Ginger’s Comfort Emporium’s symbolic home is a candy-floss pink ice cream van; it’s menu written in swirly technicolour, with flavours that often sound like something from Alice in Wonderland: Marmalade on Toast, Pear and Tonka bean, the Green Genie. It’s ice cream, but done differently, and it unexpectedly feels very adult, with Absinthe, Gin and Chilli all being part of the current menu.
The business was started by chef-turned-food stylist, Claire Kelsey, following her growing disillusionment with the commercial food industry – a world obsessed with the way food looks, and not necessarily taste. Gingers now has a cafe, a book and a future in wholesale. I caught up with Claire to talk about the commercial food industry, festivals, cook-books, and opening people’s eyes to flavours beyond Vanilla.
What did you do before starting Gingers Comfort Emporium? I’ve always worked in food; I started off in kitchens. I’ve worked at a few good restaurants like Le Mont, the French restaurant at the top of Urbis.
One day I was at Le Mont and a film crew came in. They asked me to help them do some prep work, and it was then that I realised that food styling was a ‘thing’. After that I looked into it a bit, then I quit my job and had a go at finding some freelance work (working with photographers).
I was 26 when I started food styling after getting a portfolio together with photographer Ray Chan. Ray’s not a food photographer and I wasn’t a food stylist at the time, but we did actually get some decent pictures out of it. I then started to go round and meet photographers, and I eventually started getting work.
I ended up doing the food styling for about 7 years. It was really well paid and it was a really interesting job. There’s nothing better than being freelance – I actually would have put up with most situations just so that I could’ve been independent. There were great parts and we went to some really interesting locations with some really interesting people (for example, Marco Pierre White) and we worked in some really cool restaurants and on some great film sets. There was always something new to learn.
In the North West the food styling scene is predominantly based around Asda and Morrissons because their HQs (and (PR depts) are both based up here. The work was mainly making a lasagne look good, or a cottage pie, and a lot of it was from the ‘Value’ range. I had to do jobs like separating the mincemeat from the piped on potato and then reassembling it on the plate, and actually I did really love those finicky jobs. I loved putting my glasses on and getting my tweezers out (but only as long as there was no incredible pressure).
Sometimes I’d end up working with people who might not be that experienced, and I’d sense they were feeling stressed. In those situations, if I were to give them any sense that I might be struggling then they’d go into a panic, therefore making me panic, and that would lead to me to perhaps not doing a great job. With the experienced photographers I could be honest and say, ‘I’m really finding this hard. Let me do that again,’ or, ‘I’m going to be another half an hour here. Oh my God what a nightmare!’ My confidence built as they realised that they could trust me and of course I’d get it right in the end. It was a very monotonous job though and really not very much to do with food.
When did you stop food styling? When I started food styling it looked like there hadn’t been anyone new on the scene for a while and it seemed that I maybe used new techniques. For example, rather than build a plate of food, often I would just get 20 ready meals and just pop them onto plates knowing that one would look really good eventually; that way it would look real and natural. A lot of photographers didn’t feel that that was food styling. The supermarkets would send 20 of each ready meal to a shoot and if they wanted 4 shots in a day they’d end up sending 80 ready meals. At the end of a shoot those meals would all end up in the bin. That was probably my main issue with that industry and the job. It made me think a lot about the Western ways of wasting food and consuming food.
Food is a ‘product’ in the industry. It needs to be sold and therefore reinvented constantly to stay interesting, but really food should be just be healthy and nutritious. Half the world is starving, yet we all fetishise food with our photographs on Instagram and Twitter. I believe food should really be about nourishment and at the same time human connection. I try and make food now that is as tasty as is possible. I want people to really enjoy it and forget about their food hang ups and diets.
Now in my working relationship with food absolutely nothing goes to waste. Previously I was making food to create a pretty picture that just went straight in the bin, and half the time it was foolery. The ready meals were made to look much bigger than they were by using tiny little plates and tiny knives and forks – the portions were very meagre. I’m not tricking anyone with what I do now.
How did you leave food styling? I did it very slowly. I wanted to do something else and luckily because the food-styling had been a freelance job I could do other stuff on the side. I worked the Ice Cream making into my life over time. I bought this ice cream van not really know what I was going to do with it and I thought it could be a little project. I wanted to see what happened. The idea was to maybe use it for cheese on toast in Winter and Ice Cream in the Summer or cakes all year round – whatever took my fancy really (because I’ve got a very low threshold when it comes to boredom). Surprisingly, when it came to ice cream I got quite hooked on it. Ice cream is a blank canvas and you can flavour it exactly as you want, so I stuck with it.
It did take about 2 years of doing both aspects of my career to finally let go of the food-styling. I remember my last job and it was for a stressed photographer who I could tell really wanted to pull rank with me. I just couldn’t be bothered with him. On the way home I was looking for a skip to throw my toolbox into. I thought that’d be quite a dramatic reaction, but it’d make me feel really good. I did consider taking out the tools that I really liked first, but then thought the symbolism would be lost if I did that. I didn’t find a skip, but when I got home I threw the box straight into the big wheelie bin outside the block of flats. I confess I did take out my favourite knife because that knife had been with me from the first day I started in a professional kitchen when I was 24. After that it was just Gingers. I think if you’re going to do something you’ve got to put your heart into it.
