Meredith Kurtzman is a gelato maker and pastry chef based in New York City. She is the former head of gelato production at Mario Batali’s restaurants Esca and Otto. More recently she has worked at Al di La and Milkmade, both in Brooklyn.
In this interview, we talk about her love of strong flavors, how to make better gelato at home, and how New York has changed in her more than 50 year love affair with the city.
Justin Naylor: Good morning, Meredith! Thanks for taking the time to talk. I’d like to begin by having you define gelato. I know you’re probably sick of this question, but for those readers who aren’t familiar with true gelato, how do you distinguish it from American-style ice cream?
Meredith Kurtzman: Well, basically, gelato has less fat – more milk than cream – sometimes eggs, or sometimes no eggs. It’s held for service at a higher temperature, so it’s softer. It has less air pumped into it than American ice cream, and the good machines, which go very fast, and the nature of the mixture of gelato prevent it from taking on a lot of air. But in Italy the definition of gelato has very strict paramaters. In America, there aren’t any parameters.
JN: So, in this country, gelato could be anything. But, as you say, in Italy gelato has less fat, less air, and is served at a warmer temperature. What affect do those factors have on the final result, as experienced by someone eating gelato?
MK: Fat coats your tongue when you eat it, so if there’s less fat the flavors should be coming through stronger. And the ideal way to make gelato (which is rarely done) is to make each flavor separately, so you can infuse stronger flavor. The texture should be softer – a little stretchy maybe.
JN: Everyone who has ever had gelato in Italy speaks of how special it is. Why do you think it makes such a strong and immediate impression?
MK: Well, even in Italy gelato varies widely – I mean, there’s a lot of bad gelato. But I think it’s the texture. The texture is somewhere between American ice cream and soft serve. I think Americans love soft serve. I think it’s that and I think it’s the quality of the flavors in a good gelateria. The flavors are just stronger, and because it’s served warmer, that also increases your ability to taste the flavors.
JN: How did you first discover and then fall in love with gelato?
MK: I’ve been making ice cream in restaurants since the mid 1990s. At the first restaurant I worked at, the chef’s formulas had a lot more milk than cream. Five years later, my first job in an Italian restaurant was Esca. The chef liked ice cream a lot, so we made a lot of gelato. While I was working there, I went to Naples and the Amalfi coast and had my first really good gelato. I had been to Italy once or twice before, but this was the gelato experience. I came back wanting to learn more about making gelato, and I took a few little courses out in New Jersey. They were always trying to sell you their base. I knew I didn’t want to do it that way. I was like, “I want to use real vanilla beans!” They kind of looked at me like, “Spoil sport.”
I was at Esca for two and a half years and then Mario [Batali] approached me with the Otto idea, that they wanted me to come be there and the center of their dessert program was going to be gelato, big time. We bought a huge machine and had a real gelato case. Before Otto opened, I spent a week with an ice cream maker in Italy. It was really crazy, because he didn’t speak any English, and there was one other man in the class from the Canary Islands. He was also using a base, but he taught me the way you break down a gelato base into sugars, fats – you had a chart, like, Milk is 60% water and 40% fat, so you had parameters to work within to make gelato. Like, It should be 22% sugar, using different sugars in proportions, you put together a formula. I did my initial formulas that way, but after that I just made gelato and paid less attention. But I did stay within those parameters once I got back to Otto. Also, he had a lot of Italian gelato professional magazines and I took them back to my hotel room. As much as I could figure out in Italian, I took a lot of notes.
JN: Where was he from, that gelato maker?
MK: Sansepolcro. It’s where Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche meet. He was very generous; we went out to wonderful dinners. I knew I didn’t quite want to make [gelato] his way, but I still learned a lot. It was very inspiring.
JN: As important as that week in Italy was, it sounds like your approach clearly has your own personality. Even though this training was important, your results are clearly the result of a lot of experimentation and self-teaching. What inspired you to go beyond the experience in Italy?
MK: Well, I like really strong flavors. Especially with dessert, what’s the point of eating it if it’s not really delicious? Restaurant ice cream can be really good, and that’s because they do spend more time making smaller batches. So, I bought the small batch approach. I also am a big believer in shopping, careful shopping. I’ve always gone to the Greenmarket on my own. I don’t let anyone else buy the fruit for me, I buy it myself. Actually, I just enjoy it. I really liked what Victor Hazan said at a talk recently about his wife [and cookbook author] Marcella Hazan choosing each bean at the market individually!
