The Gelato World Tour is coming to Millennium Park this weekend! You all know I love gelato. Years of living in Italy ruined me, and now I can’t turn it down and am constantly on the search for something as good as the scoops I would eat daily in Rome. Luckily for me, gelato shops have been popping up around the US and Matthew Lee, America’s best gelato artisan, is at the forefront of that movement.
Matthew Lee opened his shop Teo in Austin in 2003, and has since won numerous “Best Gelato in America” awards and was voted Top 5 out of 24 in the Gelato World Finals in Rimini, Italy. He was the only American to make it to the finals. When Italians are taste-testing and voting for you and you place in the top 5, you must be doing something right.
I sat down with Matthew ahead of the competition to learn about his interesting path to the gelato world, as well as his signature flavor–Texas Pecan Pie–which will hopefully win you all over at the festival this weekend, and help him move on to Rimini again for this year’s finals.
How did you get into gelato making?
It’s an interesting story, because I grew up in a house with a mom as a chef who ran cooking schools. But I didn’t want to do that, so I went to UT and got my MBA, then went to work in the high-tech world. I worked for a few companies that went public, but realized tech was not my true joy or what I really loved. What I loved was ice cream, but I have a heart condition, so I knew I had to stop eating it because it’s so heavy in fat. I was also starting to have children and realized what they see from us is what they’re gonna do. I knew gelato was healthier but I didn’t know why or how. My brother lived in Italy and when I visited I ate gelato four times a day, and thought ‘how can I be eating this four times a day and not feel gross?’ Then I thought this was a great opportunity to create something new that was not in the market or well known in the US at the time. So I went to Italy to learn how to make gelato. I had to go there. If you’re going to learn to make BBQ you don’t go to NYC, you come to Texas, and if you’re going to learn to make gelato you go to Italy.
So you moved to Florence, and how did it go?
I took lots of classes from various gelato masters. I begged and pleaded for them to let me come and learn everything they knew. I also took classes from equipment companies. What I found was that there was a difference between going to the actual chefs who make the gelato and spending time with them, versus taking more formal classes from people who have equipment and do things on a larger scale. I found that the more informal training was more effective. I got to see what they do inside the shop, learn about the family history, a got to really see what went into making the gelato. Now I go back every year to continue learning.
Did making gelato come naturally to you, or was it a steep learning curve after being in the business world?
It was a steep learning curve, definitely. Luckily my palette was strong. I think that’s because of my mother running cooking schools and being surrounded by really good food most of my life. When I was young I had the chance to tour the top 10 restaurants in France with a chef, which was funny because I went from eating at one of the top restaurants in France on a Thursday to eating dorm food on a Monday. I was lucky to have those experiences and learn about food from a young age.
Ok so tell me about this Texas Pecan Pie flavor. It sounds amazing! But is it so far from Italian tradition that it could hurt you in the Gelato World Tour?
Being from Texas, I noticed we have flavors that are unique to this region. Pecans are very popular and we’re known for our pecan pie and whiskey (or hooch as we call it). I use native Texas pecans, an award-winning local whiskey, and pair those together with some good homemade caramel sauce. Combining flavors that aren’t prevalent in the rest of the country but are still familiar is what makes this flavor so popular.
You have to be inventive, but not so inventive you turn people away. Italians are very traditional, but a lot of traditional gelato flavors include nuts, and this flavor was voted high in the popular vote last year, so I think that gives us a good shot. Being the only competitor from the US I want to try something different. It has unique flavors, a lot of layers of flavor, and people really love it.
In order for Matthew to make it to the world finals, he has to score well in Chicago, where 60% of the score comes from the popular vote. So get out to Millennium Park and try some Texas Pecan Pie! The festival runs from May 27-29 and tickets are only $10. You can buy them here.