Getting Fresh with Salt & Straw’s Tyler Malek

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Tyler Malek at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We don’t eat ice cream to survive, we eat it to enjoy life. And no one knows this better than Tyler Malek, co-founder and head ice cream maker at Salt & Straw. His ice cream odyssey began in 2011 when he started selling the frozen treat out of a humble push cart in Portland. With his flair for unique and delectable flavors like Salted, Malted, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Avocado & Oaxacan Chocolate Fudge, he’s since expanded his reach across five West Coast cities, including five LA locations.

Good Food talked with him about why his partners are the creative force behind his ice cream flavors, why salted caramel is his favorite, and how a 3rd grade field trip to his local Baskin Robbins decided his ice cream future. He also weighs in on the classic debate: Häagen-Dazs versus Ben & Jerry’s.

Los Angeles is going through a kind of ice cream renaissance. Small batch, artisanal, chef-driven, scoop shops are popping up everywhere—and I couldn’t be happier about it. Salt & Straw seemed to be here since the beginning. I think it’s safe to say you helped inspire this wave of ice cream shops. So who inspired Salt & Straw?
When we first started, we wanted to create a space where you can come in, feel safe, feel taken care of, and get to meet the people around your city: people like the farmers who are dropping off the produce, the chocolate makers who are just starting out their business, or your neighbor as you wait in line. Ice cream became a perfect vehicle for all of that.

We all scream for ice cream, especially for Peanut Butter & Pickles in a waffle cone (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But as we really got going, we realized it was something much more than that. The focus then became about how we interacted with our partners [collaborators like Alex Weiser and Bruce Kalman in Los Angeles] and allowed them to be the creative force behind our product. And that was a huge learning experience for us. That was this evolution over the first couple years of our company and how we created this idea of small-batch, handmade, hyper-local, story-focused ice cream.

You’re living out every kid’s fantasy right now. What’s it like being the head ice cream maker?
I think everything about ice cream is beautiful. There’s so much that goes into the science of it, or if you don’t want to focus on the science of it, you can focus on the art of it. And if you don’t want to focus on the art of it, you can focus on the pure joy of making ice cream. When we make our salted caramel ice cream for example, ice cream pours out of the machine and into a bucket. As that’s happening, we drizzle in caramel, and it all layers on top of each other and creates something like a double-helix pattern. And as you’re drizzling that caramel in, visually it’s like you’re hallucinating, and it’s the most insanely magical experience you can have—and every batch of ice cream is like that! It’s like this three-dimensional piece of art in three gallons that will be eaten the next day. I love my job.

Find market-fresh flavors like Freckled Chocolate Zucchini Bread (pictured above) and Green Fennel & Maple during their “Eat Your Vegetables in Ice Cream” flavor series (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For the home ice cream maker, what’s a good ratio of yolks to cream to milk?
Homemade ice cream is so fun. First of all, I like to start with foundation recipes. I like to equate it to making a soup stock; you have your vegetable stock, chicken stock, or beef stock. You know your soup is going to be good if you start with the right stock. I think of ice cream bases in a similar way. I have like 20 go-to recipes in my kitchen. I’m actually writing a book, and I’ve got about five of them in there, but I usually like to stick with an eggless base. It’s for many reasons, but specifically, it’s about flavor. When you think about all these heady spices and some of these fresh vegetables, you don’t want the egg yolk flavor to get in the way of that. So I’ll replace it with a little bit of xanthan gum, which sounds scary because it starts with an “x,” but it’s actually a super accessible, easy-to-use ingredient. So I’ll use an eighth of a teaspoon of that, to about one-and-a-half cup of milk, to about one-and-a-half cup of cream.

And it’s still creamy without the yolk?
Yes. Almost even better, because you allow the creaminess of the butter to shine through.

You grew up in Seattle. Did you have a favorite local ice cream shop as a kid?
Not really. One thing I remember, though. When I was in third grade, I got a tour of the local Baskin Robbins franchise. I went into the freezer and was like, “You can just eat ice cream whenever you want?” They’re like, “Yeah.” I was like, this is the greatest thing in the world. And I didn’t realize it until a couple years into starting Salt & Straw, but I guess this was a life dream of mine.

Blondie sundaes have more fun (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

So if you’re buying store bought ice cream: Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s?
Häagen-Dazs has some of the cleanest flavors in the world. Ben & Jerry’s, they invented cookie dough. That’s such a go-to. We’ve got Tillamook up in Portland, and they have great cows out there on the coast. I don’t know if I can pick one.

You travel city to city, shop to shop, at all your locations, but you still call Portland home. When you have friends visiting from out of town, where do you take them out to eat in Portland?
Portland has an insane food scene. I think the cool thing is that the whole city is walkable. We have four quadrants, but it’s as if a whole city was packed into just the downtown area of Los Angeles. If you haven’t been to Le Pigeon, Gabe [Rucker] is the most innovative chef I’ve ever met, and he’s not scared of any ingredients. He did a foie gras dish with melted black licorice: literally red vine black licorice melted into a sauce. Also, I think if you haven’t been to Pok Pok, it’s an experience. You guys had it in [Downtown LA’s] Chinatown.

I was sad to see the Pok Pok here in LA close, especially so quickly. It’s such an institution in Portland. What differences have you noticed between the LA and Portland food scenes?

Small-batch, hyper-local, story-focused ice cream handmade three gallons at a time (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What’s interesting about Portland is that you can be in the city, rent is affordable, there’s easy access to your farmers, and you can do it all on bike. There are pockets of LA that have that same culture, but LA is so big. There’s so much noise if you’re not in your neighborhood. Take Kismet in Los Feliz. Their food is some of the best in the country, but if you’re on the West Side, it’s impossible to get out there.

But if you’re just in your neighborhood, like here in Santa Monica, and going to the right restaurant, it’s just as good if not better. It’s amazing, because you have more fresh produce options longer in the year than we could ever dream of in Portland. So maybe that forces more creativity in Portland, because we are stuck eight months out of the year with root vegetables and mushrooms. But at the end of the day, there is a difference. But it’s not as drastic as people make it out to be.

Photos by Rosalie Atkinson, Good Food producer