JN: As important as shopping and ingredients have become, especially in the last ten years in great restaurants in the US, do you feel like ingredient shopping for dessert has received the same attention?
MK: Well, there’s less involved. I mean, you’re still using Domino sugar. Some people are going beyond that nowadays, milling their own flour and all that, which I admire. The pastry chefs I admired always were very fussy about the fruit. I’ve been like that all my life. I know some people deride shopping, and they say you should be able to make something great out of supermarket stuff, but I feel lucky that I don’t have to.
JN: Right, absolutely. Are there any other factors in great gelato-making that we haven’t talked about?
MK: I learned about using stabilizer and dextrose within flexible parameters in Italy. I formulated our gelato using a percentage on the low end of those parameters, obtaining their benefits, but not so you’d notice their presence too much, i.e. a stretchy, gooey texture. When used judiciously, they add something wonderful to gelato. And they’re not artificial. Stabilizers are made out of starches. I think the original ice cream in Sicily, which was made without yolks – I suspect they probably used a lot of carob flour, because that grew there.
JN: That’s exactly what I’ve read as well. I think a lot of people just think sugar is sugar, but obviously it’s not. In addition to dextrose there’s regular white table sugar, raw sugar, honey, and others. You mentioned that dextrose can have a beneficial effect on texture – what are some other ways that sugars differ?
MK: Dextrose is less sweet than sugar; that’s one of the reasons you can use a little and you’re actually making things a little less sweet. It has other abilities which affect the texture. Honey is more sweet than sugar, and also it’s almost like using corn syrup, it will make everything softer, and it has a pronounced flavor.
JN: Have you used much raw sugar?
MK: No, and that’s partly because of expense. There are some choices at some point that you have to make if you’re making larger quantities of things. If you’re making two quarts at home, it’s no problem, but since I was spending heavily in some areas, like hazelnuts and chocolate, I had to skimp in others.
JN: Of course. You mentioned at the beginning that not all gelato in Italy is equal. How would you describe the state of gelato-making in Italy at the moment? Do you feel like the standard is pretty high, or is it actually quite difficult to find good gelato, even in Italy today?
MK: I think most towns have, if you’re lucky, one or two good places. It’s financial necessity that makes people have to use a base. It’s not because they’re skimping. It’s just very difficult, especially the more flavors you have. It’s crazy to make every flavor separately, and the places that are good usually don’t have a lot of flavors, because it’s too much labor. It’s also skilled labor. I had a fellowship and worked at a good bakery in Sicily; their baked goods were wonderful, but the gelato was made from formulas. It was good, but I know it could have been better.
JN: When you say that the best places wouldn’t have too many flavors, how many are you talking about?
MK: A dozen.
JN: When I take clients to Italy, I always tell them the first thing to do is to look at the color of the gelato. Most that are low-quality have colors that are clearly unnatural, clearly synthetic. It’s also super fluffed up. How is that gelato made?
MK: Well, it’s fake flavoring, like fake strawberry, just like here. It’s expensive to use real fruit, and it’s also difficult. And to be honest, most people don’t really give a damn or don’t know any better. It’s nothing real, and people can replicate flavors nowadays – chemists in the cooking industry – but it’s not the same.
JN: We’ve been talking mostly of gelato so far. Speaking of fruit, could we talk about sorbet? Since in Italy, fruit is used for water-based sorbet rather than milk-based gelato.
MK: It’s best to use fruit for sorbet because the flavor comes through stronger, and you’re not dealing with the water content that’s going to come from the fruit and go into the gelato. If you go to the farmer’s market and buy things, strawberries are $50 a flat, and they’ve gone up every year. People are buying Driscoll’s for $20 a flat – which I hate with a passion. Not in my kitchen! For sorbets, you’re best getting something that’s at peak ripeness and using it very quickly, not letting it sit around. We used to go to the market, bring it back to the restaurant, and then make something that day.
JN: Moving to a different subject, many readers of this interview will be home cooks, and so could you discuss some of the challenges and limitations of making gelato and sorbet at home rather than with commercial equipment in a restaurant kitchen?
