Nicholas Morgenstern’s Got Something–At Least Three Things, Actually–For Everyone

I really, really love ice cream. The sucker punch to the gut–literally–is that I can’t eat it.

I get super sick when I eat cow dairy (well, anything above clarified butter, to be precise). I’ve thrown up in enough client’s restaurants to know if a menu item I’ve eaten safely before has changed preparations, or if a dish a waiter promised me was safe actually wasn’t. It’s a crabby part of my job, not being able to eat much of the food I write about. But it’s also one of the reasons I write about food: I’m fascinated by the stories and cultures behind it, by the hard work and dedication of those who make it, and by the descriptions of how the foods I can’t eat make other people feel. When you live with a weird illness that affects the body parts that digest, absorb, and get rid of food, sometimes living vicariously through others is all you get to do.

Which is why I’m fascinated by those who make ice cream.

Recently, I sat down with Nicholas Morgenstern, the face and money and brain and talent behind Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream. He built his SoHo shop himself, and it rings with both nostalgic charm and New York badassery. From what I can tell, he’s a really smart dude, insanely hard-working, and somehow keeps his cool perspective amongst the muck that is running three food establishments in a financially messy city.

As my in-person interviews often do, we talked a lot. Like, 8,000 words a lot for the usually 800-word Village Voice piece (that I nudged up to 1,200, gulp). A lot of interesting stuff didn’t make it in. So here are around 5,000 of those words for your long-form reading pleasure. Enjoy, then get thee to Morgenstern’s and Instagram me what you got, so that I can live vicariously through you, too,

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Nicholas Morgenstern’s Got Something–At Least Three Things, Actually–For Everyone

July, 2016

How would you describe what you do, now? What would your job description or title be on a resume?

That’s hard. That’s something I struggle with, definitely. What am I doing? I’m in the kitchen at Morgenstern’s almost every day, with the team, helping them focus. But it’s hard saying that I’m the “chef” in that, because my responsibilities are not to manage the detail of what it takes to run the kitchen. And, more so, my accountability and responsibility involve around operating the businesses. The reality of what happens in the seven-day workweek is that I’m a restaurateur in what I have to do and what my responsibilities are more than anything. But I’m coming up in my career in a time when the roles are much more amorphous.

I was a pastry chef for a long time and I remember thinking, “Ah, it sucks. Being a pastry chef sucks.” Because you’re never given the time and space to really express yourself the way you want to. Whether the chef supports you or not, whether you share a vision with the chef or not, it’s hard. It’s really challenging to do that.

It’s a hard time to do that, too, in terms of how many jobs are even out there.

Totally. Being a pastry chef is not something that’s happening right now. I feel like I saw that change; in 2007 I was at Gramercy Tavern and was like, “This is not gonna last much longer.”

And Gramercy is one of the places still supporting a strong pastry program. But in part, maybe the shift is also because now you can be a pastry chef with a small shop or parlor, and they’re replacing dessert menus in the consumer’s mind.

Yeah, you can run an operation like this. It’s challenging. I don’t think when I was a pastry chef I wouldn’t have known what it would take to do this.

So where did you get the business aspect, which allowed you to transform from being a pastry chef to a restaurateur?

I’m fortunate that I’m somewhat detail oriented on the backend, regarding holding myself accountable to trying to do good work no matter what I do. Being organized is critical. And then leadership: knowing or understanding how important leadership is–whether it’s in yourself or others around you–is critical to success. I didn’t go to college; I went to a short culinary program that didn’t tackle any kind of business management.

It’s crazy how so many art schools don’t do that. I got zero business preparation. Even learning how to deduct and file taxes would have been helpful!

Yeah, I think the CIA does now, and I feel like I know artists who went to schools in California where they get some business training: “This is what your worth is work, and this is what you should get paid.”

