I am rarely, if ever, inspired by food trends. I’m much more influenced by culture, literature, history, and art. When I am stuck and can’t find the next thing, I look to art to spark an idea.
I have been making ice cream for half of my life (20-plus years). I started it all as a project to make perfumed ice creams and that led to a business idea. I had been studying art and art history at OSU in the early ’90s and thinking seriously about switching to perfume — which meant dropping out of college and buying a one-way ticket to Grasse, France (even though that isn’t how you do it). I had been collecting all kinds of essential oils and absolutes for a long time. Some were expensive oils I had to save up for, like jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and vanilla absolute. Other oils I could afford more readily, like ylang ylang, lavender, and peru balsam, to the very inexpensive like orange and basil. Sometimes I used them in a bowl of buttered pasta, but mostly I tried to create blends that tugged at my memory associations. Then I began to use essential oils to scent ice cream—to make edible perfumes—and my life was changed forever.
A few months later I saw an installation at The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus that really got me going.
There were four or five very large vases, at least 4 feet tall, in a row in the center of the gallery. Viewers were encouraged to walk up and take the lid off. The scent inside the vase was the art! And when I saw this, I felt what I had been feeling on my own surrounded by scent at home: That scent is an emotional experience, maybe more so than any other sense, and that you can tell stories and transport people with it. Ice cream seemed to me to be the most amazing carrier of scent ever. It’s composed of butterfat, which melts below body temperature and absorbs the scent of whatever you pair it with. All of that essence is locked in and released the moment it hits your tongue. From that moment on, no other career could ever compete with the awesomeness of making perfumed ice creams.
I don’t know who that artist was, but in a very real way this person is the reason I was able to see ice cream in a new way and understand the potential of it.
Before that moment, and countless times since, I have been moved by art in similar ways. I’d always spent more time in an art classroom and studio than I did in a kitchen so I set up my kitchens like studios. And I still think of our production kitchen and even my own home kitchen like a studio or art classroom. Each spot is a station with the right stuff within an arm’s reach, materials stored in another room. Apron-clad people busy at work on various projects.
In fact, our whole company adheres more to an artist’s credo than that of a business — that we keep searching, we are never finished, always critical of our own work, and always willing to devote whatever it takes to make ice creams, service, and artwork that only we can make. And for that I am thankful. Because for all I don’t know about business, I know the equal opposite about emotion and experience. And that’s all that really matters. The business stuff shakes out over time; it’s the other stuff that you can’t put a price tag on or fit into a spreadsheet. And that is the stuff everyone calls magic. They’re just looking in the wrong place.
I’m also inspired by art more directly. Let me lay out a recent scene. I’m at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts looking at this painting — The Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild from 1627 by Thomas de Keyser. I don’t know why, out of all of those Vermeers and Franz Halls, but this painting is the standout. I suppose for one I liked their jackets, but also these were not the aristocracy or upper class. I like seeing these men in those puffy short pants, the white fluffy neck thing, and a sleek, black fitted jacket. I feel like I know the guy on the left of the painting. But how could I? So then I had to know: What is his day like where, and when is he from? What does he eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What does he drink? It’s a moment that incites me to find out more. And that’s how I get inspired to make a flavor of ice cream. I don’t make ice cream out of those specific inspirations per se — I just add these ghostly scents and personalities to the curiosity cabinet.
An artist is first a researcher. Gathering information, configuring and reconfiguring components, and working and reworking texture. There is always a math and science component, and an aesthetic one, too. The idea that those things are somehow distant from each other is untrue. It’s just we’re all coming at it from different perspectives. Please, let’s stop separating STEAM. We are all scientists, artists, engineers, storytellers, and mathletes. The idea of making quality ice cream is not so different from blending quality paint (colors and viscosity), and sourcing a quality canvas, expertly stretched. It’s not so different from learning what spike lavender does versus turpentine to a pigment. When I add equal parts either cane sugar or honey to cream, I get very different results in the ice cream texture. First we must concern ourselves with the functionality of our ingredients. And an understanding of what we are here to do. Artists and writers often start with a hypothesis, just like a scientist.
One inspiring aspect of art is an artist’s body of work—the progress an artist makes over a lifetime. It’s worth noting here that in the 21st century every artist is an entrepreneur and every entrepreneur should think like an artist. Artists are never finished with their work. Everything builds upon everything else. There is no product and marketing cycle. No beginning, no end. It’s about the quest: truly understanding the work and creating your own questions, and then answering them. Every project only leads to more questions. When I was 22, I was making ice creams very differently than I was at 27, 32, 38. And I hope that when I am 65, the ice cream I make will be very different from what I do now.
There are two aspects to what I do. One is purely about body and texture. It’s trying to do something new. And boy, that’s interesting. It’s more than a recipe. It’s also planning and logistics. Because if you make a great ice cream but can’t transport it or store it properly for service it doesn’t matter. The other is the flavor aspects. I was in experimental mode for many years. I’m in a bit of a reflective phase right now, but who knows what’s next.
That’s how an entrepreneur can think like an artist. And the best ones always do. We always think that it’s the young who are willing to take all the risks, but look at Matisse’s art as he grew old. I, for one, am looking forward to the day when I know I’ve learned all the rules, broken all of them, and created a few of my own, and now I can just do whatever the heck I want.
We know that art can bring you deeper into a world and connect you to people. And, while we do not take ourselves too seriously at Jeni’s, we do know the power of communication, art, literature, or otherwise. And when we make ice cream we also make art, literature, sometimes even music to go along with it. And by doing it all in house, as a part of the ice cream making process, we convey an honest emotion out into the world. And we get better at it with every collection. Art and the artistic method helps us make better ice cream, but we also hope it will carry you as deep as you want to go into a collection. We know when you’re hanging out at one of our stores you’re probably on a date with someone (even if it’s your grandmother), and we want to help give you something to reflect on, to talk about.
Our goal is to inspire you as much as we are inspired by art — and we’re nowhere near able to do that yet, but we aspire to it. To give you something to talk about or a spark that might lead you to something new like certain pieces of art do for us.
And of course, we are also simply inspired to do good work. To make ice creams that only we can. And that is enough work for a lifetime.