MK: Well, any home machine will churn more slowly, which will affect the texture, but you can get the same flavor. One tip is not putting too much into the machine. One mistake people make is they fill it up all the way, and that’s going to take longer to churn.
JN: For example, only churning 1 quart in a 2-quart model?
MK: Exactly. I did a book with Mario Batali called Molto Gusto, and I did the gelato recipes. I tested them with a Cuisinart home model and a Kitchen Aid with a bowl attachment. And, you know, they worked nicely. I’ve heard that the old-fashioned machines with rock salt are supposed to be some of the best, but I’ve never used one.
JN: What is the result of the home machine’s taking too long? Mostly an icier texture?
MK: Well, the whole point of ice cream is you’re making an emulsion, and there’s a lot of water and a lot of fat, and you’re bringing those two things together as quickly as possible so that the water molecules get coated in fat and don’t separate. I think a mistake people make at home is not chilling the mixture enough, and it’s really better if you age it overnight in the refrigerator. It’s good if you chill it down fast after you’ve made a base. It’s just doing the details correctly, and it should be fine.
JN: For a home cook making gelato or sorbet, because of the risk of an icier texture because of longer churning time, how could they use things like powdered milk or a stabilizer such as tapioca flour?
MK: Yes, that’s a very important ingredient, dehydrated milk powder.
JN: I find that when most people publish recipes for gelato, they leave out certain ingredients that could really make a difference for home cooks.
MK: That’s actually changing. Dana Cree recently wrote a book called Hello, My Name is Ice Cream, which does tell you about stabilizers and milk powders and how to use them. You need to know the proportions. And don’t be scared by the word “stabilizer” – that was in Dana’s book, she made it clear that they’re not bad. I work for someone now who had a wheat allergy, and she saw wheat on the label of this very good stabilizer, so now we can’t use them anymore, which is a very big mistake. Every pastry chef I know who has converted to using stabilizer loves them. I think it’s more a matter of principle – misguided principle – that leads people not to use them. Home cooks – you have to know the proportion to use. Some of the better things to use at home are tapioca or guar gum, which you certainly can get through mail order now. And you really don’t need much.
JN: I think it’s just the word “stabilizer.” It makes people think of some industrial product, which it’s not. What does the dehydrated milk powder do?
MK: It absorbs the water in regular milk. Milk has a lot of water in it, so what the milk powder does is absorb some of that water, which then results in smoother texture. Basically, you just don’t want too much water content in your gelato. You don’t want too little – it’s sort of what makes it work – but you don’t want too much.
JN: I was inspired by a British chap who runs a website called icecreamscience.com. He says that he feels like recipes are about 70% of quality and the machine is 30%. So that’s pretty encouraging for someone who can’t spend $10,000 on a machine. Do you agree with that?
MK: Yes, because some of the things we tested [for the cookbook Molto Gusto] came out fine for me. They might not keep as well, but otherwise the flavor is strong, as long as you follow the instructions. It’s hard when you write cookbooks – I tend to want to write a lot of details, because you want people’s attempts to be successful, but in many cases they have to edit for space. You have to leave a lot of details out.
JN: You mentioned freshness. I always tell people that the best places to have gelato really are making it every day. It is literally fresh. Is that naive, or do you think that the best gelaterias in Italy are making their twelve flavors every day?
MK: Yes. Obviously, it’s hard – especially if you make thirty flavors, there’s no way you’re going to churn those every day. And you don’t know how much you’re going to go through. I guess at a busy gelateria they have a pretty good idea, but I’m sure they have leftover and I’m sure they don’t just throw it out. I think making it every day is good for texture.
JN: Since you want to open your gelateria by 11 am or so, it’s also an early start to the day, if you’re making things every day.
MK: After you spin the gelato, it needs a few hours in a freezer to really get right. Ours at Otto needed more time because we did it in a real glass freezer. When we did it, we needed four hours after churning it for it to really set up correctly. And then you’re taking it out and putting it in a gelato case, so then it has to temper.
JN: I think it has been written about you, Meredith, that you certainly weren’t the first person in New York City to be making gelato, but you really kicked off a pretty serious renaissance, so to speak. You were really the first person to bring gelato of an exceptional quality to New York. I’m not sure if you’re comfortable with that description or not, but that’s certainly what a lot of people think. When did this happen, and why do you think nobody before that was making gelato of an exceptionally high quality?
