Black Dog Gelato owner and Chicago native Jessica Oloroso chats about how she came to make some of the creamiest (read: delicious) gelato we've ever had. —INGRAIN, Summer 2018
STORY / Christina Perozzi
We sat down with Black Dog Gelato owner Jessica Oloroso over a couple of pints of Old Man Grumpy to talk about our two favorite things: gelato and beer.
Christina Perozzi: Since we’re having a beer, let’s start there. Are you into it? Any favorites?
I love beer. I actually served Goose Island beer at my wedding. As for my favorite beer, it’s a similar answer to what’s my favorite gelato. It depends on what I’m doing. A really light beer, over ice, with lime and salt—now that’s a great breakfast beer if you’re on a tropical island.
Sounds like it. What got you into the culinary world?
I grew up in Chicago, Rogers Park, where I still live. My dad cooked every single meal, which also means that every meal involved meat. I was a vegetarian for seven years, so there was a lot of coughing the meat back into my napkin. I’m also allergic to shellfish. I think those two things drove me into pastry, plus I’ve always had a sweet tooth. I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales. My grandfather, my dad’s father, came from the Philippines and was not thrilled. He worked in hotels and didn’t understand why there would be a school to learn to be a cook. That’s what you do when you can’t get any other job. But my parents were thrilled. I’m no longer a vegetarian, by the way. A cheeseburger turned me.
Any particular cheeseburger?
There was definitely beer involved. I was in a pool hall up in Providence, Rhode Island. Someone walked out of the kitchen with a cheeseburger. I was like, “That’s it, I’m done.”
Just say yes to cheap cheeseburgers! Back to dessert. There are a lot of sides to pastry. What got you into gelato specifically?
I love the pastry industry, everything about it. But it can be very detail-oriented work, which requires a lot of patience. I’m not very patient. Working in a bakery, making wedding cakes or chocolates, none of that was going to happen. What’s left? Restaurants. I love the late mornings, late nights, all of it. The one problem was that there wasn’t much money in working as a restaurant pastry chef. At some point I realized that if I’m not going to make any money the rest of my life, I might as well open up something myself. Making ice cream was my favorite part of the restaurant prep day. I love gelato specifically. Can I make a long career of this? Yeah, I think I can. The possibilities are really endless.
Did you study how to make gelato in Italy? It’s not so much an American thing.
No, not at all. In Italy, the gelato world is very much a male-dominated field. Maestros, the gelato masters, are like celebrities. Gelato is a national treasure, like pizza. They’re both the pride of Italy. I was a woman from Chicago. I’ve been to Italy, and I ate as much gelato as I possibly could, but that was about it. Everything on my end was self-taught. I made plenty of mistakes along the way. I borrowed money from my grandma to rent a shared commercial kitchen space. Basically, I was able to raise maybe half of what I needed from friends and family who expected never to see their money again. But that’s the challenge.
It’s a big leap to go from working in a restaurant to opening your own place.
I got lucky with some things. At this time, I knew Stephanie Izard was closing down Scylla, where I worked, so I was able to buy used equipment from her. I did everything myself. I bought the ingredients, prepared the gelato, made cold calls to chefs I knew to try and sell it, and did all the deliveries. On the way to my wedding, I had two gallons of gelato in the limo that had to be delivered first. My soon-to-be-husband also had another two gallons in his car to deliver before the wedding. That pretty much sums up my life in those early years. It wasn’t until later, when I had kids, that I had to accept that my business needed to be able to operate without me being there. I think for a lot of small business owners that is the hardest thing to do. You have to learn to trust the people working for you. Even still, I’m not going to lie and say it was easy. I went to work the day I was supposed to deliver my first child. Two days later, I was back in the shop. It took two more kids for me to realize I can’t do this by myself.
We all need a break and a beer. Speaking of which, you make a gelato with our Bourbon County Brand Stout.
A gelato was something I knew would work with that specific beer. I’m not going to do just any flavor, especially with a savory ingredient. We played around at the shop until we got something that we really liked.
When it showed up at the office, ten of us were standing around with tiny gelato spoons looking so forlorn because we wanted more. It was crazy good. How do your other flavors evolve?
I find that my best flavors are those that come to me in a flash. Once, when I walked into Stanley’s [a Chicago grocery store], there was this beautiful display of red peppers all piled on top of one another. I knew I could do something with those peppers. We roasted them and added a little honey and some cinnamon, and it was great. That’s still one of my favorite flavors. That said, I also don’t need all of the flavors that we serve to be the most creative. I need something straightforward to serve to kids, like a fresh mint Oreo. And if I’m going to eat a huge bowl of gelato, it’s probably going to be chocolate. Other times, the best flavors are a mistake, as happens in cooking.
It’s amazing how similar the beer and food industries are in that way.
Yes, they are very similar. The first time I ever made gelato, I was amazed that I actually made gelato myself and that it was so good. It was like when my husband made his first beer. You get really excited, the first one you make tastes so good. Then the next few batches don’t work. You realize it’s a lot harder than it was that first time.
So true. My first home brew was great. The next one was awful. I was trying too hard to use all of these different brewing methods. Wait, your husband is a home brewer?
GELATO VERSUS ICE CREAM: A PRIMER
“The primary ingredient in gelato is milk, not cream. Gelato has less fat than ice cream, but the final product seems creamier. At home, you can take almost any ice cream recipe and add more milk to lower the fat content and get closer to gelato.”
“Very little air is incorporated into gelato, which gives it a creamy texture and rich mouthfeel. Think about a gallon of basic ice cream versus a pint of premium ice cream. The lower-quality ice cream has a lot of air pumped into it, so the texture is lighter. A premium ice cream is more dense, more like gelato. You can use an ice cream maker to make gelato, or even a food processor [if you could do it in a chilled room, like in a walk-in freezer]. A food processor is moving at such a low speed, very little air would be incorporated into the custard.”
“Gelato is flash frozen to quickly set the custard after it comes out of the gelato machine and is ideally served immediately afterwards. American-style ice cream is typically put into a hardening cabinet, which is a fancy word for “freezer.” There, the ice cream is dropped to
sub-zero temperatures. If you’ve ever had a rock-hard tub of ice cream, temperature is usually the reason.”
“Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream, between five and ten degrees. Ice cream is typically served around zero degrees, which makes a big difference in the texture. Put gelato in the refrigerator for fifteen to twenty minutes before you plan to serve it, and do the Charmin test. When the gelato carton gives a little when you squeeze it, like a roll of toilet paper, it’s ready to serve.”
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