Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A line chef in Mexico’s top restaurants found his passion was gelato

Does blue corn flavor gelato sound appealing? How about avocado? Those are just two of the many unusual flavors being dreamed up by Mexican “gelatician” José Luis Cervantes.

The “blue corn flavor is quite unusual, rather like an atole . . . with hints of cinnamon,” Cervantes told Mexico News Daily. The tall 28-year-old is clearly passionate about ice cream: he lights up when he discusses his work and how his gelato shop in the up-and-coming Juárez neighborhood of Mexico City came to be.

Cervantes started his career working as a line chef in some of Mexico City’s best restaurants, notably Pujol and Quintonil, both of which feature consistently in Latin America’s 50 best restaurant lists.

His time in those restaurants served to convince him of his love for desserts and he took himself to Italy to specialize in making confectionary, obtaining a masters degree at ALMA (La Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana).

He then went on to work with one of Italy’s best chefs, Massimiliano Alajmo, at the three Michelin-starred Le Calandre where he made desserts and gelatos. Cervantes’ time at Le Calandre ignited his interest in gelatos and he went on to study “gelateria” at Carpigiani Gelato University.

Joe Gelato's avocado flavored product.
Joe Gelato’s avocado flavored product.

Returning to Mexico in 2015, Cervantes opened his own restaurant in the exclusive Santa Fe district of Mexico City. But later he decided to scale down and focus simply on his passion for gelato, opening Joe Gelato in early 2018.

Cervantes is serious about producing ice cream made from natural, locally sourced ingredients. His goal is to “support local Mexican producers while using Italian techniques.” The result is a very Italian product with an unmistakable Mexican touch.

Apart from a few set flavors that include olive oil — it’s surprisingly delicious, a water-based cacao option and a coconut flavor made with vegetable milk, the rest of the flavors change every three days.

“This assures that the gelato is fresh and that my clients don’t get bored,” said Cervantes.

This freshness is further assured by the fact that Cervantes doesn’t use a recipe as such for many of his flavors. He explains that the amount of sugar needed for a fruit-based ice cream will depend on the fruit when he buys it from Mexico’s huge central market, the Central de Abasto. During every visit to the market he asks the sellers “what is good today?” and that will be the base from which he creates his gelatos.

“When we make the mixture, we will analyze how much sugar, fiber and water the fruit contains” and from there the recipe will be formulated to suit that specific batch of fruit.  This serves to ensure that every flavor in the store is perfectly balanced.

This gelato is watermelon and mezcal.
This one is watermelon and mezcal.

Cervantes also never uses any pre-made or part-prepared ingredients. If an ice cream is rose flavored, it will contain roses not rose essence, for example, and the cacao ice cream is made from pure cacao, not chocolate solids or powder.

Joe and his team search far and wide for the best ingredients. They might go to the state of Tlaxcala to find the best honey producer or Oaxaca for the best chocolate.  “The more we can obtain our products from small, national producers the better,” said Cervantes, stating the importance of supporting those around you.

One ingredient that is currently imported is the olive oil but Cervantes explained that he is currently looking into options from Baja California and as soon as he finds one that meets his standards he will certainly be buying it.

Cervantes’ way of making ice cream is time-consuming. He works from what he refers to as the “laboratory” —which conjures up wonderful images of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — and can spend a whole day just perfecting the formula for one new gelato flavor.

Gelato is slightly healthier than ice cream since it contains less fat on average and less sugar, and Cervantes plays close attention to the amount of sugar that he adds. “If you add too much, you lose the flavor,” he explained, his knowledge, expertise and dedication to creating the best tasting gelatos clear to see.

For Cervantes, the idea of using Mexican ingredients that many Mexicans are unaware of and promoting all the incredible flavors available in the country is an important one.

As an example he explained that many customers don’t know that “vanilla is native to Mexico,” and some customers are a little unsure about a vanilla gelato being white with the dark dots of the vanilla seeds, because they are used to it being yellow.

This is the blue corn flavor.
This is the blue corn flavor.

Once they have a taste, however, they can see the difference that natural ingredients make. His very Mexican flavors include pinole, tejate, tepache, pan de muerto, (bread from the Day of the Dead), watermelon with mezcal and cacao with guajillo chile among many others.

Cervantes also has a number of unusual flavors such as miso and honey, red tea, beer and lavender that while not Mexican as such are, where possible, all made from locally sourced ingredients.

As insects become ever more popular on the menus of Mexico´s cutting-edge eateries, Cervantes attempted an ice cream using grasshoppers. He said it had a similar flavor to the chile peanuts that are commonly served in Mexico.

It wasn’t a popular flavor with customers, however, because they couldn’t get their head around the idea of grasshoppers combined with milk. Cervantes is open to creating new flavors using other insects, though, and is hoping to make a gelato using the flying ants called chicatanas “due to their coffee-like flavor.”

Cervantes’ expertise has led to his gelatos being sought out by a number of the best restaurants in Mexico City, and he makes flavors at the request of the chefs. He listed off the names of close to a dozen restaurants in the city where his gelatos are on the menu, including Nicos, another restaurant that made the top-50 list, and Hidden Kitchen, a new concept in pop-up dining experiences that recently hit the capital.

Given his training and his passion, it is not hyperbole to say that Cervantes is likely one of the best, if not the best gelato-maker in the city. It is not surprising, then, that these chefs are entrusting him with their flavor ideas.

As for the future, Cervantes hopes to have a number of small stores around the city, but for now he is extremely happy with his store in La Juárez. He is ambitious but the quality of his product is what is most important to him and he won’t expand until he can guarantee the quality across more than one location. What’s for sure, however, is that we will be seeing ever more unusual and exciting flavors popping up every three days in Joe Gelato.

• Find Joe Gelato at Versalles 78. Juárez, 06600, Mexico City, and online at Instagram.

Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist based in Mexico City. Her work has been published by BBC Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel and The Independent UK among others. Find out more about Susannah on her website.

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