Earlier this year, Kelly Chu, co-owner of one of West Ashley’s favorite and most-lauded restaurants, Red Orchids, shocked the gelato world by taking first place in a national competition for the best iced dessert in the country.
Chu was competing against a raft of other competitors from across America at the hallowed James Beard House, a center for this nation’s culinary advances for several decades.
From scratch, Chu and her aptly named right-hand Matt Cook, whipped up a coconut gelato with black and pink peppercorns folded in, adorned with cinnamon-candied pineapple flowers they had made by hand.
Their win means that in September they will be heading to the city of Rimini, Italy’s favorite Adriatic resort town, to duke it out with 33 other gelato makers from around the globe for the world championship.
“We’re still working on what we’re going to make,” says Chu.
Chu had been running a sideline business in addition to Red Orchids on a full-time basis, Cirsea, which churns out delicacy-level ice creams for 38 higher-end restaurants across the region.
The ice cream company, housed in an undisclosed West Ashley strip mall, also fills refrigerated boxes at several coffee shops and the like. Chu doesn’t want to reveal the address because she doesn’t have the time yet to deal with customers showing up to buy single pints.
Cirsea outs out flavors like toasted black sesame, strawberry goat cheese, and vanilla black pepper ice creams, as well as strawberry sorbet.
They make so much ice cream, even for such a small manufacturer, they now have to get their heavy cream from Borden because the local artisan creamery they were using couldn’t keep up, says Chu.
Chu got her start in ice cream scooping up handmade creations at the restaurant she co-owns with her husband, Tony. Cayenne-spiked chocolate became a favorite of many diners, showing that West Ashley was becoming more or a “foodie” community.
Tony couldn’t be prouder of his wife’s success.
“I’m so happy for her,” says Tony as he unpacks artisan bourbons and beers behind the bar, staining one of his favorite shirts in the process. “She has phenomenal taste buds all by herself.”
Tony says he is his wife’s biggest fan and primary guinea pig. Every time she concocts a new winning flavor at work, he gets to try it. But, he says, if he likes it too much, he’ll never get another bite of it.
“Otherwise I’d eat through the inventory,” he says. Tony puts her bourbon pecan ice cream near the top of his list of favorites.
All of the flavors are solid, after extensive research done by the author of this story. Creamy and smooth, they somehow avoid being too dense or (the downfall of most grocery chain flavors) too sweet. The lychee flavor doesn’t seem like it would work, but Chu dials down what can be a cloyingly sweet fruit into a flavor that profile that coats the tongue without pushing the palate into diabetes.
(Extensive research, remember, done on behalf of the reader.)
Chu says she won’t feel pressure when she competes this fall in Italy. “I’ll just do my best and leave it at that,” she says with a smile that crowds out the rest of her face.
Ironically, once she competes on the world stage, Chu said her next effort will be to crack local farmer’s markets. When she first applied, she knew she didn’t have enough “local” ingredients. This last year, she missed the application deadline.
So this year it will be first the world and then West Ashley.