Vasco Valenca, Chief Innovation Officer and Ice cream inventor at The Brooklyn Creamery take us on a journey to the delicious world of ice cream .
How did your ice cream career start?
After completing my degree in Food Engineering I proactively approached Unilever in Portugal (my home country) for a non-paid internship (to complete my master degree). To my surprise (and joy) their answer was that they couldn’t offer me a non-paid internship … but they could recruit me right away as a Junior Production Engineer for the ice cream factory in Portugal! Well … that was ice cream music in my ears.
And that’s how I gained access to the coolest job in the world and spent 20 years with Unilever Ice cream, from production to research and development, innovation and marketing in different countries. Magnum was one of my first serious projects in 1987-88.
What’s your favourite flavour?
Definitely a good and addictive salted caramel. I can’t resist “warm” ice cream flavours.
How has the ice cream market changed over the decades?
Ice cream has been moving gradually from a pure impulse and seasonal product to one that’s enjoyed all year round. It used to be more often bought out of home and consumed right away. Today consumers are as likely to buy good ice cream from the supermarket, brought home and enjoyed all year round. From a typical summer product to an indulgent dessert ready to be snacked at home between meals, or served to our family and/or our friends after dinner. Nowadays, it’s even seen as a potential starter in the shape of a frozen savoury product. Moving the ice cream moment from the ‘end’ to the ‘start’ of a meal has always been one of my dreams (life is uncertain … eat dessert first).
Small ice cream machines are gaining popularity as home gadgets with the more adventurous and amateur gourmet consumers excited to impress friends and family with their own ‘ice dream’ creations (with a little help from the pandemic times).
Customised home deliveries of ice cream of any type and brand (from gelato shops, or supermarkets) are today available in 30 minutes or less.
Flavour-wise, ice cream has evolved into a more adventurous and complex treat, with new and unexpected combinations/flavour twists and textures and never-ending inclusion options, especially when compared to other food categories such as chocolates and pastries. The ice cream category is often seen as the most daring of all food categories.
In the health and wellness segment, new ranges of previously unthinkable, extremely rich and tasty ice creams (with no sugars added, half fat and nearly half calories, and vegan) are gaining attention from health-conscious consumers globally. For example, The Brooklyn Creamery in the UAE and India. Most of my challenges over the last two years with The Brooklyn Creamery project have been centered around optimising the taste and texture of those ‘better for you’ ice-cream solutions.
Where in the world have you created ice creams and where haven’t you got to work yet that you’d like to?
I worked for 20 years (1986 – 2006) with Unilever in its ice cream category, so it’s difficult to say from all products that I’ve worked with during those 20 years, the ones that are not yet known in certain countries.
Before moving to the UAE in 2013, I travelled exhaustively between Europe, South America, the Middle East, India and China. My main activity was all about selling innovative ice-cream ideas and solutions to different ice cream brands all over the world.
Since moving to the UAE, my activity has been mostly focused in the region (UAE, GCC and India), supporting different ice cream brands with innovative concepts, but also in Portugal where I have my own pastry and ice cream brands.
Places I haven’t explored yet include the USA and Japan, obviously very exciting markets in the ice cream field, that I would enjoy exploring soon.
What ice cream creation are you most proud of?
Most recently, the vegan ice cream range and the Mood Boosters (mood-enhancing ice creams) for The Brooklyn Creamery.
But I can’t forget my involvement in the Magnum concept, launched by Unilever in the late eighties in Europe. I have created the first recipes for the Portuguese Magnum range (almond, classic and white). Three amazing products at the time, and I’m very proud of those.
Do you also create vegan gelato? If so, tell us more.
The vegan ice cream range creation was a case ‘of love at first bite’. I have never been so excited about any of my own creations. I remember the first time I tried the first recipe made on a Saturday morning at my ice cave (my home lab). I kept silent for at least a minute and I said to myself – I can’t believe this is vegan!
I guess it was all about the challenge and the emotion of turning the product into a seriously gourmet experience, and the fact that it was right on the first attempt.
All ingredients were carefully selected and most calculations were made first in my brain. That’s the way it works with me. I may require two sessions of what I call the ‘nothingness hour of the day’, achieved by isolating myself at my ice cave, on a mission to create.
From one recipe to another – in a few days I collected (with samples made) almost 20 different recipes to share with the world – many of those are already in the market in UAE and India (with The Brooklyn Creamery), and others will be launched soon.
