Ice cream lovers (and I hope that’s all of you), put down that tub of Haagen Dazs or Coconut Bliss and pay attention–there’s a new ice cream maker in town, and he and his trusty Carpigiani have big plans to seduce you with their cold, creamy creations, passion for excellent local ingredients, and maybe even the sweet strains of the ukelele.
I sat down this week with Fifty Licks‘ Chad Draizin in the marvelous smelling Lower East Burnside kitchen he shares with Abby’s Table and Salt, Fire & Time, over a bowl of soup generously provided by kitchenmate Tressa Yellig, and we talked about Chad’s winding path from college dropout to beer brewer to ice cream man (all before the age of 30), his passion for the “science nerd” aspects of ice cream making, the impromptu tequila and chocolate-fueled think tank that resulted in the name Fifty Licks, and his dreams of his very own scoop shop filled with retro waffle makers, shoestring fry-studded malted ice cream, and of course, plenty of jimmies.
Did you always know you wanted to be an ice cream man?
Not at all. I’d skipped around to everything in college–business, art, philosophy, and then I dropped out out in my 4th year. School had always been hard for me; I had severe ADD but I didn’t know it until I was 20 years old. When I dropped out, I originally wanted to be a brewer–I was making beer at home and I was getting really good at it, so I actually went to school for brewing beer, and I moved out to Portland in 2002 to do an internship for Portland Brewing Company. But I realized that the only way for me to really enjoy the business was to own my own brewery, and owning a brewery takes a lot, and just around the time I realized that, my dad called me up. He was starting a real estate development project back in Florida where I grew up and so I went and did that with my brother for a few years, and we were pretty successful at it. Then my dad got sick and passed away and the real estate market crashed. I knew that next I wanted to do something creative, I wanted to make something with my hands, but I didn’t know what I was going to do.
So you picked ice cream.
I’d always loved to cook and I liked food where there are a lot of chemical reactions and things change form, like bread or beer. I’d been experimenting with ice cream for about two years, and I thought, maybe I’ll start an ice cream company. I told my mom I was going to do it and she said it was a good idea. She’s a very conservative person, so if she said it was a good idea I figured it was probably less crazy than I thought. So I just did it.
You make five flavors right now. How do you come up with your signature flavors?
Right now I’m making Tahitian Vanilla, Stumptown Coffee, Caramelized Apple, Maple with Bacon, and Single-Malt Scotch. I had in mind two big rules for which flavors I choose. One, they have to be the best of that flavor that I’ve ever tasted, and two, if they are an unusual flavor, they can’t slide by on their gimmick value, they have to be truly delicious. If it’s a weirdo flavor, but me and my friends and roommates all still go for it in the freezer, then that’s one worth considering. But if it’s a weirdo flavor where you take one bite and think it’s interesting but don’t eat it again, like my olive oil ice cream was, then it’s not a keeper.
Your logo is very distinctive. How’d you come up with the name Fifty Licks?
It’s the number of licks it takes to eat a scoop of ice cream. I needed a name for the company, so I had a whole bunch of friends over and got beer and made some food and somebody brought tequila and chocolate and we were all trying to come up with names, we all had laptops out and we were scouring the internet. As the night went on the names were getting more and more ridiculous, we were losing focus and the tequila was diminishing, and then my friend’s girlfriend Rochelle shouted out ‘Fifty Licks, the number of licks it takes to eat a scoop of ice cream!’ and we were all like ‘Done, see you later, going to bed.’ It’s got the right number of syllables, it’s got a verb, it sounds good, it’s a little bit sexy.
Since you just started selling your ice cream this summer and don’t have a storefront yet, what’s the best way to find it? I know I struggled with that when I first heard about you.
I struggle with it too. People get in touch with me through Yelp, or they come here at like nine at night to the kitchen and they want some ice cream. I have a little freezer over there full of ice cream and I’m happy to sell it but I don’t really have regular hours here because this is just a production facility, it isn’t a storefront. Over the summer we did a lot of special events like street fairs and concerts, with the ice cream truck, and it was a ton of fun. But it’s winter now, and I’m trying to get into more restaurants and cafés. I’m in Living Room Theater, The Peoples’ Sandwich of Portland, The Sugar Cube, and Yoko Sushi–they have a plum wine ice cream I make custom for them. And I’m in this bar my friend Rob just opened called The Freehouse. There are probably double the amount of places I mentioned that want ice cream, but until they actually have it in their stores, I don’t want to tell you about it. Also I’m going to be opening up a scoop shop.
Can you tell me about the scoop shop?
I got some big ideas for the scoop shop. The idea is really to have a place that people are going to want to go to in the winter time as well as in the summer. It needs to feel modern but still warm and cozy. For the toppings, instead of having gummy bears and Oreo cookie crumbles, I’m going to do things like candied orange peel, candied rosemary, and bacon. I just found out that sprinkles are sometimes called jimmies in different parts of the country, and I love that name so much that I have to have jimmies as a topping. And I’ll have waffle ice cream sandwiches. We have this really old waffle machine that’s at least 70 years old at home, and it’s art deco chrome outside and cast iron inside and when we were growing up my mom would make these really crispy waffles, with ice cream sandwiched in between two waffles. With the waffle sandwiches I can really experiment with pairing flavors. Like, for Mother’s Day, I made my mom waffles on that waffle iron, with sour cream ice cream on top and then I macerated berries in pinot noir and honey and I poured them on top. It just all came together really well–the tartness of the berries and the richness of the ice cream.
