Founder & CEO of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream
Ben Van Leeuwen may use chickpea water to make vegan meringues, but you'll never hear him throw out the buzzword "aquafaba." Ben is emphatically not a foodie; he's just devoted to creating amazing ice cream—and amazing vegan ice cream—from world class ingredients. Whether it's Sicilian pistachios from the slopes of Mount Etna or ceylon cinnamon from Sri Lanka, Ben and his partners, Laura O'Neill and Peter Van Leeuwen, have sourced the finest ingredients for every flavor on their menu. Ben gave Chroma Kitchen the literal inside scoop.
What was the root of your interest in adding vegan flavors to the Van Leeuwen menu?
Initially, the interest rose from customer demand. Not as much from vegans saying, “We want vegan ice cream,” but more from lactose intolerant people not wanting to eat dairy. Combined with that, Laura’s mother and sister are vegan, and we’re all kind of pescatarians.
We were one of the first artisanal ice cream makers, and we were one of the first food trucks. With vegan ice cream, we weren’t one of the first—but we are definitely the best. And I’m surprised, because it’s not particularly difficult to make: I’m a passionate guy, and I love food, but I’m not a genius. Making incredible beer and wine is really hard. Making incredible ice cream, it’s not very hard.
This is bad PR, but it's interesting. It's cool for people to know.
Why do you say making incredible ice cream isn't difficult?
There are very few points in the production where you need to make subjective decisions. Formulating ice cream—coming up with the recipe—that takes some subjective decision making, but once you have the recipe, it’s simple. You’re just heating it up and cooling it down.
You mentioned that you're all "kind of pescatarians." What is the impetus to cut back on meat?
Mainly, we just feel bad. Killing animals seems like a mean thing to do. Particularly if you don’t really need to. It seems like the cost-benefit...if you look at these two living beings, and one wants to be alive, and one enjoys the taste of something—why kill something just because you enjoy the taste? People argue that it’s tradition, but things change. We can make new traditions.
On top of all of that, it seems like a good idea to eat fewer animal products, both for your health and for the health of the planet: if there were only 20 million people on the earth, we could all eat meat and dairy, and it would be fine. But with 6 billion, to create a lot of dairy and to use a lot of animal products is much more environmentally intensive.
For example, we only use organic eggs, but even for most organic eggs, the feed is grown and shipped from China. The chickens eat it, and the farms create so much chicken shit that they have to dump it in the ocean, which acidifies the ocean. So how would we really do it right? We’d use eggs from farms where the chickens are running around and their excrement is just fertilizing the land without having to move it.
Our company is not so big that we couldn’t get enough of those eggs, but it would increase our costs too much: We can’t charge $15.00 for a cone. It’s already expensive, and as it is, we’re operating on thin margins between the number of eggs we use and the cost of the other ingredients. This is bad PR, but it’s interesting. It’s cool for people to know.
People just absolutely go crazy about anything with cakes and chunks, and people love colors too.
What does the creative process behind new flavors look like?
The creative process is asking, “What are people going to love? And how does it fit into the menu? Are we creating a balanced menu with enough fruit, enough chocolate, enough cookies, enough cakes?”
In August, our specials were more subtle than usual. There was less going on with them, because we were developing them during a heat wave, and so we were more averse to chunks and cakes. We wanted to do really simple flavors. We did a cantaloupe sorbet, because we wanted to use fruit that’s local and in-season. I don’t really love cantaloupe, because it has no acid. So we added a little bit of lime juice, a little bit of ginger juice. Really simple. But nice for the heat.
And then I wanted to do a really satisfying, unctuous flavor that would also be good for the heat: Chocolate sorbet is amazing for that. It’s basically like eating a chocolate bar, and ours is great...actually, it’s mind-blowing. It’s so good. It’s just Askinosie 70% single plantation chocolate, filtered water, and cane sugar. No other ingredients. It’s insanely creamy—even though there’s no cream or milk, because there’s a lot of cocoa butter in the chocolate. It’s just pure chocolate.
And people just absolutely go crazy about anything with cakes and chunks, and people love colors too. Last month our specials included vegan turmeric ice cream with chunks of palm sugar shortbread and coffee caramel, and that was bright yellow. Really nice. If we’re doing anything a little weird, we want to have one familiar element, because then people will buy it. It if was just turmeric ice cream, I don’t think people would get it. But when we add the palm sugar shortbread with caramel, and they’re like, “Ooooo, yeah. We love it.”
Why palm sugar?
Palm sugar is more flavorful than cane sugar. It tastes a lot like maple syrup, because they cook it down. We get our palm sugar from Big Tree Farms in Bali. Turmeric is used in Balinese cooking and Southeast Asian cooking a lot, so combining palm sugar with turmeric has some relevance.
