Life is a bowl of gelato
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
The year is 2059. Mr. Christopher Cazenave is his usually self, happy and laughing as he runs his fingers through his white hair, then twists the ends of his equally snowy thick moustache. Cazenave rumbles in laughter. The place is Des Moines and the jolly old gelato-master is making a stop at Gaspare’s Geletoria #989 just to make sure everything passes muster.
“I’d like to try the panna cotta Italian cake gelato,” says the tall, stylish woman leaning over the counter filled with Cazenave’s rainbow of Italian delights.
The woman’s words snap Cazenave back to the present. At once, it’s 2009 again and Cazenave is the 23-year-old passionate purveyor of gelato: the man who “lives and breathes gelato,” and who has put his Tulane University education on hold while he sets out to show the world that mere “caramel crunch ice cream in one of those cardboard containers” is as déclassé as … well, as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream in those cardboard containers.
“I am absolutely passionate about gelato,” Cazenave says. “It’s been that way since I was a junior at Jesuit [High School]. During that summer I went to Lucca, a little village just outside of Florence in Italy where my aunt has some property. In that little village there is a geletoria on just about every block and I became more and more interested in the making of gelato.”
He continues, “I’d go into a different shop each day and order gelato and hang around and watch the old gelato ‘masters’ – old men with white moustaches who had been making gelato for decades. I asked questions of them endlessly. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian; still we seemed to communicate. I hated for that summer to end. I would guess during that three months I went into every geletoria in Lucca. I was fascinated. In truth, I was hooked.
“I knew we had imitation gelato and what’s called Italian ices back in New Orleans, but what I was eating and experiencing in Italy. This was the real thing. This was old world.”
Some guys who spend a summer in Italy come home with memories of a stunning Italian woman they glimpsed in the plaza and just couldn’t get off their mind. “Not Christopher,” says his mother, Joy Cazenave. “He called me before he got home. He kept telling me about the old men and the gelato they made. He went on and on. Some kids talk incessantly about things like going to Yankee Stadium. Not Christopher. It was ‘Gelato! Gelato! Gelato!’ Right then and there he told me this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. I told his father. We both smiled and agreed thinking this would pass. I mean some adolescents talk about wanting to go to medical school and then it changes to wanting to become a lawyer, then an accountant. Not Christopher. It was all gelato from the beginning. He really threw himself into this. Before long, he had a business plan complete with financing and marketing laid out. He knew what he knew about the business and, just as importantly, he knew what he didn’t know. It was then that we started to feel that we had a gelato master-in-the-making in our family.”
In truth, Cazenave’s gelato underpinnings go back to his days as a youngster when he used to help his grandfather, Gasper Trapani, hand crank ice cream in old wooden buckets.
“Man, talk about wearing your arm out,” Cazenave says. “But that’s how we did it. I carry the memories of those hand-cranking days with my grandfather with me to this day. That’s why I used his name for the store. I added the ‘e’ to his name and made it ‘Gaspare’s’ to make it sound a little more Italian.”
But a man who admits that he has little time for ladies in his life because, “my first love is gelato” isn’t about to just hang out a shingle that sounds Italian.
Cazenave read every book about gelato he found and picked every “gelato brain” he could track down. He also delayed the opening of Gaspare’s while he attended culinary school and packed in still more information about gelato.
And, please don’t ever call it “Italian ice cream” or merely an “Italian ice.” Any such mention is like pressing a button on the “everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-gelato answer machine: gelato is less dense than ice cream…14 percent fat content as opposed to as high as 30 percent or even 40 percent fat in ice cream…”
“I’m tellin’ ya, sometimes it keeps me awake nights,” Cazenave says. “Two o’clock in the morning I’m thinkin’, what kind of special flavor can I come up with for Mardi Gras?” (It is a given that gelato masters hold their most creative conversations with themselves in the wee hours.) “How about ‘King Cake’ gelato? Sounds good! Let’s go with it. Valentines Day? I know you say that’s a tough one. Did you ever come up with an answer? Chocolate-covered strawberry gelato! Sounds great! By the way … inserting tiny cinnamon rolls into the cinnamon roll gelato was a stroke of genius.”
Cazenave is positively obsessive that everything about his gelato must be Italian. Even the glass case, which showcases the kaleidoscope of colorful gelato, was made in and shipped from Italy. The gelato making machines come from Italy as do the ingredients, which leave the Italian mainland and end up in Cazenave’s geletoria in Metairie via a company in Baltimore.
In addition to the middle-of-the-night conversations with himself on research and development, the gelato tycoon wannabe pushes the limits of the 24-hour day. He spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week in his store.
“Ya gotta do whatever it takes,” he says.
Two suits walk into Cazenave’s gelato emporium and these guys have the worst hangdog looks on their faces one could imagine. They are bemoaning the recession and arguing over who’s to blame before turning to Cazenave, who’s leaning on the top of the glass case.
“What’s that red flavor there,” Mr. Worry Wart No. 1 asks.
“That’s cherries jubilee gelato,” Cazenave says. “It has fewer calories.”
“Calories?” the guy says. “My 401K has tanked and you think I’m worried about calories? Gimme a scoop. No! Wait! Make that two big scoops.”
Mr. Worry Wart gulps down a big spoonful of cherries jubilee gelato and a major stock-market-killing smile crosses his face. He turns to his buddy, Alvin, who by now is easing into a double of watermelon gelato.
“Recession be damned!” Alvin says.
“See what I mean?” Cazenave asks. “Gelato is a happy food. Where else ya gonna find smiles like that.”
The young gelato master he roars in laughter and it’s easy to see how he can envision himself in Des Moines 50 years from now.