Litty Talks to Food People: Tyler Malek, Salt & Straw
by Litty Mathew
Running Greenbar Distillery has taught me is that everyone is a “maker.” It’s just in our DNA as human beings. Whether it’s a flight of fancy or solving a problem, we take inspiration from what and who is around us — from seasonal produce and global spices to parents, friends and mentors (fine, YouTube).
Collaboration powers our creativity and makes it joyful. The desire to create mashed up with the desire to work together creates all kinds of cool things. I mean, have you had a kimchi burrito?
For the last year, Greenbar Distillery has had its own cool collaboration…and it’s made for some pretty damn good ice cream.
We worked with Salt & Straw, the Portland, Oregon-based shop with fantastic ice creams like pear & blue cheese and honey lavender, to come up with a craft spirits-inspired flavor. With stores through the West Coast, Salt & Straw regularly collaborates with food people in each city where they have a store to capture the local flavor and connect with the communities they serve.
Melkon and I love their culinary sensibility and the fact that they can make ice cream with savory elements taste delicious! So I interrupted Tyler Malek, co-founder and head ice cream maker at Salt & Straw from his godly work to ask a few questions. Here’s an edited excerpt from our conversation:
Q: Greenbar Distillery spirits are inspired by food and gatherings with friends and family. Which is kinda weird for a liquor company. What are Salt & Straw flavors inspired by?
A: Yeah! I think we’re very similar. I think Kim and I started Salt & Straw to bring people in the city together around something good. We had this idea that our ice cream shops could become a community gathering place, where you could run into your neighbors, where everyone can feel safe and happy, where you get to go on a little adventure. I dream that our shops can one day become focal points that help amplify the good in the neighborhoods we get to do business in.
Q: Salt & Straw ice cream flavors are pretty intricate. Why are multiple ingredients and complex methods important to the final outcome? What are you trying to accomplish on the palate?
A: Layering flavors, textures and the temperatures is super important to when creating new ice creams. I love to look at the overall experience of how an ice cream will be eaten and what emotions that ice cream will evoke. For us, we love to start with partner stories that we’ll then highlight in ice cream form. In that sense, the collaboration often guides the flavor creation process.
Q: You’ve used Greenbar Distillery spirits and bitters in a few ice cream flavor creations. There were the BAR KEEP Lavender bitters, GRAND POPPY amaro, SLOW HAND whiskey. Even the spent ingredients from our CITY Bright gin distillation! Which one was a favorite for the kitchen to work with? And why?
A: Oh there’s a constant argument over here on that question! GRAND POPPY amaro is one of my favorite ingredients we’ve ever used. We bring that flavor back every May because of how the flavor just “pops” in frozen form. I think one of our customer’s favorite was the BAR KEEP Lavender Bitters. We used those bitters in an ice cream float combining it with coca-cola and vanilla ice cream and people would flip out about the beautiful complexity that that added.
Q: People (journalists) refer to Salt & Straw as “farm-to-cone.” How do you feel about that description?
A: Hmmmm, this is a great question! I think, when we first started making ice cream we captured that “farm-to-cone” element and were using the best produce available to us. I think we’ve evolved way beyond that farm-to-table mentality. At this point in the culinary scene, that’s just cost of entry. What I feel like we’ve gotten especially good at is using our ice cream to tell incredible stories around the city. This is an evolution of that farm-to-cone, but maybe focusing even more heavily on provoking our team and guests to really think about the ingredients and artisanal products they’re eating in their ice cream.
Q: Salt & Straw’s model is to make flavors that are local to the store. Portland gets its own flavors. LA gets its own. New York, too. Is that crazy making? Explain.
A: It’s absolutely crazy…and definitely the hardest way to grow a company. But I feel like it’s one of the only reasons I get excited about growth at Salt & Straw. I feel like we have this opportunity to build a business model that has never been done before; we get to show that companies can enter new markets, exporting an incredible culture while focusing heavily on connecting with the community and utilizing the bounty in that city.
Q: What’s the worst flavor combination you’ve ever come up with? Be honest. And why didn’t it work?
A: The worst flavor has got to be a Crab Roll Neapolitan ice cream that I was working on for an event in Oregon. Crab and ice cream should not be a combination, ever. But it was so fascinating because we ended up creating some incredible flavors from that one failure so I think it was actually a great fail on our part.
Q: If you weren’t making ice cream (or running a company), what would you be doing?
A: I don’t know if I can imagine anything other than making ice cream. I admire people who work with their hands and make things “the hard way” and I think my life will always lean towards that. I definitely have an affinity to brewers & distillers, woodworkers, farmers, that kinda thing.
Q: Why does ice cream make everything okay?
A: Haha! It’s just ice cream…right? There’s no risk in a simple spoonful and you can be both adventurous in the flavors you choose or super conservative…and it’s still fun! I think ice cream is a super power in this world for exactly that reason. The fact that it’s nostalgic, simple, and approachable.