I worked for people in small restaurants as well as big restaurants, and I was always helping friends who were opening small restaurants, so I saw some of what it took. But the lifeblood of any business is going to be the bank account. It really is. So managing the accounting was something that I focused on very early to make sure I was comfortable with that. I’ve always been responsible that way. My family’s not around; I’m from California but I’ve been in New York for fifteen years, and by myself for fifteen years. And I worked as a cook for a really long time; New York on a cook’s salary is really challenging.

And then I was never afraid to sacrifice my lifestyle for the bigger vision of what I want my work to be. I was always comfortable living on a very small salary. I still live on a very small salary, because I wanted to do other stuff.

I feel similarly in that I don’t make a lot of money in writing, but I get to do what I want to do. Do you remember something from the earlier days of transitioning into management – a learning curve or something regarding the numbers – that you feel you’ve definitely got under your thumb?

Taxes! Paying your taxes! I had a meeting with a really good friend of mine who’s opening his own place. I helped him with opening numbers and projections, and I told him, “Know that the taxes are coming and know what they are.” That’s the thing that comes out of nowhere that you have to be prepared for. It can be crippling, literally financially crippling. It’s not a joke. The idea of just running something that’s solvent every month is challenging.

The most important thing is that as challenging as the job is for me, personally, having the people that I get to work with around me that are invested in what we’re trying to do… I think that I’m really lucky. I’m fortunate to be able to do what we do. And I feel that I have a responsibility to run the businesses responsibly. I don’t take it lightly. I know what it was like–I was an employee for a really long time, and I know that I need to be able to be creatively autonomous to be able to do things, whatever kinds of things I want to do, and the fact that customers line up for what we do, that they like it….

An example is the coconut ash ice cream, which is something that I was really excited about a year ago. I was like, “This is going to be crazy.” And I gave it to some people around me and they were like, “I guess.” And I was like, “No, this is awesome, it’s amazing!” And people were like, “I don’t know.” And I put it on the menu, and everything sells on the menu and it was fun. But then all of a sudden it went bananas and I was like, sweet. You can critique and decide whether that attention is warranted or not warranted. But rewind ten years to when I was at a restaurant. If I was like, ‘check this out, this is coconut ash…’ and the chef was like, meh, then this would never have come about. I love that this is my store, and this thing I thought was cool is attached to my store, and this thing is now getting attention. So I’m lucky.

I’m really fortunate that people like Morgenstern’s, and I feel that I have a responsibility to do a good job. We’re also totally autonomous—I own this business by myself. I don’t have an investor or anything. And that was decades of sacrificing and scratching every dollar together. I built the store myself, I designed the store myself, and went through one of the hardest winters in New York in 2013 when it was really a bad winter, loading all the pipe for the plumbing. Everyone on the street was like, “That guy’s gonna open an ice cream store?” People thought I was stupid! Literally! And I had to just be quiet and think it was gonna work. And when we went to open the store, maybe three weeks out, I transferred the last of my savings and was like, “I have forty-five hundred bucks in the bank; I hope this works.”

I saved all that money, the store was named after me, and this was it. What else was I gonna do with that money? Was I gonna go on vacation? This was it. I had to figure it out.

So we obviously know the challenges of working in New York – the cost, buildings, permits…

It’s so expensive. 

I’ve been here thirteen years and I love New York City, but I’m tracking all the chefs – not even chefs, friends – leaving New York, since you don’t need to be here to succeed…

I feel that myself. Why am I here? It’s so hard to be here. It’s unnecessarily difficult. I wind up in court for something or other and it’s like, “Do you even understand that I employ many people and I break my back to work here?” It can feel like a meat grinder here. But I think that for everyone who lives here, you leave but then when you’re on the airplane on your way back, you see the city and get back into it and you’re like, “This is where I want to be.” New York is an amazing place.

