"I don't really care for the pretense, I just like delicious things. Simple and good."
Like her gelato, Meredith Kurtzman is pretty old-school. She gets most excited by marketing for fresh fruit, and shuns flashy new flavors for consistent classics. Her unique custarding technique and insistence on quality have made her gelatos at Mario Batali's Otto a destination for many a serious eater. We got the scoop on her favorites, and which flavor just went wrong.
Did working for Batali and configuring the menu for Otto come first, or did you always have a love for gelato? While I was working for restaurants over the years I decided that ice cream was the best part of plated desserts—for the texture, the flavor, and the vehicle that is a custard carrying a flavor. When I started working for Mario at Esca I became interested in gelato, so I went to Naples and the Almafi coast. I took a class or two, and then when the opportunity to do Otto opened up I thought, "how interesting, we'll just focus on gelato."
Was there a moment in Italy when one chef or class made everything click? It was tasting gelato there more than anything. I took a little bit of what I learned from people everywhere and taught myself a lot from trial and error. It's what makes our product unique—it's my own way of doing it.
Can you break down for us the difference between hard-churned ice cream and gelato? It's basically fat content and overrun (the amount of air you pump into your gelato). Old-fashioned gelato has very little overrun. Also, we keep gelato at a warmer temperature. Ice cream is usually held at zero degrees, we hold at 12-18 degrees. It's also a lower-fat ice cream.
You impart so much concentrated flavor in your gelato. How do you do it? A lot about cooking for me is about shopping, especially with fruit. I go to the market four times a week, and I'm really fussy about the food I buy. So it starts with that. Then the custard flavors are done by infusion: we heat a bunch of milk and pour it over mint leaves or vanilla beans or nuts we've roasted, ground and strained out. Every flavor is made separately. A lot of gelato places with 30 flavors will make a big white base and add either some powders, purée or flavored pastes. That's the only way you can keep up. We do about 14-16 flavors, so we make them separately, about 4 a day.
Over the years what's been your favorite aspect of coming up with a recipe? My favorite thing is working with fruit because it's a challenge—fruit is never the same. And local fruit right now is heaven!
Was there a flavor that took a particularly long time to nail? Dark chocolate was the hardest. Crappy chocolate ice cream is made with cocoa powder. We use Valhrona, so there's a lot of fat and solids. So getting a balance of ice cream that wasn't rock hard or too rich took about 2 years. That was hardest.
Any chance you have a favorite? I love caramel gelato. You just burn the hell outta a lot of sugar—it's very easy. I also like things like verbena and things that don't sell that well. We've done beet, avocado, gorgonzola... but I'm pretty much a purist. I like very straightforward, simple things that taste of themselves. It's very important to me to put in as much natural ingredients and flavor as we can afford.
Is there an ingredient on your list that you're pumped to work with? I don't know, what haven't I done yet?! I'd rather just express the pure flavor of fruit. I just look forward to the changing of the seasons. That's exciting to me.
So then what do you do in winter to keep the excitement for gelato going? You go back to the basics. You try to do what you've done before better, but there's a basic ten that you can't take off the menu because they make the customers happy: coffee, chocolate, caramel. I look forward to new combinations, but we don't do anything too strange here. Also, because I'm older it's kind of, "been there, done that!" There are things that I look back on that I was like, "what was I thinking?!" But in general I trust my palate.
Like what? Does one come to mind? Some herbal things just don't work out: basil doesn't make a good ice cream.
Is there a flavor now that nostalgically reminds you of childhood? Berries. I've always loved berries. There was a brief time the Good Humor man did a black raspberry double chocolate. I was about 7 years old. And then when I was a teenager, Baskin Robbins did an Oregon Blackberry. So throughout my life I've had an attraction to berries. I love berries.
Any favorite berry you've worked with? When we first opened I ordered raspberries from Richter's in Washington State, the best raspberries I've ever eaten in my life. They're mad expensive, so I can't do that again. There are some great local raspberries too, but they cost a fortune to get enough to really get a flavor through. That's the thing about the greenmarket that's difficult: it's great quality but expensive. But it's fun to keep working and find some plums that are just so squishy-ripe that you know they're going to make the perfect sorbet. It's the thrill of the hunt.
You've been in this exhausting field for a while. Other than that hunt, what about it still excites you? I like delicious food and I like making delicious food. That's what always brought me to this career and, honestly, I guess through years of being older I don't expect something new everyday. You practice a craft, you produce something consistent, and you're happy to earn a paycheck. It's kinda the story—I don't really care for the pretense, I just like delicious things. Simple and good.
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