by Daniel Yeom
OddFellows Ice Cream Company’s kitchen looks more like a chemistry lab than an orthodox patisserie’s kitchen. Huge whiteboards with scribbles hang from the wall, a liquid nitrogen tank sits quietly in the background, and large metallic machines continuously hum loudly. The only hint that tells you that this spacious room is in fact a kitchen is the spice rack. Cartons of eclectic spices like cardamom pods, long peppercorn, cumin seeds, garam masala, and barley malt powder stack up against a large glass window that looks out to the service area.
Sam Mason, the chef and a part-owner of the ice cream parlor, works away diligently in the futuristic kitchen.
“I’m making a pumpkin cheesecake ice cream,” says Mason as he crumbles frozen chunks of pumpkin cheesecake with the back of a rubber spatula. “I baked the cake this morning, then I froze them by putting liquid nitrogen over it.” He takes the cheesecake crumbles and spreads them evenly on the bottom of a ice cream container. Later, he will be folding them in to housemade pumpkin ice cream alongside brown butter croutons.
Dubbed “one of the most progressive culinary voice working in America today” by StarChefs, Sam Mason’s name is synonymous with creative and innovative desserts that bridge the gap between food and science. Most people recognize him from his tenure as a pastry chef at Wylie Dufrense’s wd~50, the temple of modernist cuisine – more commonly referred to as molecular gastronomy – in the Lower East Side of New York City. However, the 39-year-old’s impressive portfolio extends way further.
After spending his childhood in Jacksonville, Florida (“It is really not much to talk about,” says Mason), Mason headed north to Rhode Island to attend the world-famous culinary arts program at Johnson & Wales University. During his time at school, Mason studied the art of dessert making. “At the time, [making desserts] was a more artistic approach to cooking,” explains Mason. “Although the rest of the culinary world has caught up recently, I still think it is more artistic.”
Upon graduation, Mason moved to New York City. Through hard work, Mason got to work with some of the most celebrated chefs in the United States’ culinary world; Paul Liebrant and Jean-Louis Palladin. Mason talks especially fondly of the latter. “He is like a father to me,” he remarks.
Moving between NYC and Las Vegas, he honed his skills in the celebrated fine dining kitchens of Palladin, Union Pacific, Atlas, and Park Avenue Café, slowly making a name for himself. His career seemed to be on a smooth track.
However, in 2001, the traumatic event that haunted millions of New Yorkers drastically changed Mason’s priorities; the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. “9/11 happened. I suddenly fell out of love with cooking. I fell out of love with everything, actually.” Mason stopped cooking for a year and did not plan on returning to kitchen in the foreseeable future.
Luckily for food lovers, Chef Wylie Dufrense successfully convinced Mason to return to the culinary scene in 2002 by joining his new restaurant as a pastry chef.
“I said no. I said no twice, actually,” Mason says as he waves his spatula around. “Then I looked at my bank account, and then I said yes.”
The rest is history. Inspired by legendary restaurants that specialize in modernist cuisine like elBuili by Ferran Adria in Spain and the Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal in England, Dufrense and Mason introduced a whole new genre of cooking to the United States; wd~50 was born. A fine dining establishment that embraces the scientific approach to gastronomy, wd~50 assembled a team of inspirational chefs, most of whom went on to make name for themselves. The impressive line of alums and associates include Alex Stupak, who now serves arguably the best Mexican cuisine in NYC at his Empellon restaurants; Christina Tosi, the executive patisserie at Momofuku Milk Bar; and, of course, Sam Mason. They are all big-name movers and shakers of New York City culinary scene.
“I don’t want to call ourselves forerunners of the movement, but we were,” Mason reminisces. “Everything was really difficult. We didn’t have any recipe. Machines were so hard to get. But it was a lot of fun at the same time.”
In 2007, Mason left wd~50 to open his own restaurant, Tailor. “I left because I had an opportunity to open my own restaurant.” An ambitious attempt to challenge the palates of New Yorkers, critically-acclaimed Tailor unfortunately shuttered after a couple of years due to economic hardship; “it was too overzealous,” says Mason.
In 2009, Mason starred in a television show Dinner with the Band on IFC, where he invited underground indie rock musicians to his Brooklyn loft for a meal and discuss both food and music. He blended in perfectly with the musicians. With both arms covered in sleeve tattoos, horn-rimmed glasses and a pirate mustache, Mason resembles a “hipster” rockstar himself.
But what is a celebrated fine dining chef like Sam Mason doing in the kitchen of an ice cream shop? That’s when Mohan Kumar comes into the picture. During his time at wd~50, Mason was first introduced to his friend and business partner, Mohan Kumar. “I met Mohan because he was best-friend/roommate of one of the servers [at the restaurant],” recalls Mason. The pair would fortuitously came across the idea to open OddFellow’s Ice Cream Company.
“My wife was pregnant, and I was telling Sam about all the stuff she was eating,” says Kumar. “One day, Sam came over with a pint of his signature pretzel ice cream. It was gone in minutes. Then she went, ‘you guys should really sell this.’ That’s when this all began.” Today, Oddfellows is co-owned by Mason, Kumar, and Holiday Kumar, Mohan’s wife.
“We felt like New York is underserved with great ice cream,” Mason insists. We wanted to bring quality ice cream to the city.”
Opened last June, OddFellows Ice Cream Company made an instant impact on New York’s ice cream scene with the oddest flavor combinations of desserts New York had ever seen. Where else in the city would you find crazy ice cream flavors like Miso, Butterscotch, & Cherry; Tobacco Leaf-Smoked Chili & Huckleberry; Rose, Raspberry, with Pink Peppercorn; and Beet, Pistachio, Honey, & Goat Cheese? What’s the oddest ice cream that came out of the kitchen at OddFellow’s? Both Mason and Kumar agree: Caramelized Onion.
“During the first 50 days of the service, we made over 50 flavors of ice cream. But that was just me being stupid,” admits Mason. “People would try a flavor, come back a few days later, and wouldn’t be able to find what they liked on the menu.” He points to a spreadsheet hanging on the wall that keeps track of all the flavor offerings that the store has ever done. The list is pretty long, well over a hundred, and accurately testify Mason’s culinary genius and creativity. “I’ve been [making desserts] for so long, I don’t have to actually try things to know what they taste like,” says Mason. “I just go for it.”
“When we first started, I wanted to be on top of everything,” says Kumar. “I always wanted to know what flavors Sam planned on making. But now I gave up. I just let him surprise me.”
Mason Kumar are confident that OddFellows have something for everyone. “We have 12 flavors a day. [Because of] the way Sam curates it, anyone can walk in and find what they like,” asserts Kumar confidently. “If you can’t find anything you want, then I don’t know what to tell you.” Mason half-jokingly adds; “they didn’t want ice cream at all.”
Mason and Kumar’s confidence is justified. The array of different flavors displayed on the counter is enchanting. The day of my visit, the store offered delicious concoctions like Tahitian Vanilla, Sencha, Burnt Caramel, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
“We try to keep things seasonal,” says Mason, hinting that he creates ice cream appropriate all year around. “Right now, I am working on ice cream with stuff like gingerbread, candy cane, and peppermint.”
Susan Liu, a Morningside Heights resident who made a special trip across the river to Williamsburg to try Mason’s ice cream, was pleasantly surprised. “I got a scoop each of Pecan Pie and Burnt Caramel,” says Liu. “Although December is not the perfect time of the year for ice cream, the flavors here work beautifully. It’s really delicious.”