It’s men’s fashion week right now. A really good friend of mine is a DJ and a creative person, and he’s helped me do opening parties before. He has an amazing connection to a community of artists and creatives in New York, and he called me three or four months ago and was like, “I’m launching a second season of my line.” I didn’t know he did clothing, but I saw the line and it’s incredible work – really incredible work. And I like fashion and music and art; in many ways I’m interested in it in the same way I’m interested in food. And he said it would mean so much to him if I could bring Morgenstern’s to the launch. He had no budget. So we go there, and he was so grateful, and our brand can now add something to his. His whole community was there, and it was an amazing party, right here on Bond Street. When you get to see that little section of New York for three hours and be a part of this feeling of doing something, and knowing the work he’s doing and the work I’m doing is something really special against other creativity in the world, you know? I know that his design for that clothing line is getting picked up in London and Italy, and it’s something that is meaningful. New York has that energy. And if you leave here, it’s not the same. It isn’t the same.

Let’s go to the origin of the ice cream itself for you. From what I’ve read, opening up this was always in the back of your mind.

For a long time.

So was that from a pastry chef intrigue, or something that happened in childhood personally? 

Early in my career, I thought that this was something that could be interesting to me. Then it slowly incubated and cultivated. But I wasn’t obsessed with the idea of opening an ice cream store when I was the pastry sous chef at Daniel or as the pastry chef of Gramercy Tavern. I was just working at the craft, which involved all different kinds of things in food.

At a certain point, I became more focused on having an ice cream cart. I really wanted to extend my pastry program into a cart. When I opened the General Greene I still had the idea in my head–I was a partner at the General Greene, but I signed the deal with my partner separate, and the ice cream cart I did by myself. I just wanted to do this thing, and it was totally the feeling around it was totally innocent in a way. I just wanted to do it.

What kind of flavors did you do back then?

We did Salted Caramel Pretzel, Green Tea Pistachio, Burnt Honey Vanilla. We always had a sorbet or frozen yogurt. We always did a bitter dark chocolate flavor. The cart held six, so it would rotate around. But a lot of those flavors are here, still: the green tea pistachio, the Madagascar Vanilla, the Honey Vanilla. So that’s what was started, and it was very successful and people really responded to it.

I left the General Greene and went to open Goat Town with Joel Huff. At that point, I was trying to open an ice cream store, but I couldn’t get a lease. I really, really wanted a space on St. Mark’s that was Australian Homemade; this ice cream brand that had been there and I think is a franchise from Israel. They sold the franchise to a guy who ran it into the ground, and so I went to this landlord and went into a bidding war. And at that time on St. Mark’s I would have done well. However, in retrospect, the idea wasn’t fully formed. Now I know. What I had thought about doing there would not have been this.

What would it have been?

Just the ideas I had about what to do with the shop… it was very important that I had the experience at Goat Town that I had. General Greene had been accidentally successful. I opened a café, which was always something that I wanted to do; an all-day diner café where we bought good ingredients but it was very reasonably priced. You could get eggs, toast, and a coffee for ten bucks. That’s what we wanted to do, and it was very successful and it got all this critical attention that didn’t really make any sense to me. I didn’t understand it, because it wasn’t consistent with what it was. I still believe that. And once that wave starts coming, it crashes.

In New York food businesses can have this thing happen where it jumps over itself and then rolls past what the people were actually operating. It’s still happening all the time – I watch it happen to people who don’t know it’s happening. There’s a phenomenon in New York that I don’t talk about a lot, but the sophomore fail is a real thing. The first one is a raging success and you think, “Oh this is easy!” and you go to do the next one and it doesn’t work.

Or the second one closes the first one…

Yeah, that happens too, if you’re not paying attention. So Goat Town for me could have been a failure, and for sure it was on its way to being a failure. I had to pull the reins really hard, and that experience was really important for me. Because my business partner – the chef, Joel – left. He and I are still really close, and so it was an amicable split, but when he left I was like, “Holy shit, I have this thing and everything I have is in this, so I have to make this work.” So it was about figuring out what the neighborhood wanted, and figuring out how to do it well from the customer perspective, and chipping away little by little understanding how to give the guest what they needed as a neighborhood restaurant. Experiences of having your ego put in your face, and be like, “You made decisions that were based on ego that were irresponsible for your own business. And now you need to face that and deal with that.”

