Ice Cream Genius

Is there anything Tyler Malek can't put in a frozen scoop?
Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Tyler Malek makes ice cream like you can’t imagine.

No, really. You can’t imagine.

Melon and prosciutto. Bone Marrow and Bourbon-Soaked Cherries. Mint-Scented Sea Urchin Meringue. Loaded Baked Potato. Arbequina Olive Oil. Avocado and Strawberry sherbet.

Seasonally, there’s a Thanksgiving meal of flavors, including turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, one of Malek’s favorite creations.

“I don’t consider (it) weird at all,” he says. “It makes perfect sense to me.”

That figures. Malek, 27, and a 2010 Western graduate in East Asian Studies, is the creative mind behind the flavors of Portland’s Salt & Straw ice cream company.

Anyone can make attention-getting flavors. But getting people to not only try them (S&S encourages sampling) but love them is another story.

Malek joined his cousin, Kim Malek, a former Fortune 500 marketing executive, in 2011 when she launched the business from an ice cream cart.

Since then, the company has grown to four shops (three in Portland, one in L.A.) and 150 employees, occupying a place in Portland’s hip food culture scene. Tyler was named to the 2015 Forbes magazine “30 under 30” list in the Food and Wine category. The business recently appeared on the Travel Network’s Bizarre Foods show.

When a recent photo went viral of vice president Joe Biden, wearing aviator sunglasses and licking an ice-cream cone, Biden was savoring a Salt & Straw cone of Freckled Woodblock Chocolate during a Portland campaign stop.

In the cutthroat food industry where recipes can be closely guarded secrets, Malek networks and collaborates with area chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, roasters, food growers, distillers and others for flavors in keeping with the company’s “farm-to-cone” philosophy.

While studying Chinese and business at Western, Malek traveled to China and, after graduation, returned to Asia to travel and work. Then he realized he wanted to be home.

“All my friends were teaching English and starting careers in China,” says Malek, from Lake Stevens. “I wanted to be able to integrate myself into the community here.”

He decided on culinary school. About the same time, his cousin was ditching her high-profile career in corporate marketing to start an ice-cream company.

With a name like Salt & Straw – derived from the pre-refrigeration method of keeping ice cream frozen – it has to be good.

The company features eight to 10 “classics” (Sea Salt and Caramel is most popular). Malek oversees a crew that creates six or seven new flavors a month. Popular ones return in a year. Seasonal flavors are developed six months in advance. For every flavor that works, they throw out four, Malek says.

“I’m kind of a romantic when it comes to food,” Malek says. “The cool thing about ice cream is you don’t have to have it. It’s so celebratory in nature. So when someone finally comes and they take the time to spend the money and the time and the calories to at ice cream, you know it’s special.”

Meri-Jo Borzilleri is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Seattle Metropolitan magazine. She'll take chocolate chip ice cream any day.

Photo by Leela Cyd Ross