MK: 2003 was when we opened Otto. Maybe they couldn’t afford it, I don’t know. There was this kind of food explosion anyway in those years, of all kinds of things. There was one good place, it was a man from Syracuse [in Sicily] who had a little stand on 4th Avenue, part of a restaurant. He made good gelato; he was very old-school. And there was John Snyder from il laboratorio del gelato. He was the first person to get mass attention. With me it was being at the right place at the right time. Otto itself was unique. It was a huge wine bar, it was casual. Gelato was a big part of the program. Other people had been making olive oil ice cream in New York before me; I didn’t steal their recipes. But people went gaga. Otto was a big deal at first. They would do 900 covers on a Saturday, and it just was a matter of bringing something sophisticated to a larger customer base than a fancy restaurant that might be making olive oil ice cream.
JN: It’s easy to forget that even though it was only 20 years ago, in general the New York dining scene was so different. If you were interested in eating food that was more authentically Italian, there weren’t that many choices, which is hard to even imagine today.
MK: Well, there were very small places that never got much attention. The whole publicity machine, the Internet didn’t exist – the food press turned into a much different thing. Now it’s all about Instagram. It’s not even about the quality of the food, it’s about photographs and publicity, and all that. Most of the chefs I’ve stayed friends with are those who have been around since the mid-90s or before, because we’re not on to the next new thing in just five minutes.
JN: I think it’s what Victor [Hazan] described in his interview with me as “image” versus “identity.” In the world of Instagram – I’m all for beautiful food photography, but ultimately it can look as beautiful as ever, but if it doesn’t have character and soul and flavor, who cares?
MK: Yes. And you know, I’m not Italian; we say we love something of a place, but a lot of people making the best things of a place are not from that place. They may have spent time in that place, but they’re not of the place. But their food still tells a story, and to me the story is really important. I like people who are cooking with a story behind them, not a concept.
JN: Could you give some examples of restaurants or chefs that inspire you in that way?
MK: Well, you have to give credit to Mario Batali. He became something more commercial, but in the beginning he spent time in a place and brought that place [to New York], and I think he was one of the first. Jody Williams, who works with her partner Rita Sodi at Via Carota and Buvette, is doing two different things, and she’s spent time in those places, she’s paid her dues and does a beautiful job. I like Alex Raij, who does La Vara with her husband Eder; they’ve both spent time in Spain and are of that origin, and their food is definitely of a place, with some modern things added. Those are two places I’m loyal to. What I admire about these people is their knowledge of place, to which they add their own soul in the cooking. I don’t go out a lot; a lot of the people I like are not in the scene anymore. I honestly don’t go out to eat a lot because I can’t afford it. I love going to some little hole-in-the-wall places out in Brooklyn.
JN: Who are some of the chefs from the ’90s that you mentioned?
MK: There are people who are doing different things now, like Patti Jackson who was a great pastry chef and now has a “Pennsylvania” restaurant [in Brooklyn], Delaware and Hudson. She spent a lot of time in Italy, and she’s old-school.
JN: What was it like working for Mario? On the one hand, I’m deeply grateful that here’s a guy who put in his time in Italy – he was there for a few years – in a very, serious small place where they’re rolling out pasta by hand. When he came back, there weren’t that many people doing that in New York. But on the other hand, there’s the phenomenon of the restaurant empire. I’m not sure why you have to open six restaurants.
JN: Do you think it’s that simple?
MK: Yes, you can’t make money nowadays [any other way]. Even the people I told you that I admired have three or four restaurants, and they may open more. If you have children and a family, you can’t do that on one restaurant. I just spent a year working at Al Di La. I like the people there a lot, and they started out as pioneers in that neighborhood. There was nobody else in 1998 besides Mario serving rabbit, and tripe. They were really one of the first, and it was a destination to go there. As time went on, they had children. It runs like it did, it doesn’t change that much. I like places like that. Maybe they need a kick in the butt to modernize a little. But you know how things are going to be, and hopefully it’s consistently made. But Otto became less fun for me because, yes, everything became very corporate, and that’s not who I am. Even as a pastry chef, that’s the only way you can make a good salary – either to work at a really big place, or to run between three different restaurants. At some point, they wanted me to do that, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t have the energy to do that, or the desire, to be honest. I started at Otto when I was in my fifties and retired at 65. If you’re not a good corporate soldier, at some point you get relegated to the outside of things. My time there was over.