It must also be hard having a restaurant that hits a certain year mark in that, unless the chef is there for the longevity, any time you change chefs the identity of the restaurant changes, too. So I assume unless you craft the restaurant working from a place like the place you were just saying, it’s really hard to have other projects with any longevity.

Very challenging. If you look at McNally [Balthazar, Morandi, Minetta Tavern etc.] or Tarlow [Diner, Marlow & … etc.], no one knows who the chefs are. They’re not a part of the picture. They build restaurants around them being a restaurant. And I don’t even think that even those guys are examples of “those two guys” being “it’s me.” They’re like – it’s the restaurant. They let the restaurant be its own thing.

To that point, it wasn’t even necessarily that Goat Town was built around Joel as much as its identity wasn’t clearly articulated to the customer. So it was just having to go back and figure out how to dismantle that, reassemble it, and do it in a way that we figured out what the customers want. We opened in 2010, closed in 2014. At the end of its time, the neighborhood liked the restaurant because it was a very steady place. It also required a lot of my attention to keep all the dials in the right place; when I started to pass it off to someone there would be issues. So at that point, I said that I couldn’t keep running the restaurant that way and pursue something like Morgenstern’s or El Rey. There were other things I was interested in.

Let’s talk about the non-business part of ice cream. What is the most clean, classic flavor that you’re excited about that either highlights the ingredient or the process? And then what, to you, is the most exciting representation?

You know, we run about fifty flavors at a time, and that’s as much as I can do here. You have to understand that it’s a small store, but it has a big heart and it runs really hard.

How many people does it take to make that happen, altogether? Because I think people assume that a small space means you could have two people here; a dude making ice cream and a dude selling ice cream, and then maybe a dude balancing the books.

It’s much more difficult. There’s crossover between my businesses–a bookkeeper who does all three, operations to all three, human resources to all three–which helps. All of my stores are really small. But that’s another story, as far as how we balance the books.

But this store at the peak of summertime is employing about fifteen people. It’s not huge, but there are people here. And we bring in collaborations all the time, so there has to be room to handle that. Stuff is coming in, so managing the inventory of all the product is a full-time job, making sure it’s fresh and at the right temperature.

So as far as the menu is concerned, with right now what we’re serving that I’m excited about:

As far as the plane Jane flavor, the Madagascar Vanilla is always gonna be the one that I eat while I’m sitting on the bench outside, when I don’t wanna think about it, and just wanna feel it. It just makes me feel like a kid. I eat Madagascar Vanilla on a kid cone. It’s a childlike experience. For all the pressure and stress that I deal with to do the job–to make sure that everything is held together, dealing with lawyers and making sure that the air-conditioning is functioning, when we do an event outside–when I get to sit down and eat an ice cream, that’s when I get to let it go and feel goofy and not worry about it, and let it be fun. That’s the flavor that does that for me, typically.

Do you feel that as a chef in general? That when you need comfort and don’t wanna think, you go for the simplest thing?

Yeah, I don’t go to restaurants that are cerebral. I can count on one hand the restaurants I’ve gone to in the last year that I have to think about. That’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in how we make things that people like, and the populist approach to it.

When we write the menu, I have to stand behind every single thing we do, including hot dog ice cream with Daniel Boulud. That’s some weird shit. That’s at the very edge where I’m like, “This is too far on the gimmick zone.” But it’s Daniel, and he has a really strong understanding, I think, of what it takes to do that. So we did it. And that guy doesn’t fuck around. When he does something he’s like, “This is the way it’s gonna be.”

I hadn’t worked with him in a long time, so to see that his approach is still pretty rigid was so interesting. He’s still like, “No, we have to do it like that, okay.” And I’m, chef, loosen it up! I have to be really flexible to bring these people in, ride the wave, and still maintain our identity to balance it out. Because it could still get way outside.