What are the most popular flavours of ice cream and why do you think that is?
The top sellers worldwide are still vanilla, chocolate and strawberry (in UAE chocolate is first).
Vanilla is the obvious one. We all have the ‘vanilla of our dreams’ memorised in our palate.
Probably the most challenging task in the ice cream world is to satisfy the ‘vanilla dreams’ of everyone with one single vanilla. That’s why there are so many different variants, from the real beans (pods) of different regions turned into powder, or natural extracts and flavours (natural or artificial).
Some consumers have been convinced the most natural option of vanilla is so-called artificial vanillin (also the cheapest available) and that natural vanilla beans and extracts are not intense enough for them, and therefore of little aromatic value for their palate. Other consumers prefer the extracts and/or the real beans. They can detect the artificiality of the vanillin simply by the odour. Some prefer the vanilla ice creams in white, while others can only live with a yellow vanilla ice cream.
With chocolate ice creams it’s also a difficult mission to please everyone. Some people believe that the best quality of chocolate ice cream relates to the one made only with cocoa powder. Others perceive that ice cream made with real chocolate makes a serious difference not only in taste but also in texture (the texture gets much creamier). On top of that, some consumers prefer darker chocolate, others milk.
Strawberry ice creams made with fresh strawberries (and with no odour signs of added flavours) are most appreciated worldwide, especially in those countries where strawberries are a common fruit at the dining table. But you will still find consumers bravely stating that a good strawberry ice cream tastes like ‘a strawberry jam’ (cooked strawberry with sugar), or that the ones perfumed with a strong and artificial strawberry flavour (with zero fruit content) are most exciting.
Caramel is the next flavour in terms of popularity (milk caramel, butterscotch, the good new salted caramels) and often my personal preferred flavour.
Turning the basics into something more selective and with a gourmet touch, a twist of something else, differentiating the offer, while suggesting something more unique and more difficult to copy, especially in the gourmet sectors of ice cream, is a new trend.
Imagine the vanilla with a saffron twist, the chocolate with a chilli note, the strawberry with a twist of basil – and obviously the caramel with a sea salt boost. As long as the twist matches surprisingly well with the main flavour, there is a lot of freedom to softly disrupt by re-creating new flavour experiences with the traditional.
Is there a specific ice cream culture in the UAE – are consumers different here in any way? Do they like regional flavours such as saffron ice cream etc?
The UAE, being so cosmopolitan and an experimental place where innovation is top of mind in many sectors including F&B, supports the evidence that the ice cream market is dominated by global trends. But there is a clear regional opportunity to explore the ice cream sector, involving some of the local jewels and traditional dessert flavours from the Middle East (umm ali, baklava, rice pudding and kunafa, for example) and the popular kulfi from India with little twists of modernity.
All those flavours have been part of my ice cream ‘playground’ activities recently, and that’s part of my job that I really love – touching the unknown – at least for me coming from a different culture desserts-wise.
It’s exciting to see growth in the health and wellness segment (with a higher demand for no sugar added options with lower calories and great taste), and the increasing number of consumers moving to a vegan diet. Our goal with The Brooklyn Creamery ice creams is to be the top of mind ice cream brand in those segments, being able to deliver a tasty solution for all.
Are there certain ice creams you seek out when you travel? Mochi ice cream in Japan or do you like trying kulfi creations in the UAE etc?
Definitely, yes. I have tried mochi a couple of times and my intention is to re-create the concept in a significantly improved version (ice cream texture-wise).
Kulfi and I are already ‘brothers’! I developed my first kulfi ice cream many years ago and some consumers will still remember a product launched in 2014 by Kwality called “Maharaja Kulfi” (it looks like a Magnum product with a gourmet kulfi ice cream and a pistachio-kulfi cover), which is still in the market today.
What advice would you give those wanting to seek out a career in your industry?
Whatever you are, BE VERY! Do what you love and love what you do! Your best reward will be working with a smile and indirectly inspiring others!
What’s the secret to creating great tasting ice cream?
PASSION. Observe and actively listen! Pay attention to little details! Surprise!
Never share an ice cream creation with anyone if you are not 100 % satisfied with it!
And lastly – HAVE FUN!
Life is just like ice cream … to be enjoyed before melting!