What is the most unlikely flavor combination you can think of? Got something? Whatever your crazy idea is, Will Johnson of the Creamery Memphis will turn it into ice cream.
Johnson is a self-taught chef who gained experience working in various restaurants around Memphis, including Stone Soup Café and the former Restaurant Grace. "I don't have any formal education other than working with some amazing chefs around the city," he says.
Johnson created the Creamery Memphis two years ago when he began selling wholesale gelato to local restaurants. Then, six months ago, he became certified to sell directly to customers. He has gained a following, selling fresh scoops and pints at the Cooper-Young Community (CYC) Farmers Market and Madison Growler Shop's new "Beer-lato Happy Hour."
"I don't have a store front. I really want to use these venues to force people to come out. I feel if I work really hard on these flavors, I'll get a little following, and they'll have to buy tamales, they'll have to buy tomatoes. You know, you can't just walk past everything here [at the CYC Farmers Market] and not buy some tamales," he says, pointing to market vendors near him.
His networking mentality led to a new opportunity last month, when market patron Angelina Mazzanti tasted Johnson's Guinness-flavored gelato and asked if he had ever considered crafting gelato from local beers. She introduced him to her boyfriend, Madison Growler & Bottle Shop manager Taylor James, and the two men brought "Beer-lato Happy Hour" to the Growler Shop, where customers can taste and buy gelato made with local and regional beers and coffees.
Johnson says he doesn't think ice cream should be limited to the standard flavors. "We've run some cool stuff before like charred jalapeno and goat cheese. Our savory items are really fun," he says. "I just want to open up Memphis' mind to different types of food."
Some flavors that have graced Johnson's creative menu include unique varieties like peanut butter curry, smoked cheddar, and chocolate balsamic, alongside some more familiar flavors like vanilla chai, caramel macchiato, and lemon drop. His Beer-lato menu includes combinations like "Abita root beer with bone marrow" and "Yazoo Fall Lager and popcorn."
Johnson says he derives inspiration from customer suggestions and from local products and produce. He says the employees at Joe's Wine & Liquor help him choose the booze for his alcoholic flavors, and he asks James for suggestions for the Beer-lato menu.
"This week, I called [James] up and asked him what kind of beer he would want to drink when eating pancakes," Johnson says. "It resulted in Shock Top Honey Bourbon Pancake gelato."
"I take suggestions [for flavors]. Not everything that I make is good," Johnson says. "If someone wants something, I do it. If it doesn't sell well, it doesn't sell well, but that person is guaranteed to come and try their flavor, and if they like it, it's amazing."
One attempt that bombed: fried chicken-flavored gelato. "It was awful," he says. "I used chicken stock, and there was maple syrup in there. I really tried to mimic a chicken and waffles kind of thing. I will never do that again."
But when it comes to trying out funky flavors, Johnson says the sky is the limit: "It's kind of like, who is going to stop me?"
So, what is next for this adventurous gourmand? Johnson says he would eventually like to create a non-profit restaurant, but his immediate goal is to open a charcuterie. "I would like to open a charcuterie, doing it really well, on a very small scale," he says. "Fundamentals of cooking, making things like hand-made tomato paste and encapsulated flavored oils. We can make our own bacon, cure our own meats, and smoke our own fruits and vegetables."
Gelato from the Creamery Memphis is sold at 30 local restaurants, including Stone Soup Café and Rizzo's Diner. Stop by "Beer-lato Happy Hour," Thursdays from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Madison Growler Shop, or visit Johnson's booth at the CYC Farmers Market to order a scoop ($3), pint ($5), or gelato sandwich ($4).
To see which flavors will be on Johnson's menu or to place an order, visit www.facebook.com/thecreamerymemphis.