I brought the guys in from Bun-Ker in Ridgewood—it’s one of my favorite restaurants and is outstanding Vietnamese, if you haven’t been there. They were like, “Can we do a fish sauce ice cream?” And I was like, “No, absolutely not.” It’s very rare that I’m like, no, that’s not gonna work. Their flavor ended up being all the herbs they put on the plate: lemongrass, Thai purple basil, Vietnamese mint, and shiso leaf, made into a mint chip. The flavor was one of the most popular we’ve done, a very good flavor. So we can be flexible, but I still have to say no when something’s too weird. I don’t do weird for weird’s sake.

I can’t imagine how to make fish sauce ice cream.

Oh, I could make fish sauce ice cream. Definitely.

Really?

Yeah. I mean, I just made hot dog ice cream! You can kind of do anything.

But the flavor that stands out to me right now that I’m really pumped on when I eat it because it’s interesting and good is lemon shiso espresso ice cream. Coffee ice cream I take very seriously: we make it according to specifications that we would adhere to if we were brewing coffee, which I’ve never seen done and I’m pretty sure no one does it this way. You use a tremendous amount of coffee, grinding it right before you put it into the ice cream.

The main ethos of what we do and why I’m even making ice cream in the first place is that I thought to myself: when you go to the ice cream store and you look at the menu and it says “pistachio”, you conjure in your mind a fantasy of what that’s going to be like. And then when you get it, too often it doesn’t live up to that fantasy. So when I’m writing a menu item, we always make sure it’s going to live up to what you thought it was going to be when you ordered the flavor. So the coffee ice creams are really important that the coffee flavor has to be in the forefront.

So you steep coffee in the cream base for this one? 

You heat up the base to get it to its hottest level, the coffee gets ground on the grinder right away so that it’s fresh, and then it gets steeped with a ratio of coffee to liquid… we have different strengths of coffee. The Vietnamese coffee is really strong, the latte is really light, and the regular coffee is in between. So you’re steeping a very large volume of ground coffee and it gets taken out very quickly; it’ll over-steep and get astringent otherwise. It’s a pain in the ass to make and takes two people, but when you do it that way you’re like, holy shit, this really tastes like coffee.

So then we looked at making espresso ice cream, which really should be made with brewed espresso. So we pull 30-40 shots to make a recipe. I was really interested in this idea of how you used to get a lemon peel with an espresso in the really Italian style. It’s funny; it’s so passé at this point. But I’ve had it recently and it’s still good!

I’m still disappointed when I get an espresso and it doesn’t have one! I miss twisting it to get the oil in, and I still stir it even though I don’t put anything in it.

Of course, that’s the ritual! So they’re doing this thing in Japan where they’re doing shiso with espresso. And I love shiso. I love the flavor of shiso, personally. We’ve used shiso in different capacities here. So we make shiso lemon espresso. It’s a really interesting combination, and nothing you’d normally think of. The texture is smooth. So to me, right now, that’s a compelling flavor.

What’s the fun part of that detail in your work? 

It’s figuring out what the fifty flavors will be. It’s like writing an album: how does it all go together, what is it going to be, how’s it going to look? I want three things for everyone who comes here: I want them to try that one and that one and that one. And that’s about having a full range. I develop the menu and we develop the menu design here to have multiple vanillas, multiple chocolates, multiple coffees and strawberries. Because those are the most important categories for the populist approach for ice cream.

It’s a business decision but it’s also about understanding about what people want. If I hadn’t opened Goat Town and had it nearly fail, I wouldn’t have had this appreciation for how important that is. I went to another ice cream parlor here in New York–that will remain unnamed–right before Morgenstern’s opened. I was building Morgenstern’s and this other shop was opening, and I was like holy shit that’s gonna be an amazing place, because that guy knows what’s up. It had a chalkboard with all the flavors on it, and at the top of the menu, it said, “No! We don’t have vanilla!” And I was like, oh wow, I need to make, like, ten vanillas.

