Having built a tidy gelato empire in central Austin, fourteen years ago and counting, it would be reasonable to assume Teo Gelato owner Matthew Lee would want a few years to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
But Lee is among the restless culinary artisans who are never satisfied to sit back. Even after his 2014 success at the Gelato World Tour Finals in Rimini, Italy, as the top American-born gelato maestro in North America and, more recently, being the recipient of H-E-B’s Best In Texas award, Lee is throwing his hat in the ring for another Gelato World Tour Competition. This time the event is in Chicago on May 27-29, 2016.
He will be flavorfully armed with a caramel-laced, bourbon-infused Texas Pecan Pie gelato at Chicago’s semi-finals. The cloyingly sweet caramel is finished with a sucker punch of nutty pecan and a tangy whiskey finish that lingers on the tongue. The winner in Chicago will fly to Italy to win the hearts of the Italian public and critics. Lee is hopeful he’ll be the one booking his ticket to the birthplace of gelato this fall.
In the cool shade of the outdoor patio at Teo, I talk about all things sweet with Lee…while snacking on his gelato, of course.
Austinot: What inspired you to make gelato in the first place?
Lee: I fell in love with gelato because I was eating it four times a day and not feeling gross.
I wanted to make gelato that I could serve to my kids without all the fat and high fructose corn syrup in ice cream. I wanted to keep it simple and good. Gelato lets you create things that you wouldn’t necessary get to buy at a store…like a coconut and Nutella combination flavor.
It’s weird because the Coffee and Oreo is a popular flavor. I came up with this flavor because I was drinking a cappuccino, grabbed an Oreo and realized: Wow! These two things taste really good together. I had never experienced that flavor profile before and it stuck.
Austinot: That sounds so whimsical and creative!
Lee: The weird flavors are fun to try but they’re not something people come back to all the time. We try to do weird flavors like Eggs and Bacon, all the way to more traditional flavors like Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry. We have a Root Beer flavor that’s really popular and so is our Chocolate Rosemary, not to mention Goat Cheese and Cherry.
Austinot: And you’re using Texas ingredients for the Texas Pecan Pie gelato?
Lee: The Texas Pecan has local Garrison Brothers bourbon and local pecans. It is a rendition that I have been working on for two years.
The difference between good gelato and bad gelato comes down to the ingredients and the recipes. There’s a lot of instant gelato out there. You can make it really fast, with a pre-made base, and it’s not the same as gelato made from scratch.
It’s important at Teo that we make our own base. You have to make your own base or else it’s just like making chicken soup, but buying the chicken stock–it can only be so good. Gelato has less fat in it, so you can really taste the quality of the ingredients.
Austinot: Do you know the flavors you’ll be up against in Chicago?
Lee: I’ve seen the list and there are some that look really interesting. Everybody has their own flavor profile that they’re trying to reach and address. For us, what I’ve learned is to just focus on my product and my flavor profile. I don’t listen to all the other noise.
My brother who lived in Italy taught me that the slang word for noise in Italian is “rumore,” which means rumor. So when you think about it, when you hear all these rumors, it’s really just noise in your head. I care more about letting the product speak for itself, rather than how good it looks or how the aesthetics are.
I am looking forward to Chicago because there will be some people there who are going to be good and there’s going to be a couple that, you know, are full of themselves. But for the most part, we will be meeting with our friends. While we compete, we also don’t compete. We’re not in the same market.
Austinot: In such a specialized field, do you learn from each other while you’re together?
Lee: For lack of a better words, it’s like your last year of college. Instead of worrying about what grade you made on the test, you are trying to absorb everything around you, all the knowledge from your professors and peers, it’s kind of like that.
We’re the only people from Texas out of the 16 competitors in Chicago. We’re competing with folks from Brazil, Columbia, among others. It’s easy to sit back, rest on your laurels. When people ask why we’re doing it, I answer simply, “Because it’s fun.”
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@kristinmleigh wants to know:
What’s your favorite gelato flavor?