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Q & A with Ben Van Leeuwen

Thumbnail image for BenVanLeeuwen.JPGWhere ice cream is concerned, there’s some serious competition on the streets of New York these days.  Think Mister Softee gone green and you have Ben Van Leeuwen.  Van Leeuwen got the idea to launch his own artisanal ice cream concept  while driving a Good Humor truck.   Unlike Good Humor and Mister Softee, Van Leeuwen uses organic, local cream, and biodegradable cups.  He gets his pistachios straight from Sicily and his red currants from local farmers.  With ten flavors to choose from, we’d chase down any one of his three trucks for the classic vanilla, made with barrel-aged ground vanilla beans, or mint chip made with Oregon mint leaves and Michael Cluizel chocolate.  Sundae?  We’re partial to the ginger sundae made with a spicy ginger ice cream, topped with homemade hot caramel sauce, chopped sugar cones, and whipped cream.  

What did you want to be when you grew up?
An architect.

What was your first job in food?
I was going to Skidmore College and worked for the baker Michael London. He was one of the first to begin the artisan bread movement.

When did you first learn how to make ice cream?
I really only started a couple of years ago. I’ve always loved to cook and I felt like the bakeries, the ice cream around me wasn’t that good. I wanted something natural. So I bought an ice cream maker and started testing recipes.

With so many dessert-themed trucks around town, how are you dealing with the sweet street competition?
Yes but in some ways I feel we’re very different from the other trucks. I think our main pressure is the industry product of ice cream, and I would love to see more artisan ice cream trucks out there.

Though you use local milk and eggs, ingredients such as your pistachios and hazelnuts are shipped from overseas. Have you considered making ice cream from strictly local products?
I think it has to be a balance between being ecological and having a great tasting product. The pistachios and hazelnuts, the Michel Cluizel chocolate — they’re really the best of their kind.

Where is the ice cream made?
In Boonville, New York. I sort of had a romantic vision of having my own ice cream making factory, but I quickly learned that wasn’t economically feasible. So I decided to find a co-packer because it’s so much simpler. I was able to find a dairy in which all of the cows produce hormone-free milk, and that has its own freezer as well for making ice cream.

What are the pros and cons of working out of a truck?
The biggest pro is that there’s no rent. Plus, it’s a great marketing tool. However to get a permit, and to simply operate and stock the truck are the cons. Imagine every day having to restock everything from cups and napkins and toppings to ice cream.

What’s your take on more mainstream ice cream trucks, such as Mister Softee and Good Humor?
From a human interest standpoint, it’s great. People are getting jobs, kids are happy. But the product itself is so bad for you, and that’s a shame.

With autumn’s arrival, will there be any new flavors on the menu?

With autumn’s arrival, will there be any new flavors on the menu?
Unfortunately no. But starting next week we’ll be selling traditional hot chocolate using real Michael Cluizel chocolate, not cocoa powder, hormone-free, organic milk and turbinado sugar. We’ll also be selling our hot chocolate float where we dunk a scoop of our vanilla ice cream into the chocolate.

How did you develop your commitment to such eco-friendly practices as biodegradable utensils and organic ice cream?
I love nature and have a deep connection with it. It would be hypocritical, I think, to be an artisinal food operation without enviornmentally-friendly practices. Without a healthy earth, how can we have great products? I think a lot of it also has to do with my fear of the environment going downhill. And lastly there’s personal health, and natural ice cream is better for you than a lot of fillers and stabilizers.

How do you think the onset of winter will affect your business?
It’ll definitely affect us but I don’t think it’ll necessarily be negative.  We’ll be selling our hot chocolate, and in the meantime will be getting in gear to open up a storefront.

What’s your favorite flavor on the menu?
Chocolate. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.

What’s your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
Actually I do have one – the red currants and cream. I still like it of course but the problem is that when whole pieces of fruit freeze, they don’t have the best flavor or texture. Still, we really wanted to have a flavor with real pieces of fruit in it, and we get these currants locally.

Who, other than yourself, makes the best ice cream?
I really like BiRite Creamery in San Francisco. I think Grom over here in New York has a lot of really great flavors. Haagen Dazs is good too.

Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
A storefront in downtown Manhattan and an emporium. Also, I’d love to start a cafe that makes really simple, really delicious and organic food, kind of Cali-style. And we’d also have a local organic pantry with things like housemade ketchup and jams, house-brewed ginger and root beer. It would have to be in Brooklyn too. I just feel that too many middle-end restaurants are just about business, not the food. Nowadays I think it’s very difficult to eat out in America without it being this fancy dining occasion.

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Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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