Arnold Carbone Ice Cream Flavor Developer
It’s hard to imagine that the head of R&D at Ben & Jerry’s is not a trained food scientist, but here you are. Didn’t you actually go to art school? Take me through the journey where you ended up in Vermont formulating the cultural inheritances we call Cherry Garcia and New York Super Fudge Chunk.
My migration to Vermont is quite a tale. I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, part of a very extended large Italian family, always surrounded by good food, love and the usual characters that makes Philly, especially South Philly – Rocky! Rocky! – famous. At fifteen, I worked in an Italian restaurant slinging pizzas. Everything I learned about cooking I learned from my mom, grandmother, and experimenting. My formal education was attaining a Doctorate in Survival from attending an all-boys, inner-city Catholic high school, graduating to a two year stint with the Antonelli’s School of Photography where I learned the fine art of studio photography. The end.
In my early twenties, after a six week trip to Europe with my brother Ken, which is a story in itself, I decided that there was more to life than Philadelphia. I stuck out my thumb and hitched to Vermont to see if I could find work for the summer.
Fast forward. After six years working in the tourist industry and ten years as a professional photographer I applied for a job in this new upstart company, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade. The company seemed to be a good fit for my values and new enough to offer a wide range of opportunities for someone like myself who at that time had informally worked at over thirty different jobs. After being rejected three different times by various “managers” at Ben & Jerry’s, I finally got hired as a manager at one of their scoop shops because the previous manager had walked off with the night’s bank deposit. I worked as a scoop shop manager for about two years and then applied and was hired as an assistant flavor developer. Cherry Garcia and New York Super Fudge Chunk had already been born by then, so the first flavor that I developed was Second Hand Rose – cardamom rose ice cream with roasted pistachios. It was inspired by rasmali, the classic Indian dessert. Unfortunately the flavor was never launched. During consumer testing, one tester noted the flavor reminded them of how their grandmother smelled. I don’t know why that was a bad thing. I loved my grandmother.
What are you doing these days at Ben & Jerry’s? Still creating flavors?
Officially, I’m the “Conductor of Bizarre & D,” a.k.a Director of R&D. I consider myself an artist and entrepreneur. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I’ve developed hundreds of flavors over the years. The last one that I can talk about is Baked Alaska — vanilla ice cream, white chocolate polar bears, and marshmallow swirl. Don’t run out to buy it though, as it’s only available in Europe. I officially retire in about three months though, so the past few years I’ve actually been developing flavor developers more than ice cream flavors.
What does that entail? I envision ice cream hangovers.
The flavor “gurus,” as they are sometimes referred to, do need to eat a lot of great and not-so-great ice cream — the competition — and they also need to be very strong project mangers. We have a very, tight, small group that works independently on the flavor creations from the cradle to the flavor graveyard. This takes a person who knows how to build business relationships internally and externally with an assertive positive attitude. The ice cream business is extremely dynamic, and flavor gurus need to work with a sense of urgency and instill the same momentum with many cross functional team mates. Making wise well thought out decisions independently is always encouraged. I always say it’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. It never hurts to go rogue on a project every now and then.
So what’s a project you had to go rogue on?
Well, nothing is ever done illegally. It’s a reference to thinking outside the box in order to come up with creative solutions. The way we get to developing great flavors is something we rarely discuss or everyone would be doing it.
Can you tell me about Ben & Jerry’s approach to flavors abstractly? You came on board fairly early, or instrumentally, in the development of the brand, and I want to know if there is a general flavor profile the company aims for. Most of the flavors I’ve tried are generally very rich and sweet — something you’d typically want in an ice cream. But there are many new scoop joints that are increasingly playing with savory and even herbaceous ingredients.
Ben & Jerry’s has numerous flavors that we have worked with over the years with a savory twist. Fred & Ginger — ginger ice cream with a chocolate fudge swirl — was one about fifteen years ago, but not too many others have ever seen the light of day except for a new Spiced Chocolate ice cream that will soon be launched in our scoop shops this year. Our approach to developing flavors is basically searching for that “Wow” factor — leaving the customer with the “How did they ever think of putting those ingredients together?” feeling. When we developed Creme Brulee ice cream, we wanted to make sure we simulated the custard flavor notes and the crispy burnt sugar top of a Creme Brulee. I think we did a pretty good job by adding a burnt sugar swirl and increasing the egg in the ice cream base to give it that custard flavor. In the end, it usually comes down to the chunks and swirls. It’s what our customers are looking for. We make fabulous smooth chocolate and vanilla ice creams that always score very high, if not win, in consumer taste tests; but our customers don’t think of us as a smooth ice cream and end up going for the chunks. My current favorite B&J flavor is our Fair Trade Chocolate ice cream — a splash of Bailey’s over the top doesn’t hurt either.