Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures on the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In "Heart of the House," Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
Summer is almost in full swing, and there's no shortage of sweet treats to cool down New Yorkers (and the tourists coming in floods this time of year). Joining the likes of Melt Bakery and People's Pops, pastry chef Fany Gerson sells her frozen delectables on the High Line (as well as other markets like New Amsterdam and Hester Street).
After stints at Eleven Madison Park and Rosa Mexicano, Fany struck out on her own with La Newyorkina, her private business that sells Mexican-style popsicles and other sweet treats. Her paletas, made with passionfruit, lime, mango, and more, are sought after by fans and first-timers, markets and restaurants alike. Now working on her third book, Fany chatted with us about her future business plans and sharing her love of Mexican sweets.
You're an accomplished chef who decided to strike out on your own. What's your cooking background? I have been a chef and pastry chef for a long time. I went to the Culinary Institute of America, and before that I went to school in Mexico for two years. I went for the savory side, not the sweet side, but I always liked sweet a little better. So I spent more time on that side of the kitchen and eventually became a pastry chef. I'd been wanting to start my own business, because you work really hard in this industry, so you might as well work for yourself. But it was just in the back of my mind.
How did La Newyorkina begin? Before even opening a restaurant my dream was to write a cookbook. I wrote My Sweet Mexico and spent a year traveling throughout Mexico for research. It's a book on Mexican sweets and the culture behind it, with a little history. I realized the importance of the book when I was doing research: there isn't very much written on the subject because it's part of an oral tradition that's been passed down from great grandmothers to their daughters. There's not a lot of documentation in English or Spanish, and it's become a lost art; the new generations aren't as interested, or they have other opportunities they want to pursue.
When I came back home, I thought it was time to open something to go along with my book. Beyond wanting to run my own business, I felt a need a need to keep on sharing the sweets of Mexico. So I decided to the first gourmet Mexican ice cream. I thought, "I'm going to do paletas because no one really does paletas here." And while I was gone in Mexico People's Pops had opened, and I didn't even know they existed. But they have their own take, on popsicles different from mine.
What were your goals for the business, and how did people respond? I wanted to see if people liked the flavors of Mexico the same way I do. One of the things I want to show people is how special they are. At a gelateria, even a crappy one, people are willing to pay a lot of money, and feel like they have to like the gelato, because there's something about it that's special and Italian. I want people to understand that frozen desserts are just as special, unique, and delicious if they're from Mexico. I want to transport people to a different culture through flavors.
What's the spirit been like, participating in big markets and open venues with a cart? Being in a market is a great atmosphere. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. It's also a great way to test your marketability: you have very direct contact with the customer and that's very special, because you establish relationships. There's something really special about that, when people start suggesting flavors and telling stories to you.
How do you develop your recipes? In Mexico you don't make popsicles. You go to a popsicle shop. That's something every single town has. So I just took my experience as a pastry chef and some of the flavors that I missed from Mexico. Some of the flavors are inspired by what I see at the market, and some just come to me.
You're not limited to paletas, though. Tell us about some of the other treats in your repertoire. I do ice cream for the New Amsterdam Market and for custom orders, and I also do typical Mexican candies like glorias (goat milk caramels with pecans) and cocadas (coconut lime cookies like macarons). And what they call Mexican wedding cookies, but we don't really eat them at weddings in Mexico. I also do candied pumpkin seeds, brittles, spiced candied orange zest, and tamarind balls.
What are some of your aspirations for the near future? Right now I'm looking for a space to open a permanent storefront for ice cream, paletas, and sweets. In the winter I'm going to have hot beverages, like coffee from Mexico. I'm not going to have espresso: only cafe con leche and what they call cafe de olla, a spiced coffee. I'll also do real Mexican hot chocolate because nobody here has the real thing.
Another thing I learned when I was doing my research was that the less people have, the more giving they are. There are so many talented people out there that don't have the opportunity or the resources to really start their own business, so I want to create a business that helps artisans. So I'm going to make most things in the shop, but I'm also going to have imported candies from small producers in Mexico. I want to educate people about them so they'll seek them out.
I found an organization called Crea, located in a state that men migrate from to seek out a better quality of life. So there are these women left without husbands, and they make gems, or chocolate, or mole. This organization helps them turn these crafts into businesses. I give them a certain percentage of profits, but I also started using one woman's chocolate because it's the most amazing thing. My grandmother asked me, "you make so much money that you can give some away?" And I said no, but when it's something bigger than you, it pushes you.