What Inspires Jeni Britton Bauer

"It’s fun to think, What if this thing I see was a flavor?"

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Jeni Britton Bauer put artisanal ice cream on the map in 2002 with her namesake brand, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, which has scoop shops from coast to coast. She’s also published two cookbooks, and Fast Company named her of the most creative people in business. She shared her life’s story with us while making a chocolate cake at her home in Columbus, Ohio.

I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and ice cream is just something we do in the Midwest. We have it every weekend in the summer and spring and even in the winter; we eat it before bed. I grew up loving ice cream. Even when I was a kid I knew I wanted my first job to be at an ice-cream shop. When I turned 15, one opened in my neighborhood, so I got a work permit and got that job. Ice cream has been a lifelong thing.
Ice cream is something we do in the Midwest.

I was studying art at Ohio State and trying to figure out what I was going to do. When you study art, everybody wants to know what you're actually going to do as a career, for money. I was working in a French pastry shop, baking everything from scratch, and I thought about going into pastry, but I couldn't afford the school. I was making pastry at the bakery and at home, and then I started making ice cream.

A French friend from the bakery was in grad school at Ohio State for scent and chemistry. He and I talked about this a lot, and I’d discovered my own love of scent and thought, Maybe I should be a perfumer? I thought about how flavor is scent and then thought, Maybe I should use ice cream as a carrier for scent? Butter fat is perfect because of its melting point — upon skin contact, it’ll release scent. It’s unlike a cookie, where you bake out a lot of those ingredients in the heat of the oven. 
Maybe I should use ice cream as a carrier for scent?
I figured out that I could lock vanilla into the butter fat, and all of these things I was studying at the time came together: the idea of scent and carriers of scent and ancient perfumers and pastry and art and telling stories. Regular American ice cream was all about junk food — which is delicious and fun — or it was nostalgic. I thought, What if I could make ice cream that spoke more to my generation — to people on dates and people interested in telling stories or having conversation over ice cream? That's how it started, and I think that's still where it is. 

Everything has nostalgia. We're trying to start conversations, whether it's something you have that feels like a memory that puts you back in time, or something new that enlightens and surprises and delights. We walk that line between nostalgia and new, distant and familiar.

When I was a kid in Illinois, my grandparents owned 10 acres of forest land. My grandmother was an artist, and my grandfather was a naturalist. We had honey bees and tapped our maple trees, and we had 12 gardens growing berries and mushrooms and various things, which we’d pick throughout the seasons. During berry season, which was a few weeks every summer, we’d take all of the wild berries and turn them into brambleberry jam and make crisps. Our Brambleberry Crisp flavor is inspired by the crisps we’d made out of the forest berries; my grandmother called them “brambleberries” because brambles are the thorny berry bushes. She’d serve it with ice cream and an oat streusel on top — it was delicious. 
We walk that line between nostalgia and new, distant and familiar.
Then there’s Brown Butter Almond Brittle, which was inspired by Roald Dahl — we read a lot of Roald Dahl as a kid, and I would say I come from the Roald Dahl school of entrepreneurship, where it’s about community and building a world. Butter and cream and almonds are the flavors of the Midwest — we're really drawn to them. There's just something about those soft flavors that reminds me of my childhood.

The flavors I make always go back to a human being who made or grew or produced an ingredient. We'll work with a farmer who's excited to grow something or has something, or we’ll get a sample from somebody who's making something, or there's a specific whiskey that has certain notes, and I want to mirror those flavors. There’s a magic when you're eating their stuff — you can feel the intention. It always ends up being a person who has an ingredient they want me to see who inspires me more than a single ingredient.
The flavors I make always go back to a human being who made or grew or produced an ingredient.

I’m also inspired by stories and pop culture. I used to work at a library, so whenever I'm short on ideas or have writer's block, I’ll go to a library and pull a book off the shelf, and I’ll try to make a flavor out of the first sentence I see. I’ve done this for years, and I can always do it — it’s like a map. You can figure out a flavor just by following a sentence. It’s a very fun exercise. 

Sometimes I’m inspired by things I see. One time I drove by a beautiful lemon-yellow ‘69 Camaro in the middle of a cornfield. I thought, If that was a flavor, it would be hay and chamomile and hard lemon candy. It’s fun to think, What if this thing I see was a flavor? It’s like synesthesia.

It’s fun to think, What if this thing I see was a flavor? 

I saw MOMA’s Matisse exhibit six years ago. I grew up with those cutout paintings in my bedroom, but seeing that blue in person — it felt like it sucked all of the moisture out of the air. It was just this incredible tart blue; I felt like I could taste it, and I had to go make flavors inspired by it, which turned into the COLORS collection.

I'm lucky to have spent a lot of my life in the creative space. I think creativity happens in a different realm, a spiritual realm. It’s that flow state where time doesn't matter anymore, and you get into this place where you're just making something. And when I'm not in that space I'm trying to get there. 

When I'm creating flavors or when I'm cooking, I can just keep going without eating, without drinking, without going to the bathroom. Even with writing and painting — I’m not as good at those as I am at making ice cream, but it still becomes that for me.

There are a few moments in developing a flavor that are actually emotional. When I feel that it's right, it makes me feel a certain way — you know it when you hit it. I can see other people on my team feel that, too, and it’s almost always when I get there — it’s wonderful. But that doesn't necessarily mean it’ll work out in the world or that everybody will be interested in it. I spend a lot of time watching other people eat, and they don’t know I’m watching them, watching their reaction. So if you ever see somebody staring at you very intensely in my shop, it's probably me creeping on your moment.

If you ever see somebody staring at you very intensely in my shop, it's probably me.

This is a chocolate cake recipe from Alice Medrich, and it’s awesome. I make a couple of adjustments to it because I like to use a certain kind of cocoa powder, but it’s so easy my daughter can make it. We make it all the time — it's delicious. It's a weird recipe because you make a batter that you pour in the pan, and then you pour a very watery chocolate over it. It’s so watery that it doesn't seem like it's going to work, but it works so well. The steam from the water makes the cake rise. It looks like a dry cake, but it’s soft and moist, and when you spoon it out, that watery sauce turns into the most incredible chocolate sauce. So you serve it hot with ice cream. It really feels like magic because you pour the sauce on the batter, and it kind of turns upside down as it’s cooking. It’s a very dark, striking chocolate cake.

Literally every holiday, every birthday, everybody wants this dish.

The fun part is you can eat it with whatever ice cream you want — Brambleberry Crisp is really good with it, or our black currant champagne sorbet for holiday would be so good with that, and Salty Caramel, Vanilla, Brown Butter, Strawberry in summer or our really tart lemon yogurt. The hot and cold is so good.You can pair it with almost anything, which is probably why we eat it so often here. Literally every holiday, every birthday, everybody wants it.

My favorite thing about Jeni’s is that it feels like a real place — it’s its own world.

I have a different view of entrepreneurship than the traditional capitalist business view. I think it comes more from a place of love and community and passion. My favorite thing about Jeni’s is that it feels like a real place — it’s its own world. We have values, and every single person who's a part of bringing this to life every day — whether it's somebody working in our shop or in our test kitchen or in the art department or in the accounting department — is united by these values of community and love and collaboration, and that guides everything we do. When you step into Jeni’s, you're feeling the pride we all feel for the work we're all getting to do. And it’s never perfect, but that’s part of it. It’s authentic, and no matter which Jeni’s you go to, it feels like you’re stepping into a place that means something.

Photos by Erika Clark.