On a recent Sunday at Van Leeuwen in Cobble Hill, coffee, chocolate, and Earl Grey tea ice creams filled the dipping cabinet in gradated shades of beige. A fifteen-minute walk away in Gowanus, Ample Hills Creamery was stocked with tubs of The Munchies, a pretzel-flavored scoop layered with potato chips, crackers, and M&Ms; and the store’s exclusive dark chocolate, orange brownie, hazelnut crack cookie, and white chocolate pearlfilled signature, It Came From Gowanus.
It’s immediately apparent which brand is the minimalist and which the maximalist — or, as Ample Hills co-founder Jackie Cuscuna likes to call it, “Ample-ist.” But there’s an even larger philosophical chasm between the competitors, one that’s not simply a matter of distillation versus excess. It’s the Van Leeuwen ice cream designers’ near-ascetic devotion to getting things “right,” compared with the Ample Hills designers’ comfort in joyful chaos.
Even before the 2011 opening of their first store, when overwhelming demand left Cuscuna and her business partner/husband, Brian Smith, out of product within four days (an event they’ve since commemorated with an annual “Sell-Out Celebration”), the duo was honing their improvisational skills. Salted Crack Caramel — the flavor now known for launching Ample Hills into food blog notoriety — began as a mistake.
“I didn’t know how to make caramel, so I burned it,” Smith admits, huddling alongside Cuscuna to talk over the after-school crowd packing their original Prospect Heights store. Determined to salvage his creation, Smith mixed crack cookies (a conglomeration of saltines, chocolate, butter, and sugar) into his slightly bitter base. The reactions were surprising.
“Some people really hated it, including Jackie, but other people were really passionate about it,” says Smith. “We realized that was a good way for us to go: to be bold, not subtle.”
And subtle they’re not. When he’s not busy courting serendipity with “democratizing” Facebook contests that yield flavors like the Gilmore Girlsinspired They Scoop Gilmores, Don’t They? (coffee ice cream with a chocolate-pudding swirl, snickerdoodles, and Pop-Tart sprinkles), Smith is governed by his own instinct and deep-seated nostalgia. It’s an approach that has yielded both fan-favorite flavors, like Nonna D’s Oatmeal Lace (brown sugarcinnamon ice cream with chunks of oatmeal lace cookies) and PB Wins the Cup! (full of semi-sweet chocolate flakes and homemade peanut butter cups), and flops like Beer Muncheez (Cheese Nips, cheese crackers, and cheese pretzels in an apple lambic ice cream; “that one was terrible,” shudders Cuscuna). While the flavors occasionally draw inspiration from grown-up pursuits like fine dining, much more often they are dreamed up in the cereal and candy aisles of the grocery store.
“I always think about what I wished existed when I was a kid,” says Smith. “You might think our ice cream is for seven-year-olds, but it’s actually for the seven-year-olds within forty-seven-year-olds.”
Where Cuscuna and Smith run on whimsy, Ben Van Leeuwen, namesake of the truck-turned-retail-chain he founded in 2008 with brother Pete and then-wife Laura O’Neill, keeps busy by obsessively searching for obscure ingredients and refining them to their most elegant forms.
“When we started, it was with ten flavors that had no chunks or swirls or anything,” he says, steeping tea in the white-planked conference room above his Greenpoint manufacturing facility. “We thought, ‘Let’s make sure these are amazing on their own before we start adding stuff.’ ”
Van Leeuwen names travel as his main source of inspiration — though when leaving the country isn’t an option, international food blogs serve as a close second. As such, his ingredients of choice are less impulsive–supermarket-shopper and more jet-setting-collector; he rhapsodizes about such ingredients as Ecuadorian cocoa butter, steamed Japanese tea leaves, Indonesia-strained cashew milk, and Michel Cluizel chocolate from grass-fed cows in Normandy.
When successful, Van Leeuwen’s globetrotting meticulousness results in instant classics like candied ginger (made with the juice and pulp of ginger grown in Fiji), Sicilian pistachio (an understated version of the soda fountain standby), and honeycomb (the brand’s most popular flavor, which features thin ribbons of caramel throughout). But his Platonic vision for the brand has been counterproductive at times — like when, in the pursuit of authenticity, he sourced ingredients all the way from China for what would wind up a chronically unsuccessful licorice flavor.
“Licorice ice cream is usually made with gray food coloring and lots of fennel, so naturally I was determined to use this real, wild licorice I found,” says Van Leeuwen. “But real licorice is surprisingly medicinal, and the flavor was terrible.”
With a laugh he notes, “I personally hate licorice. But I was obsessed; I guess I’d become too militant about it.”
Each maker’s approach surfaces, too, in their aesthetic choices. Ample Hills’ stores are mural lined and kid friendly, with playful design touches by former scooper Lauren Kaelin; Van Leeuwen recently received a packaging makeunder from international firm Pentagram, and their store interiors (including shops in the East and West Village, and three Los Angeles locations) have become even more painstakingly tasteful over time — a shift intended to optimize the company’s appearance on social media. “Instagram is a lot of consumers’ first contact with the brand,” says Van Leeuwen, “so we’re using lighter woods and white-powder-coated metals that photograph better, and reducing textural elements so that the ice cream can really be the star.”
Whose method you deem superior depends on whether you see greater virtue in uninhibited pleasure or in perfect restraint. And this summer, ice cream fiends will have plenty of reason to taste-test and debate. Van Leeuwen is set to soon release takes on jasmine green tea and ube, inspired by traditional Filipino recipes. Meanwhile, Ample Hills’ store at the new Dekalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn opens this month and features the location-exclusive Harry & Eigel’s Marbled & Malted.
“We wanted to pay homage to Junior’s founder Harry Rosen and pastry chef Eigel Peterson, who came up with the cake the restaurant is so well known for today,” says Cuscuna of the new cheesecake-and-milk-ball-filled confection. “We wanted to do something old-Brooklyn; we really live to tell stories with flavors.”