And do you ever bring any of the special flavors back?
Yeah, the really popular ones—we’re adding the vegan turmeric to the permanent menu in September.
I'm waiting for someone to make something even close to us—or maybe better. But it hasn't happened yet.
What advice would you have for someone who was trying to adapt classic flavors to a vegan base?
Basically, you just need spreadsheets. You need to make sure your fats and solids are matching up, and you'll see how vegan fats are different from butterfats, so you need to make adjustments based on that. And then it depends on the flavor. Banana for some reason is great to make. It doesn’t taste at all vegan-y. With chocolate—even though it is such a strong flavor—you really taste the coconut. The mint extract in our mint chip hides everything well though.
Where did you learn most of what you know about food chemistry and food science?
Just through making ice cream. I cooked a lot before, but I didn’t think much about smoke points of oil or melting points. I just sort of cooked. But then, founding Van Leeuwen, I started trying to figure out how to make really great ice cream, and that has to do with solids, fat, sugar, and finding that balance. And salt. We use a lot of salt in our vegan ice cream.
I don’t know. It needs it. I think it’s because dairy has some natural salinity, but no one else uses salt. At least the other vegan brands I’ve tasted don't. Our vegan ice cream, it’s hands down the best. I’m waiting for someone to make something even close to us—or maybe better. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Most vegan ice creams use only coconut milk for the base, but Van Leeuwen's recipes always include cashew milk as well—is that why your vegan ice cream is so much more delicious?
The cashew-coconut combination is part of it, but we also use cocoa butter, which gives the vegan ice cream a lot of chew. Cocoa butter also has a little bit of this umami-ish taste. Adding that to the vegan gives you a little more depth of flavor too, which is cool.
Yeah, just the combination of those fats, and then the quality of the ingredients. Nobody is doing vegan ice cream the way that we are; some people that are making regular ice cream—not selling pints in grocery stores, but that have ice cream shops—are using really great ingredients like us. But nobody is doing that with vegan. Some vegan ice cream brands are organic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the ingredients are high quality.
I started trying to figure out how to make really great ice cream, and that has to do with solids, fat, sugar, and finding that balance.
Ven Leeuwen’s Sicilian pistachios, your Michel Cluizel chocolate, and your ceylon cinnamon get a lot of press. Are there other ingredients near and dear to your heart?
Our berries are really really good. They taste so great. We need to be able to consistently buy huge quantities of really good berries, so we buy them directly from a farm in Oregon that freezes their berries—so they have a supply year-round. Normally, berries are picked when they're really unripe so that they’ll still be good by the time they get to the grocery stores one to three weeks later. But because this farm freezes everything, they can wait and actually pick the berries when they’re ripe. Frozen stuff is awesome.
Haha, so said the ice cream maker!
The cookbook is so meticulous and lovingly authored: Did you have any reservations about giving the public your trade secrets?
None. Zero reservations. It’s really easy making ice cream. It’s really just about the ingredients and the ratios of those ingredients. A handful of other little shops, like Carmela in LA or Smitten in San Francisco, are making ice cream the way we do, but they’re still small. No one who makes ice cream the way we do is selling pints wholesale, because they wouldn’t make money.
Most of our competitors are making so much more at wholesale, because they spend $3.00 per pound chocolate from Guittard instead of $11.50 per pound from Askinosie or Michel Cluizel. They use fewer—and non-organic—egg yolks. They don’t make their own add-ins. It’s very very unusual for larger scale productions to be unwavering in their quality of ingredients.
Sometimes, in moments of despair, I'll wonder, "Jeez, what's the point? Why do we even do any of this?" But then I'll taste it, and I'll remember...oh yeah...this is really great.
Do you feel any sense of purpose or mission behind the fact that by purchasing such high quality ingredients and creating demand for these products, you are supporting small, ethical producers?
Sometimes, at certain moments. And then other times, it just feels like we’re too small to make any sort of difference...I guess it’s just about what you want in your community. If there isn’t a demand for all these awesome ingredients, nobody would make them; it would just be the giant producers. But sometimes, in moments of despair, I’ll wonder, “Jeez, what’s the point? Why do we even do any of this?” But then I’ll taste it, and I’ll remember...oh yeah...this is really great. And it’s unique. There is good ice cream everywhere (because I think Häagen-Dazs is good—they don't use any stabilizers or anything. I get them on road trips), but there’s great ice cream like almost nowhere.
What’s your goal for Van Leeuwen?
It’s to be everywhere. To see if people would be willing to pay a couple bucks more for really amazing ice cream, and eventually get the price down a little as we scale up. We want to do that through wholesale and by opening more stores, reason being: our ice cream is really the best. We use the best ingredients, so it seems better that we’re everywhere rather than anyone else.