JN: Sure, I understand.
MK: But I miss the money and the traveling. I can’t afford to go to Italy anymore. You know who I really admire, who is not in New York? Le Vertu in Philadelphia. They get it, they really get it.
JN: Absolutely! And they picked a region, the Abruzzo, which is not as hot as Tuscany or Sicily or Rome right now.
MK: Yes, it’s a part of Italy I’ve always wanted to go to. When I grew up, one of my best friend’s family was from Abruzzo, and that was one of my first impressions of Italian food, eating with her family. The grandmother was roasting peppers in the cellar, and her grandfather was growing grapes and corn in this tiny bit of yard they had. They were very generous, and that impressed me. It was my first impression of Italian food.
JN: You’ve always worked at a restaurant for someone else, including the ten years at Otto. Why have you made the decision to always work for someone else, as opposed to, say, opening a gelateria of the highest quality?
MK: Financially, it’s a huge responsibility to have your own business. Ice cream is one of the least successful businesses, unless you’re on a boardwalk somewhere, and then you have to have cheap ice cream that kids are going to like. Or, you’re in somewhere that’s so cheap that you could be open half the year. Some people are encouraging me to move upstate and buy an old soft-serve place. I don’t come from a family with money; I need to have a salary. Maybe I’m just lazy and scared; I don’t know.
JN: I don’t think people understand how much of an undertaking it is, the capital investment, and so on.
MK: All of these places that are opening, a lot of them will be gone in a few years. You put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in a small business. A lot of my first jobs were at small restaurants, and I saw what the owners went through. That’s why I admire someone like Jody Williams so much. She works her butt off. She’s always in her place, she’s always making sure things are good. I saw other chefs who I just knew were tired of that – you know, of fixing the toilet at 2 in the morning, and all those little things. So, either you find really good people to manage things for you, or you do it yourself. It ain’t easy.
JN: You’ve spent pretty much your whole professional career in New York. You’ve been in the same neighborhood in SoHo, in the same apartment even, for forty years – is that right?
JN: So you have seen many sides of New York, many changes in New York, both in your neighborhood and in different boroughs over those forty years. Could you talk a little bit about New York as you knew it as a child, then as a young woman?
MK: I think the working class has been driven out of Manhattan, for sure. That’s what I used to like about the city, that it was a combination of all kinds of people. I liked the gritty part. I mean, you can romanticize the past, but I loved the street life that used to exist. It was much more exciting. I think everything is getting homogenized. There are tons of apartments where no one even lives, they are some kind of money-laundering I-don’t-even-know-what. Sullivan Street is still a great block, but on my block there used to be a cheesemaker, a butcher, a fish store, a candy store, a bakery. We still have the butcher, and everything else is gone. There are way too many restaurants in New York now. Nobody cooks at home. I love to cook at home; I go up to the Greenmarket. You see the proliferation of delivery food, and all that. It’s a different existence. I walked down by river and saw the park they built, and it’s beautiful. Some of the money isn’t entirely bad. There are also way more tourists than there used to be, and I wish they could go home and leave us alone a little bit. Especially SoHo; it just became a joke. SoHo [now] is a just place for flagship stores for rich European companies. I don’t know if anybody buys anything in those stores, but they’re full of tourists wandering around with their bored children. There’s nowhere to shop [for food]; you have to walk fourteen blocks if you want to get ingredients.
JN: What drove out those small businesses, like the cheesemaker? I think in most places, what drove them out was the supermarket opening in the suburbs that you can drive to easily — the Walmart, the Hope Depot. But in Manhattan, you don’t just hop in your car and drive two miles to Walmart; you would think that if those local businesses existed anywhere, it would be in these boroughs in New York. But even there, they’ve been driven out.
