Yesterday, we spoke with Fany Gerson about the many things she has planned for La Newyorkina, the Mexican frozen-treats stand that she debuted in New York last summer. Today, the pastry chef extraordinaire talks about the so-called Sombrero Effect, the future, and keeping all of those ice cream carts filled.
Although there’s an amazing variety of desserts in Mexico, it seems that the only ones most Americans hear about are churros and Mexican fried ice cream.
I want to have a little platform to be able to share the sweets that you don’t see anywhere else. I want to show that Mexican ice cream is just as amazing and as sophisticated as gelato, to break the stigma of what my friends and I call the Sombrero Effect. [Laughs.]
You mentioned that you’d like La Newyorkina’s products to be available in restaurant and markets. That’s a path that a lot of small, New York-based companies seem to be following — you can find Van Leeuwen’s and Mast Bros. in Whole Foods now. What are the challenges of growing a small business while trying to maintain its integrity?
I struggle with it. There’s a potential for growth that could be national or international, but then you’re detached from the product. I was talking to a friend who had a good point — she said, “Danny Meyer has amazing restaurants, and he has kind of his hand in all of them.” I think one of the reasons he’s successful at it is that he hires people who understand his values and are very talented at what they do. He’s not a chef, but it’s that idea that if it grows, you maintain the integrity and keep your hand as close to it as possible. [Ed.: Gerson worked as in the pastry department at Eleven Madison Park.]
The bigger picture is also to share part of my culture and educate people in a delicious way. But I also want to continue writing and researching — I have all these things I want to do! I would be very happy, to be perfectly honest, to have my little store, but I think if it has potential, you should aim for that. It really isn’t about money; it’s about the possibility. If this does well, I can take another part of the Mexican culture and explore that and share that.
Did you always envision this particular business model for La Newyorkina?
Originally, I was going to open a retail shop — I had this dream shop with a little stand of candies, but it was more of an ice cream shop. But once I did the numbers, it just wasn’t good — not impossible, but very high-risk. I needed to make a lot of money to pay the rent, and at the end of the day, it’s ice cream — even if you end up buying toppings and sauces, you’re not buying clothing, you know what I mean? So then I started thinking differently, and this model makes more sense. It’s not as risky and so exciting: It allows me to explore and see what part is better business — is it restaurants? supermarkets? — and also which one I like better.
I think the biggest challenge is logistics. If I get these carts, how am I gonna fill them and keep them continuously filled? I’m going to hire people, but still, you kind of have to come up with these things first. I’m in no rush; I want to be as close to my product as possible and make sure the quality is there.
La Newyorkina really seemed to strike a chord with people last summer — were you surprised by such an enthusiastic response?
Oh, yes. I was overwhelmed and very surprised. The first thing that came out in the press was in New York magazine. I don’t even know how they knew about us; we had just found a kitchen to work out of. So it was very overwhelming. I was like, “Maybe because this is new,” but throughout the summer the response was from the people, not the press. They kept coming back every week and they were very excited about the flavors — the most popular were coconut, mango-chili, avocado, and hibiscus. I was blown away. I would be shopping at the Essex Street Market, and people would say, “It’s the popsicle lady!” I could be called worse things.
Do you think the response had something to do with the fact that you were offering something that, aside from in Mexican neighborhoods, most people weren’t really seeing?
I think people love Mexican food so they were excited. Some of the chefs in New York at high-end [Mexican] places are trying to do more exciting desserts, but, in general, they have them just to have them. When people go out to eat Mexican they fill up with margaritas and guacamole. They don’t even get to dessert. I think in general, people don’t even realize the incredible richness in the streets of Mexico. Maybe in California, where they’re more exposed to a large variety. But they’re exposed to a large variety that’s not authentic — it’s Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex. Like when I did sweet tamales at New Amsterdam, a lot of people have tried tamales but not the sweet ones. They’d ask, “Did you make them up?” No, not really …
Did you always want to be a chef?
Since I was little I wanted to be a chef, but I thought it was like saying I want to be an astronaut. I remember thinking, do people really go out and become chefs? When it was time to decide where to go to school, I applied to art schools; I wanted to do something creative. I told my parents I wanted to go to cooking school. My dad is an intellectual, so he thought, “No way.” So I applied to different art schools here in New York and went to visit Parsons and SVA [the School of Visual Arts], which I loved and which offered me a partial scholarship. So I was going to do a major in graphic design and minor in art education. But then I had one more day where I could visit schools, and visited the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. When I arrived, I thought, this is where I’m meant to be.
[Cooking] is the one art where you use all your senses, but, more importantly, you get to make people happy. That’s what I get to do for a living. That’s pretty awesome. You don’t change people’s lives, but you can change their mood. And I get to share part of my culture. I always thought I’d have a classic French pastry shop because I loved all the patisseries in Paris. But now I’m very happy that this is the course I’ve taken.
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