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The Mad Science of Gelato

Inside Lush Gelato's flavor lab and the science of ice cream.


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On an exceedingly warm September afternoon in West Oakland, in the back room of a nondescript and soon-to-be-demolished warehouse, a new flavor is born.

The building itself sits in the kind of gritty industrial neighborhood where you'd expect to find an auto body shop or a carpet warehouse, not a production site for artisanal gelato. But that's precisely what Federico Murtagh, the co-owner and resident gelato master of Lush Gelato, has set up here. Murtagh's two small gelaterías, both his original shop on Piedmont Avenue and a more recently opened location in Berkeley's foodcentric Gourmet Ghetto, have built up a still-modest but devoted following among East Bay ice cream lovers, who praise the gelato for the impossible creaminess of its texture and the bold intensity of its flavors.

More recently, regulars have probably noticed the increasing inventiveness of the flavors themselves. While you can always get a scoop of vanilla or some kind of chocolate, the ever-changing daily menu of gelatos and sorbettos is now dotted with such exotic and unlikely options as Dijon Mustard or Star Anise or Black Garlic & Lime Leaves. Whenever possible, the ingredients are sourced locally, from the farmers' markets or other Bay Area vendors. Still, despite the playful flavor combinations and widely acknowledged quality of the product, Murtagh wonders if people really understand how much time and care goes into making a single batch. After all, he doesn't have the luxury of a big store that could show customers — through a little window, say — that day's gelato being churned right then and there.

"A lot of people probably think, I don't know, that we buy our ice cream from Ciao Bella or any of the other companies that are floating around out there," Murtagh said. "It's a pretty big disadvantage to make your own ice cream and not be able to show it. It probably looks like a restaurant that buys all its food from someone else and they heat it up in a microwave."

Indeed, for Murtagh, the process itself is the best part of his job — the long hours spent burning the midnight oil in his West Oakland flavor lab, where he's been known to stay as late as 3 a.m. tweaking some crazy new concoction until it tastes just right.

"That's the fun part of it," he said.

As it turns out, the building that currently houses his production facility was recently purchased by a company that wants to knock it down and put in a new Kroger supermarket, so Murtagh is going to have to find new digs whether he wants to or not — preferably, he says, a retail space big enough for him to make his gelato on site.

In the meantime, his humble, subleased back room inside a West Oakland warehouse is where, as they say, the magic happens.

If you tell people that you make ice cream or gelato for a living, it's not unlikely that you'll inspire in their mind certain flights of whimsy — medieval alchemy with a dash of Roald Dahl: chocolate mixed and churned by a waterfall, whipped cream whipped by actual whips, and such.

The not-mundane-but-strikingly-different truth? Murtagh's workspace is all gleaming metal surfaces and everyone is decked out in hairnets and white lab coats, so the overall effect is less like a kitchen and more like a chemistry laboratory — albeit a somewhat primitive-looking one. (Citrus fruits are juiced using an old-fashioned hand juicer, and the machines that make the ice cream, however state-of-the-art they may be, look more vintage than space age.) And Murtagh's recipes themselves resemble simple mathematical formulas as much as anything else: no words, just a chart full of numbers listing the relative proportions of cream and sugar and egg yolk.

It follows, then, that the Argentinian-born Murtagh, scruffy and slightly sleepy-eyed from too many late nights on the job (cranking out as many as five or six new flavors a week), appears to see himself as more mad scientist than chef as he presides over the whole operation. Yet the vibe is a lot more casual than it sounds. Murtagh circulates throughout the room, fiddling a bit with the machinery. He stirs a tub of plum purée that he's doctored with wasabi powder, and tastes it. Not enough wasabi, he concludes. He gives some brief instructions to his two employees and to his business partner, Erik Jorgensen, who isn't involved in the gelatería's day-to-day operations but occasionally drops by the warehouse to lend a helping hand.

In the far corner of the flavor lab, there's a pasteurizer that mixes and cooks the gelato's custard base, which includes milk, cream, egg yolks, and, for today's flavor, the zest and juice from several oranges. And atop a small table, there's a sort of cauldron filled with chocolate that's being melted down and, next to that, a pot of hot coconut oil.

The main batch he's working on today, Murtagh explains, is going to be an orange gelato that'll have chunks of chocolate layered in. The twist will be to give the chocolate some heat by adding the coconut oil, which has been infused with some habañero peppers that he purchased earlier that day from the Happy Quail Farms stand at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

In the end, getting the final product to achieve that purity of flavor where you can really taste the essence of the plum or the orange is as much an art as it is a science. To start, Murtagh explains, you have to use a lot of whatever fresh ingredient you're featuring — no artificial additives. You have to understand how to create a balanced recipe so you don't throw off the texture or end up with something cloyingly sweet. But from there, he says, it's just trial and error, taste, taste, taste.