I love ice cream. The sucker punch to the gut is that I can’t eat it.
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 designed the SoHo space himself, and is invested in the flavors that go on the regular menu as well as the collaborations he enters into with chefs and artists for the 40+ specialty flavors rolled out a year. He’s a really smart dude, and insanely hard-working.
Our conversation meandered, from job titles to integrity to what he calls his “populist approach” to making sure there’s something on the menu for everyone. As happens, not all works made it into the Village Voice piece I was penning. Enjoy, then get thee to Morgenstern’s and Instagram me what you got so that I can live vicariously through you, too,
Nicholas Morgenstern’s Got Something–At Least Three Things, Actually–For Everyone
How would you describe your job title, now?
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. More so, my accountability and responsibility involve around operating the businesses. I’m a restaurateur in what I do and my responsibilities 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, 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 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 have an example of that part to share? Something you can only do here?
I’m fortunate to be able to do what we do. 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.
An example is the Coconut Black 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.” 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.
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. But 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…? 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.
What is the most clean, classic flavor that you’re excited about that either highlights the ingredient or the process?
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.
Do you feel that in general — when you need comfort 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.
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. 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 ecause 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. 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.
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?
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 product 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.
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!
I’ve interviewed around 400 chefs now, and I still never know who I’m going to meet. What has working with so many kinds of chefs and artists taught you about collaboration?
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. 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. You 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.