended it.
But you also collaborate outside of the salon, right?
[C] Oh yes! For instance with the restaurants in our neighborhood. The restaurant owners noticed that a lot of people went into the city center to go out for dinner, even though there are a lot of wonderful restaurants to be found just outside the city center, right here. So we organized a one day event: “Tasting the Neighborhood”. This year we even created a dish together with restaurant C’est Ça: langoustines with saffron ice cream and we received incredible amounts of positive feedback from that. One of the reasons we do this, is because Roberto likes collaborating and brainstorming with other cooks. It’s a different way of thinking and he can feed off of that.
[R] Working with people who share the passion for quality food, and also connect on a personal level, is incredibly valuable. We’re actually working on something with our friend and chef Jasper Kaan of Restaurant de Klub. During lunch we were talking about his new restaurant and about a new collaboration. Just fantasizing really. He mentioned that he wanted to create a special night with a hot/cold food pairing. Somewhat similar to what we did with a theater in Utrecht. About a week later we thought, let’s make this happen! And we did.
[C] What we’ve been doing in the restaurant of the theater, for a couple of years now, is create an annual performance called Food Centraal [roughly translated as Food in the center of attention]. We created a menu where with every course, one dish was replaced by ice cream. We created something completely new and it was a great success. So much, that the 2014 edition was sold out just before the 2013 edition was launched. And now we’re doing something similar, somewhat smaller and together with a close friend. How exciting is that! This year we did a lot of collaborations, so now we’re focusing on the home stretch for this season. It’s time for a break, to regain our strengths and then prepare for the next amazing year.
How about the future?
[R] We’ll keep doing this for as long as we like doing it. It’s as simple as that. If we don’t like it anymore, we won’t be able to make delicious ice cream. [C] I can’t tell from his ice cream if he’s having an off-day, except that he drops stuff on the floor or that he’s grumpy. But I think it’s like when somebody who doesn’t like coffee, makes you a cup: it tastes totally different from the cup made by somebody who loves coffee. It’s his perfectionist nature, that even when he’s having an off-day and can’t sing in the kitchen, his ice cream is still delicious. He made the choice of making business class ice cream. [R] And business class, is business class.
Is there something you would like to add? Did I forget anything?
[R + C] Let’s have some ice cream!