Because there’s nothing wrong with vanilla, first of all. There’s a reason why it’s the most popular flavor. It’s always rated #1 in the United States, and anyone who works in ice cream knows that, because there are statistics that come out in ice cream every year. So what’s wrong with vanilla? Why don’t you want to make vanilla ice cream? It’s such an interesting medium.

Ice cream is probably, for most people, the first sweet thing they’ve ever had. Your parents probably melted some on their finger and put it in your mouth. And so it creates a really strong connection for 99% of the population. I see them at the register: it’s like having a psychiatric evaluation with someone choosing their flavor.

Have you noticed trends in what people order by age group or gender or generation?

Maybe you could say that older people want to try more of the classic flavors. You could say that, sure.

What about kids who come in with their parents?

It depends on the age of the kid. The kid who’s under seven is gonna eat half the cone and run around. Once they get into preteen or teenager years, they have stronger opinions. The phenomenon of people wanting to take pictures of their food, especially cones of ice cream, is its own other thing. They’re ordering for the photograph.

Let’s go to the collaborations. Do you feel pressure as someone who creates food, to live up to the expectations of the chefs you collaborate with? Or are all the people you work with friends you have a relationship with?

It depends; not always. We’ve asked a few people to do something and they’ve turned it down, typically because of other relationships.

This is all a dream. I’m making ice cream. So when you ask me the question of what’s the pressure…. Listen, behind the scenes, we take it very seriously to make sure the products is good. And that’s not easy. Ice cream is a sensitive product: it has no stabilizers, it has to stay cold, and we have a lot of equipment in there to make that happen at different layers of blast freezers, deep freezers, medium… that’s what makes our product good. The temperature is very important. All of our ice cream is low sugar. It’s not sweet. This is critical to what we do. So when you come in and taste it and it tastes like the thing–whether that’s pistachio or lemon shiso espresso or vanilla–because I keep the sugar content as low as absolutely possible. I use sugar the way that savory chefs use salt; it’s not supposed to be sweet. When I took over the kitchen at Gramercy Tavern they were using 450 pounds of sugar a week. When I got it under control, I got it to 280.

So we take that stuff seriously. When Daniel comes through, it took him a long time to understand I was going to make the ice cream; he thought he was going to make it and bring it to me. I was like, no dude, this is what I do. With him, he wants things to be a certain way. He was very involved, and all the pastry chefs in his company were involved. But he also didn’t have the same scope. I was like, bring me the hot dogs and let me do something. And when he tasted it, he was like, “Oh, that’s good, it tastes more like hot dog.” So is there pressure with someone like Daniel? Of course! Mario [Batali] is coming next week, so is there pressure with Mario? Of course, I love Mario. I texted him, and he’s like, “Wheeee, let’s do it!” He’s fucking nuts. Talk about someone who’s busy! These guys are so busy!

Some of the other chefs we worked with were like, “This is cool, I get a flavor!” People call me and want flavors, but I don’t do flavors with everyone, because then the idea is diluted. We do forty flavors a year, separate from the regular menu, with people.

As far as taking people as they come: we often jump to judge people, hearing what we want to hear. I’ve interviewed around 400 chefs now, and I still never know who I’m going to meet; I can’t assume anything about anybody. So what has that taught you about how to collaborate?

It’s a dichotomy of being open–staying open to new ideas and new things– but also sticking to what you know how to do well. You have to remain true to who you are and what you do, and you have to be flexible. That’s what I’m saying: behind the scenes we have to make the product really good. But when Sasha comes and says “I like mangoes” and I make the product and she eats it and says, “This is incredible”… It has to be incredible. If I didn’t stick to my identity and know that, then we would just make stuff and it wouldn’t be good. It has to be really good.

But you trust people and let them do what they do, and it works. It comes out amazing. And you have to show up on time, communicate clearly, put your best foot forward and, most importantly, let go of the outcome. It’s gonna be its own thing.

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