We Chat With: Erika Stone-Miller of Ice Cubed, Chicago's Gourmet Ice Pop and Ice Cream Truck
Erika Stone-Miller's gourmet ice cream truck, Ice Cubed, may be less than a month old, but the truck has already created a loud buzz thanks to her ice creams and ice pops.
Frankly, her timing is perfect.
Ice cream and other frozen treats have experienced a makeover in the past few years. That includes the expansion of Chicago's own Black Dog Gelato and Antique Taco, which now peddles paletas in flavors like cucumber-habanero. Also, Jeni Britton Bauer, owner of Columbus' Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream won a James Beard Award for her cookbook of the same name.
Ice Cubed continues this experimental push with 12 rotating ice cream and ice pop flavors, like the "Wheel of Fortune" (lime, kiwi and strawberry), "Circus is In Town" (fudge ice cream, malted cherries, and sprinkles), and "Sweet Monkey" (banana brûlée ice cream, pistachio butter, chocolate chunks, and roasted pistachio).
There is a good mix of flavors you most certainly haven't tried before. A pepperoni ice cream, although sweet, is something I am glad I tried once, but I won't be scooping it into a banana split anytime soon. The most famous of all their ice pops, the five-course prix fixe Italian dinner ice pop, has been selling out at every location where Stone-Miller stops. This frozen treat-on-a-stick, includes five separate layers, including frozen prosecco, beet and arugula salad sorbet, prosciutto, veal ragout, and tiramisu ice cream.
I spoke to Stone-Miller this week about what it's like to be Chicago's first gourmet ice cream truck.
How did the concept of Ice Cubed come about? It's like one of those things where you can't see the forest before the trees. Around the millennium, I moved to Germany and I missed ice cream. All they had was gelato there. So I got my mom to send me an ice cream machine, and I started making American-style ice cream when I was in Germany. They loved it there. When I came back to America and made ice cream for a couple people for a few events and they kept saying, "Oh my God, you should sell this, this is awesome." And I was like, 'Nah, I just like doing it for you, you're my friends.' Then, probably about two years ago, someone asked me to make a massive quantity of ice cream, for massive amounts of money. And I thought, 'Oh my God you are right, people would buy this.' So I invested in one of those Italian-batch makers, and started coming up with recipes, trying to figure out what I thought people would think was cool. Things that I thought were cool, and, you know, that's kind of how the business idea came along.
Your job title is Director of Finance & Flavors. Do you primarily develop the flavors or do you conceptualize these together with your pastry Chef? I make fantastic ice cream, but I knew that I have limitations. I am not formally trained. So, I was thinking about how you need someone to balance you out, and I thought, 'You know what, if I am going to be on the truck all day, I can't make ice cream. So let me find someone who is talented in terms of in terms of background, in terms of kitchen production who can be efficient.' Mostly, I wanted to kind of find somebody who has the same vision as I do. That ice cream and ice pops—they can be anything. Adam, when he interviewed, his ice cream was amazing. And he has surpassed my expectations. He really took the idea of expanding ice cream in ways normal people don't think of, and see if we can make it really, really good.
You use a lot of meat in the ice cream. How does meat and ice cream mix? I had made a foie gras ice cream, and it was fantastic, but foie gras is something fit for a more special occasion, something you don't eat all the time. Well, Adam has taken things like pepperoni, and that is the current meat we have on our menu, and he has taken something that everyone is familiar with—everyone knows what it tastes like—and he's turned it into an amazing ice cream. I mean, I have people who try it and say, 'Oh my God, I would have never thought pepperoni could make a great ice cream, and I loved it.' I always tell people, 'If you are daring enough to get the pepperoni ice cream, awesome. Try it. If you don't like it, give it back and I'll give you something more normal, more mainstream; but I would love for you to just try pepperoni.' As of now, we have sold about 60 portions of the pepperoni ice cream, and not one person has given it back. They all want to keep it.
What do you think the key is to balancing a savory flavor profile in an ice cream? We try to balance it with fruit and other things like that, things people are familiar with. But then, we'll throw in an herb, we'll use a local alcohol, beer, or spirit—something that keeps peoples curiosity.
Where did the idea for the Italian prix fixe, five-course ice pop come from? That is amazing chef Adam at work. I had a whole library of flavors that I had already developed before he started working for me, and what I said was, 'What I'd like for you to do is to make my flavors. I have told you about them, but I am not going to give you the recipe. I'd like to see how you interpret these things.' So he basically took my ideas and made them amazing. Then, I asked him what he could come up with, and he said, 'Well, how wild do you want me to be?' And I said, 'I want you to give me the best you've got.' He came up with the prix fixe, which blew my mind.
How labor-intensive is it to make a five-layer ice pop like that? It does take a long time to make, and they are expensive. Each of those pops cost $9, but we sell out of it every time we have it on the menu. I mean, we can't keep enough of them there. And it's really, really encouraging. People are now like, 'What's next!' We have Mexican next. But it's really fun, and people are really enthusiastic. They compare it to Violet Beauregard's chewing gum in Willy Wonka. That's what everybody compares it to. We didn't think about it until people started making that comparison.
What is the goal of the food truck? We are going to be working on going wholesale this winter. We are talking about putting our ice cream and ice pops in some of the local markets and retail outlets. The private companies are also where we do a lot of our business. This week, we have corporate events, so we won't be open to the public because the events are huge and we are using all of our resources, which means we are in production every day just to cover the corporate events. But it's from working on the streets literally that we get the people who say, 'Oh my God, this would be great for my office. This would be perfect for the afternoon break that we get.' The money is in corporate events, but at the same time, you have to be out there so people can get to know you and people can see you. You have to give people a chance to taste what you do.