Adventures in Ice Cream
Updated Spring 2023| Summer 2019 | By Layla Ferris ’18
Ellie Zitsman ’07 never expected to travel the world or land a job dreaming up one-of-a-kind ice cream flavors.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies (now called interdisciplinary studies), she packed up and worked in London for six months before catching “the travel bug.”
During the next two years, she immersed herself in the cultures of 52 countries — including Norway, Croatia, South Korea and Laos.
“I would come home to St. Augustine and work in restaurants as a server and bartender, and then go back to traveling,” Zitsman says. “When I was traveling, I was eating really great food and taking cooking classes in Thailand and Mexico.”
Those food-inspired journeys abroad ignited a passion for cooking, which she applied at the Natural Gourmet Institute, a culinary school in New York City.
After several years of working long hours in fine-dining kitchens, Zitsman found stability in her next career stop: as a baker at Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream in New York City. She helped make “inclusions,” which are cake bits, cookie pieces or anything else added into the ice cream.
In December 2017, she pitched an idea to create a new position at Van Leeuwen to help concoct new flavors and handle product development logistics.
“I use a lot of my culinary interests from around the world for flavor creations. Traveling really gave me the background and confidence to do a position like this. I think that was a big part of getting this job.”Ellie Zitsman ’07
“I wanted to spend more time researching food trends, planning our menus and testing recipes before releasing new flavors,” Zitsman says. “Seasonal flavors and new additions to our core menu are what continue to keep us relevant, and I didn’t want that aspect to fall through the cracks.”
The company took a chance and made Zitsman head of research and development.
What is a typical day on the job like?
“I’m technically a department of one. I would say 70 percent of my time is in the office in Brooklyn. A lot of my job is sourcing quality ingredients and doing a lot of work on the supply chain side, and then I’m also writing recipes. I create the seasonal menus of four new flavors that switch out about every six weeks.”
What do you consider when making new flavors?
“It’s really a combination of what’s trending in the dessert world, what’s available seasonally as far as foods go, things I’ve seen that excite me and what’s popular on social media. I tend to follow my instincts to create trends. I’m currently working on releasing a dairy- and nut-free oat milk line, making oat milk from organic oats in house.”
What’s your favorite flavor you’ve created?
“Vegan passion fruit, which was specially created for our 10th anniversary in the summer of 2018. It was really beautiful because we used natural food dye from beet juice and purple carrot extract. It was a yellow ice cream with pink and purple cake bits, and the look of it was based off the color and design of Van Leeuwen’s first ice cream truck.”
What projects do research and development work on?
“One of my big missions last year was to get our Los Angeles locations on the same schedule as Brooklyn and sync up the releases of new flavors. Right now, we have 16 stores in NYC and LA, and we’re adding six more. Our wholesale pints are in some Whole Foods, so hopefully we’re going national with that this year.”
How did your travels shape who you are professionally?
“I use a lot of my culinary interests from around the world for flavor creations. Traveling really gave me the background and confidence to do a position like this. I think that was a big part of getting this job.”
What do you see in your future?
“In the long run, I want to definitely be involved in sharing my knowledge and finding some way to teach and pass along the things that I’ve learned. Maybe one day I’ll have some kind of teaching kitchen.”