Like many great chefs hailing the virtues of farm-to-table cuisine, Tyler Malek, Head Ice Cream Maker at Portland-based ice cream company Salt & Straw, constrains his flavor palette to utilize artisanal ingredients local to each of its 15 locations—so much so that you’ll never see more than three of the same flavors from one shop to another. “If you to go in San Diego versus Seattle, the menus will be drastically different,” says Malek.
Much of Salt & Straw’s appeal stems from these niche flavors, which include head-turning combinations like Pear & Blue Cheese, Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese, and Peanut Butter & Pickles, featured in August’s “Eat Your Vegetables” series at the company’s L.A. shops. Surprisingly enough, Malek had little experience in ice cream making when he first launched Salt & Straw—back then a modest push cart—with his cousin Kim Malek in 2011. “We had this dream of opening a shop in Portland where we could feature local flavors and create a safe space where anyone could come in,” he says, adding that much of his accumulated knowledge and flavor inspiration has come from working with fellow local artisans.
Malek describes his “ice cream guru” role as “the coolest job in the world,” but refuses to take all the credit for Salt & Straw’s inventive flavors. Behind the scenes, the company staffs a five-person research and development team, as well as a 40-person crew in both their Downtown L.A. and Portland kitchens, to help Malek curate the taste profile of each flavor.
Salt & Straw crafts its ice cream in small batches, a process Malek hopes to streamline as the company keeps expanding. “The way we make ice cream is far different than the way other people make ice cream,” he says. When teaming up with another business or artisan to produce a collaborative flavor, Salt & Straw’s research team discusses various possibilities before creating five flavors they can send back to the client for feedback. Malek prefers the process to be as symbiotic as possible: “I meet with the partners, learn their story, and figure out how to best tell their story through ice cream,” he explains.
On the first Friday of every month, Salt & Straw releases a new menu of flavors that share a common theme. They’re meant to complement the shop’s permanent selections, as well, with many prepped six to eight months in advance. While this can be challenging, Malek says thinking thematically encourages the “brainstorming process, and hunting down the best of the best [ingredients] in each of our areas is almost a no-brainer.”
For the Eat Your Vegetables series, for example, Malek partnered with several L.A.-area farms to conceptualize a new collection of flavors for the L.A. scoop shops, among them Freckled Chocolate Zucchini Bread, Green Fennel & Maple, Beet Red Velvet Cake, Chocolate Date Shake, and the aforementioned Peanut Butter & Pickles, which Malek describes as his “proudest” creation of the series. To create the flavor, Salt & Straw teamed up with BK Brinery’s Bruce Kalman, who Malek says “designed his pickles to go specifically in the ice cream.” Paired with peanut butter cheesecake, the pickle notes allows the peanut butter to stand out while contributing a subtle, fresh finish.
Other local ingredients featured in the series include zucchini sourced from Weiser Family Farms and eco-dynamic dates grown in the Coachella Valley by Flying Disk Ranch for the Chocolate Date Shake flavor. While discussing his flavor creations, Malek frequently praises the work of these local producers: “You let this natural corroboration guide how you create them, and it makes really unique flavors—things that I would never make,” he says.
Regarding new menus are in the works, Malek says September’s “late in the harvest” selection will feature a greater focus on flavor through creations he and his team haven’t been able to feature yet this summer. He teases it as one of his best flavor collections yet before hinting at a “Thanksgiving table menu” for November and an all-vegan takeover for January.
And for those interested in replicating Salt & Straw’s iconic flavors, Malek is set to release a 60-recipe cookbook next spring.