At this point, Chad says, “You haven’t touched your soup but I want you to taste some sorbet.” I say, “Why, certainly,” while secretly thinking this food-writing thing might be the best job ever. First, a nice lady gave me soup and now an enthusiastic ice cream man is practically forcing me to taste his new sorbet. Chad returns with a big bucket.
Just coming in here to work I get amazing food, and the other nice thing about sharing a kitchen is that they each have these weekly dinners in here and I get to come up with original ice creams for the dinners. It’s fun, because I do the same five recipes over and over and over and this is a nice way to come up with new flavors and exercise my creativity a little bit. Abby (of Abby’s Table, which stresses gluten free, dairy free and soy free cooking) asked me to make this one for her dinner last week, so it’s coconut-based. It’s got coconut milk, saffron, cardamom, star anise, and a lot of lemon juice and lemon zest in it. This is probably going to be my first vegan ice cream, just because it came out so good. It’s really one of my favorite things I’ve ever made.
It’s amazing. So creamy.
My machine kicks ass. It is a Carpigiani. Made in Italy. This one is the low overrun version, so there is less air mixed in than in most ice cream. Most ice cream doubles in volume when it is churned; a 100% increase. Mine increases by about 35%. This intensifies the flavor and makes it richer, but you lose out on some of the fluffiness of cheaper ice cream. It’s a judgement call. What I really like about the machine is that it will freeze 5 gallons of ice cream in 8 minutes. It has amazing amounts of power. As a reference, my countertop machine that I do test recipes in takes 45 minutes to freeze a quart. The shorter freeze freeze time ensures that the ice crystals stay small; microscopic, too small for your tongue to detect. This, plus the high fat content and the emulsifying property of the egg yolks is how it stays so creamy and smooth.
I’m sorry for all this science nerd stuff. I really love it but it bores most people. I always thought I’d be a scientist or an inventor when I grew up and right now I pretty much am.
It’s okay. I noticed your ice creams don’t have corn syrup in them. That’s nice.
Most commercial ice cream has a portion of its sugar replaced with corn syrup. I don’t want to use corn syrup, and my customers probably don’t want to eat corn syrup. I’ve replaced it with organic agave nectar, which has the same properties in the ice cream, but is much nicer to your body.
I use really good ingredients. For the Caramelized Apple, I get the apple juice from Lattin’s Country Cider Mill in Washington. They’ve won all sorts of awards for their ciders, it’s delicious. The farmers drop it off right here at the kitchen. It takes about three hours to boil five gallons of apple juice down into a caramel. So in a pint of ice cream there’s about a pint of apple juice that’s been boiled down. It’s the only ingredient I add to the ice cream to make that flavor.
So, any new ice cream flavors on the horizon?
A lot of people have told me that they love, when they get a milkshake, to dip their fries in it. So I thought, ‘how could I make that into an ice cream?’ I’m going to make it a malted ice cream and then I’m gonna make those little bitty matchstick French fries, like the kind you get in a can, and dip them in chocolate and mix them into the ice cream so when while you’re eating it, you get a nice crunch of salt and fat and fried flavor in the middle of the malted ice cream. I think I’m going to call it Malted Small Fry…Malted & A Small Fry? I don’t know. I need a little bit of help coming up with a name for that one. I don’t like giving my ice creams cutesie names. I think the flavors should describe the food. Tomato is a sorbet that I’d really like to do, a fresh sweet tomato sorbet. I don’t even know if I’d put anything else into it, I’ve seen Bloody Mary sorbet, but I just want that pure, pure flavor of tomato.
Considering your background as a brewer, are you going to make a beer-flavored ice cream?
I tried it and it kind of failed, a couple of different times. Maybe eventually, but the malted is pretty close, it’s got the raw ingredients of beer in it.
When people find out what you do, how do they react?
All over the place. Most people are excited and think it’s cool. Or they say, ‘you know what you should do? You should make a lemongrass beet ice cream.’ They always try to come up with flavor ideas, and I appreciate it, but they are usually pretty bad ideas.
You know what you should do? A Hugh Jackman-flavored ice cream. Just kidding. Moving on. I noticed on Twitter that you were asking anyone who had PR experience for help in exchange for ice cream. What else have you traded for ice cream?
I’ve traded a lot of things for ice cream–hair cuts, drinks, dinners. If your readers have suggestions, let me know, because I’d love to do some bartering. I need my back fixed. Acupuncture or massage or something like that would be good.
Maybe you should trade for a new ukelele, since you told me earlier that your old one was stolen out of your ice cream truck.
The (stolen) ukulele was my good one. I still have two others: a lousy soprano and a lousy baritone, but that was my nice one. I played it quite a bit during ice cream events in the summer. It helped pass the time and it seemed to fit with the uniform. Customers like it too and sometimes we’d have sing-alongs in front of the ice cream truck.
Some people might say you’re living the dream. The ice cream dream, that is. What do you think?
The whole reason that I really started doing this is because I wanted to have a life that I really enjoyed. I wanted to be able to support myself financially, but on my own terms, doing something creative, something with my hands, something that I was proud of and that involved making other people happy. I’ve met a lot of people in the last year or that have asked me ‘how do you make your life the way you want it to be?’ I started thinking about it, and I looked to the people I know whose lifestyles I really admire, and they’re all doing something they enjoy, something that makes them feel fulfilled and satisfied. And they just keep doing it, and one thing will lead to another and an opportunity will open up. I’ve been meeting a lot of people like that lately. Portland is full of people like that. I think we should all get together for some sort of monthly dinner or something.
Or an ice cream tasting. Hint, hint.