Ben Van Leeuwen puts on the kettle and steps out to his garden to gather fresh mint. Before the interview, we talk about yoga; he practices and meditates daily. When he speaks, his voice is soft but enthusiastic.
Ben Van Leeuwen seems to live a remarkably pure life. It’s a purity that is consistent with his work; Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, the company he co-founded, is recognized for its hormone-free, filler-free ice cream and its use of pure ingredients. Launched in 2008, the Brooklyn-based company redefined the ice cream truck with its gourmet flavors. Since then, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream has grown to include brick-and-mortar locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and soon two in Los Angeles.
Van Leeuwen had us over some weeks ago to discuss the history of the company, the complexities of vanilla, and how he spends his time in his kitchen. Surprise: it’s often spent making ice cream.
When we started the ice cream company, we—myself and my two business partners— all lived together in one apartment in Greenpoint. Everything emerged from that kitchen. We tested all of our recipes there, using a double boiler and our ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and a flavor like Earl Grey tea. Four years ago, I moved into this apartment. All of our new flavors, plus the recipes for our cookbook (out May 2015), were tested here. I was in my kitchen 24/7 this summer testing recipes for our vegan ice creams, making hundreds of batches to get them perfect. It is through that repetition—spending weeks on end, testing recipes for ten hours a day—that the good stuff comes out. I think that’s true for all art forms; the process, and the constraints of process, give you creativity.
Ice cream is pretty objective in many ways. You want a certain amount of sugar, fat, and solids. We have spreadsheets for our formulas, so we can plug in new recipes, and we usually nail the balance on the first try. But ice cream is also so complex. Take these fire-cured vanilla beans from Bali. Vanilla is the flavor we think about the most. It sells the most, and it’s by far the most difficult to perfect. Vanilla is complex. It has 220 different flavor compounds, which is incredibly high. We always tell that to people when they come into the store, because so many people say that vanilla is boring. Vanilla is poignant but also delicate, and delicate flavors are harder to do, especially when mixed with cream and eggs, which affect the flavor. You have to find a balance. We are always perfecting our vanilla.
If you want to make the best ice cream, you should let it age for 24 hours before freezing. This is good for hydration and emulsification (this process doesn’t apply to our vegan ice cream, which we freeze immediately). There is chemistry involved. I learned a lot about food science from On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, but I learned the most from this fellow named Jim Derway who worked at the dairy farm upstate where we originally produced, back when we outsourced our production. He used to be in charge of all the ice cream production for Stewart’s Shops. Even though that’s not the kind of ice cream we make, he taught us the science behind production.
Before we had our restaurant, Selamat Pagi, I used to cook a lot, mostly Indian and Sri Lankan food. This past summer I went fishing with my dad in Long Island Sound and we caught blue fish. I brought back the fresh fish filets and made an incredible Indonesian fish curry, with lots of fresh turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chilis. A lot of Southeast Asian cooking begins by making a spice paste using a mortar and pestle. It’s always good to soak your chilis in warm water beforehand, which will make them really soft and easy to dissolve. Start with the firmest ingredients in your mortar and pestle, add rock salt to help break down the harder ingredients, and then slowly add the softer ones.
“Growing up in Greenwich, the expectation is to make enough money to live somewhere exactly like the place you grew up… it was never the right fit.”
My mortar and pestle was a Christmas present from my brother that I got in 2009. He has lived in Greenpoint for ten years and I’ve been here for eight. That year, Greenpoint had started to change, and there were lots of stores opening. We wanted to support our neighbors with our Christmas shopping.
I started cooking at a pretty young age, and I’ve always had a sensitive palate. As a kid I hated almost all of the foods that I’d have at birthday parties or at school—the pizza, cupcakes, and soda. At 18 or 19—when I wasn’t living at home anymore, and I was making my own meals—food became an obsession. I spent a year traveling in Europe and Southeast Asia, only interested in learning about food and feeling guilty for not being interested in visiting museums. In college I worked at a great bakery in Saratoga Springs called Mrs. London’s. Michael London would make wild fermentation bread, he only used biodynamic wheat, and he used first harvest Celtic sea salt in the baguettes. He told me to read Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating, which teaches you about the history of single ingredients.
Growing up in Greenwich, CT, the expectation is to make enough money to live somewhere exactly like the place you grew up, which often means working in finance. At one point I thought I should do that, but it was never the right fit. I half-heartedly applied for jobs, and one day when I was in the city for an interview, I looked at the ice cream trucks and I thought ‘why aren’t there any gourmet ice cream trucks?’ This was in 2007, before there were fancy food trucks. I thought that it was a good idea—good enough to work. People come up with so many business ideas and the truth is, tons of them are great and would do well. All that matters is that you do it.