MK: It’s partly the rents going cuckoo. In the building I live in, there used to be working-class families, and now it’s a very transient population of people who come from, say, Brazil and work here for a few years and then go home, or younger students. The building I live in has a lot of really tiny apartments, and those have always been full of NYU students who stay for a few years and then leave. And they don’t cook! They just don’t cook, so there’s no demand. Also, the owners got older and they got tired. The guy at Joe’s Cheese, he took his mozzarella-making to New Jersey, and he couldn’t be happier. He does mainly a wholesale businesss, which is really where the money is now. It’s like ice cream, honestly: if you don’t develop a wholesale client, you’re not going to succeed. If you just rely on retail, unless you’re on the Jersey shore or something, you will not succeed, period. There’s more and more competition, there are new ice cream places opening every year.
JN: What part of New York did you grow up in?
MK: I grew up about 20 miles outside of New York, in a town called Mount Vernon. I was born in Washington Heights, but once my parents had me my mother got tired of climbing up four flights of steps with a baby. My parents were Bronx kids. Mount Vernon is really a working-class suburb, it’s not fancy, but to them it was something they aspired to.
JN: I imagine you visited Manhattan as a child; what were your first memories of it?
MK: I loved it. My father was an artist; he worked various jobs in Manhattan, so I used to go in town with him to his offices. I remember very vividly – I probably was 13 – we went to McDougal Street. That was 1963, and I thought, This is where I want to be.
JN: So it was love at first sight – you knew it?
MK: Yes, it was love at first sight. It was just the cusp of music becoming huge, and you just felt it. I started cutting school and going into New York as much as I could!
JN: This is a kind of hard question, maybe unanswerable: what you said about SoHo being kind of destroyed by tourism – I spent a lot of time in Italy, and even though I’m a tourist too –
MK: You can’t help it.
JN: You can’t help it – so you go to a place like Venice, which for probably nine months out of the year feels more like a theme park than a real place – it’s also been almost destroyed by tourism. What decisions can be made by a place that is interested in fighting that kind of destruction?
MK: I don’t know how it’s going to happen. Honestly, I think in somewhere like Italy it may be immigrants coming there who are doing very small, working-class things; it’s probably not going to be Italian anymore. It’s kind of a tragedy, but the town I lived in in Sicily was kind of a UNESCO town, and it was still really traditional and really nice. The church was a huge thing. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity. There are all those deserted towns in Italy; because they’re on top of a hill or something, it made them impractical places to be. You hear about the poverty people grew up with; it’s easy for us to romanticize it. People left because it was grinding poverty. Unless you have hungry people coming into those places, for whom it’s maybe better than the sub-Sahara, who may make something of that place – otherwise, everything else will become a theme park. I was lucky to be in Venice in January; it was quiet.
JN: I’m going to be in Venice in January as well, with some customers. We picked January for this very reason. What was it like then?
MK: Very mysterious. I used to – there’s a gelato trade show in Rimini. When I worked for Otto, I got them to let me go, and I would always go to other places within a train ride. It was great. I decided to go to Venice one time; I went to the fair and then took a train up to Venice and stayed for a few days. Like everybody else, I got lost and wandered around, stayed away from St. Mark’s square – somehow by luck avoided all that [tourism].
JN: Did you find any good gelato?
MK: I was actually more interested in the cicchetti bars; I was more interested in eating fish and drinking wine. Honestly, I don’t eat a lot of sweets. If I do, I’d rather make something like a good crostata – it’s my idea of heaven. I only went to one gelato place and it was nothing special; but it was also January.
JN: Are there other cities in Italy that you’re especially fond of?
MK: Well, because I lived in Sicily, we traveled to Catania and Syracusa. The market in Catania was just incredible. The man who ran our fellowship grew up around there; going to the market with him and actually buying food that we were going to cook is my idea of heaven. Whenever I travel now, I try and rent [a property], because as much as I like to go out to eat, I also always used to be frustrated by being in markets and not being able to buy things and cook them. So, that’s my happy place. I love Naples; I’ve traveled much more in southern Italy. I went to Lecce and worked at a cooking school for a week teaching the owner gelato. Lecce had some good gelaterias.
JN: Did Naples remind you a little of New York in its grittier days?
MK: Yes! I stayed in a gritty part where I would round a corner and think, I really shouldn’t be here, but I really loved it. That was what I always thought Italy would be like – Naples. It wasn’t really touristy, that much.
JN: Well, I think our time is up, unfortunately. Thanks so much for your time and insights.
MK: Thank you!