SOUTHWEST HARBOR – Lavender-infused chocolate is mixing with cream and sugar in the ice cream maker.
Rob Rhiel, who wears a chocolate-spattered restaurant kitchen apron, a light-blue bandanna over his flop of shoulder-length hair, and a welcoming smile, is in the kitchen of the Common Good Soup Kitchen, where he navigates between stoves, counters, industrial shelves full of foodstuffs and cookware, refrigerators, and a freezer. The stove is where he makes the “batter” for his 1.5-quart batches of ice cream; he steeped the lavender like a tea to pull out its full flavor. The freezer holds a half-dozen or so samples of his creations. On the counter are two ice cream makers which, together, can produce six pints per half-hour, given the 22 minutes of mixing time, plus decanting and cleaning for the next batch.
Rhiel is into his second month of realizing his new business, Zentopia Gourmet, which he conceived two Christmases ago when his wife Rebecca was given an ice cream maker for their home and she made a couple of batches.
“It was really good stuff,” he recalls. “I don’t really like sweet stuff, but she made a batch of fig and ginger and it was really, really, really good. You can do whatever you want. It was like, ‘Wow, that is really unusual.’ She just thought it up. And that kind of got me thinking.”
What he began to think was that he could research how to make ice cream, and then he could throw in all kinds of ingredients that aren’t found in the typical freezer section. For example, he’s come up with a Philly-style (no eggs) honeydew melon, and coconut cherry. He loves sesame seeds, so he’ll probably do a fig and sesame kind of thing. And he was talking to a guy who was talking about dates and pine nuts, so that seemed pretty inspiring for another batch of ice cream.
“Because it’s just unusual,” he says. “People can’t get that. And it appeals to my taste.”
Some specialty ice cream stores, he says, chop up candy bars and other goodies and fold them into already-made ice cream. Rhiel doesn’t care about that approach. He cares about maple-glazed walnuts, where he takes the walnuts and mixes them up with maple syrup and a little bit of salt, and bakes it off in the oven and it gets all beautiful and crispy.
“Putting that kind of stuff in, that appeals to me,” he says. “Even the butter pecan that I made, you’re just supposed to put pecans in it. But I took honey and glazed the pecans and baked them, so the pecans are crunchy and honeyish. Just that one extra step is fun because I like being in the kitchen and it makes the product so much more interesting.”
Plus he uses a higher ratio of cream in his product.
“So it’s definitely premium ice cream, as far as the fat content,” he says. “Most ice cream is, like, 50 percent air. So you grab your tub out of the freezer and you scoop it and it’s all fluffy and airy and everyone thinks they like that. But they really don’t. Because when they have this” – he pulls a sample of Zentopia out of the freezer – “it’s very dense and very flavorful. Cream’s expensive. So the ice cream companies whip a lot of air into it. What sets gourmet or homemade ice cream apart is the fact that the finished product is really rich and dense.”
Coffee ice cream sounds like a normal flavor, but his isn’t. He calls it “coffee bean cream.”
“I make it with an Italian roast, so it’s extremely rich,” he says. “I’ll dig around on the internet and find recipes for coffee ice cream that say, Put instant coffee in there. But eventually, I find a recipe that says, Take a whole pound of the finest Italian roast beans that you can get. Put them in there and let them steep a long time. The result is so much better than anything that most people do.”
There’s maple whisky, and honey and cinnamon, “everyone’s favorite,” he says. “Let me grab a spoon for you. Do you like coffee? Are you a coffee drinker?”
The coffee bean cream is a blast of delicious dark roast. He offers a spoonful of the honey and cinnamon. It’s an explosion of cinnamon, with a delicate play of honey.
“Basically, I use honey mostly instead of sugar, but I still use a bit of sugar,” he says of preparing the latter. “And then I put cinnamon in, and I might warm it up to let it incorporate, to release the flavor.”
Ice cream takes time to “ripen,” he says. A lot of people like it right out of the machine, when it’s nice and creamy and it’s almost like soft-serve. But for the flavors to “go live,” it needs to sit in the freezer for 24 hours.
“It’s one of those weird chemical mysteries,” he says.
Rhiel’s good friend Dave Harkins pops by. Harkins tries the honey cinnamon.
“That’s awesome,” he says.
“It is good, huh?” says Rhiel.
“Yeah, really good,” says Harkins.
Rhiel offers him a taste of maple whisky, which uses Jamison’s after a brief fling with Canadian Mist.
“I realized that I’ve got to use really high-end whiskey,” Rhiel says.
Harkins likes the product, but firmly advocates for Southern Comfort.
“Get you a bottle of Southern Comfort,” Harkins says. “I’m serious. I made French toast with it and it was awesome.”
“Southern Comfort is a little sweeter than most,” he says.
“That’s why you need to use it, man,” says Harkins.
“You know, I will try that,” says Rhiel.
Rhiel has been in construction and boatbuilding all his life, but he’s always had fun cooking at home for his family. Last winter, what with the economic slump, he got laid off. He got a job cooking for a local deli. It didn’t take long to realize he enjoyed the work. It felt like it made sense to start up his own food venture, even though money was tight. Partly, he says, that’s because food will always be a necessity, whereas jobs to build new homes and boats can be hard to come by in hard times. Plus, there will always be enough people flocking to the area for its special experience. And making rich ice cream with interesting flavors could be part of that special experience.
Then again, there’s his own dismay about the state of the world in general and the food industries in particular that drive him to want to boost people’s awareness about the value of locally produced products.
“The way the economy has been going, food is going to be a real issue,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to get into it. Ice cream is a luxury, but depending on how the economy goes, if you want to make money or you want to trade stuff, food is it. I see it as a real tangible thing. I’m a good carpenter, and I could be building boats or I could be building entertainment systems, but I don’t think entertainment systems are going to be a real big deal. I think food is important.”
Rhiel talks about “Big Government” and “Big Business” activities, such as bans on raw milk, production of genetically modified foods, and raids on cottage-industry food producers.
“All the small farms are disappearing,” he says. “People are so disconnected from what food actually is. Kids don’t grow up on farms anymore; the government is making it harder for people to have small farms….And that’s part of what my mission is. Right now I’m scattered, trying to put this together. But once this runs smoothly, when people come in for ice cream, I plan to have information about what’s going on with agriculture. I want people to come for ice cream and enjoy, but I want them to leave thinking about, Why would the government shut down lemonade stands? I want to foster awareness.”
Part of his mission is to work with the Common Good board of directors to renovate the building’s commercial kitchen and make it available to others who want to start local businesses, food or otherwise. In addition to rent, he plans to give at least 10 percent of profits to the soup kitchen. He’s contributed a bunch of ice cream to fundraisers for the Common Good and for the community radio station WERU. He’s partnering with Smith Family Farm in Bar Harbor to incorporate its raw milk into his product, which he pasteurizes, and to develop a line of frozen yogurts.
He says that Sawyer’s Market in Southwest Harbor has agreed to carry his ice cream, and he is developing other outlets.
Mostly, all he really needs is for people to try the product.
“I get a ton of positive feedback,” he says. “People can tell the difference between good homemade stuff versus store-bought.”
One day a month or so ago, he was finishing up the last day of the last construction job he had taken. He had just made a lot of ice cream in the previous days. His wife popped down to the kitchen, made up a little sign and set it out. Within two hours, seven or eight people had stopped and bought all the ice cream.
“So when she picked me up from work,” he says, “she said, ‘Hey, you’re open.’”