Where does the name ‘Gingers Comfort Emporium’ come from? My friend Vic McGlynn gave me the name Gingers Comfort Emporium – I’ve got to give her her dues. I swapped her the name for a lifetimes supply of ice cream. Admittedly she doesn’t take full advantage (although she does live in a different city now). Funnily ‘Ginger’ has become a bit of a nickname for me, and when I’m in the van people will ask if I’m Ginger and I usually say, ‘No. The van’s Ginger. I’m Claire.’
How’s your relationship with your van? Does it ever give you problems? My relationship with the van is much better these days. For 2 years I was frustrated with it because it just seemed to let me down a lot, but now I realise I was letting ‘it’ down; I had a bad garage working on it. I spent a lot of money getting it sorted 2 years ago and now it doesn’t give me any worries anymore.
Has it always been an ice cream van? Originally it was just a white transit van and then it was turned into an ice cream van. That actually wasn’t a long time ago (although it was before I owned it). It’s not as old as people think it is. It’s technically not ‘vintage’, but I think because the styling is quite eccentric and quirky it covers up the fact that it’s a ‘not-very-old’, transit van. Hopefully because it’s not vintage it should last me quite a lot longer.
Tell me about the Ginger’s shop? We’ve got a shop on the first floor at Afflecks Palace now. I worked in the shop over Winter, but now it’s staffed full-time by Gem, Helen, Susie and Laura and so it just pays for itself. I occasionally come back to do a few shifts. We’ve also got a unit that we use for production and recipe development, but I’m gutted we’ve got move out soon. Before getting the unit I used to do everything from home, but when we upscaled the business the needs of the business changed and we had to have a commercial kitchen. Last Summer we did a pop-up at the airport and they said I’d have to get somewhere bigger (and away from home). I knew that, but they helped me to realise exactly what I needed.
How did the book come about? I was approached to do the book. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that it could be an option. I had maybe 20 recipes and I needed 70 to fill a book, but the publishing company weren’t phased by that at all and the agent who approached me felt like we had enough time. How could I say no? I just did it and had a whole Winter to plan it.
It was actually really hard work. The ideas came about quite easily – because I did have a lot of sketchy ideas that just needed filling out – but then I’d discover that something I was sure would work didn’t actually work and that was really disappointing. On those occasions I’d try and try to adapt the ideas to another dish, thinking, maybe it doesn’t work as an ice cream, but perhaps it would work as a sorbet? Then the experimentation process would begin again. Everything had to be doable within a home kitchen too. Gingers is all about experimentation and creativity, but at the same time we needed to sell books. They wanted Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry too and I felt like I’d have to bring something to those recipes to made them unique if I was going to include them in the book. There was no point in me just having a classic vanilla recipe. If something’s going to have my name on it, it has be really good – different. I get really stressed still about vanilla ice cream. People who come to the van specifically to judge will always go for a vanilla ice cream. It’s believed that you can judge a really good ice cream maker on the strength of their vanilla, and that makes me crumble. I just don’t like Vanilla that much.
We’re using Ndali Vanilla now. I want to be different. I don’t want to bore people. I want them to try something from my van and go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ I want to create a new experience in someone’s day. I want to give people anecdotes about what they’ve eaten – stories to give to their friends. At festivals you talk about what you’ve seen and what you’ve eaten. If you’d tried a pink peppercorn ice cream at a festival, chances are you’d share that experience with your friends. It creates a conversation.
What has been the biggest revelation in terms of flavour combinations? Hot cross buns. After easter we had loads of hot cross buns left over at the shop and Gem kept on saying, why don’t you put them in an ice cream? I wasn’t convinced, but eventually I gave it a chance. I soaked the buns in cream and Rum so they went really soft, like a brown bread ice cream, and added a drop of vanilla, and then I churned it. I was just bouncing around the kitchen saying, ‘This is the best thing ever!’ I love Rum Baba, and it was like that with the spices of and the bunniness.
Pear and Tonka bean (which is like a very spicy vanilla) is also great. We’ve got it in the shop at the moment. Originally from South America, the bean is like a shrivelled pod which you have to grate up. I nicked the idea from a patisserie on one of the markets that had made a Choux bun filled with pear and Tonka bean custard. The combination of flavours was amazing. In the kitchen we love the chocolate too. It’s 66% cocoa so it’s appealing to kids and adults in equal measure. We’ve been making it for a while but we’re not tired of it yet.
Talking about popular flavours, shall we talk about Chorlton Crack? Chorlton crack sells better than anything else, 10/1. Oh god yeah, I’m fed up of it. I don’t eat it. None of us do really. Your pallet gets a bit tired, although saying that, occasionally I will taste the crack and think, oh yeah, that is really good. Because of the salt and peanut butter in it, it can taste different to different people on different days. On a couple of occasions people have asked to taste it in the van and they’ve grimaced after tasting it – they didn’t like it. I’m mortified if people don’t like certain flavours. I’ll shrink back in the van thinking, ‘Oh god!’ I just have to sing, ‘la la la la’ in mind head so that I can forget about it.
You’ve been busy doing festival and events with the van lately, how’s that? One of the best bits about this job has been meeting the community of traders. Everyone begs steals and borrows. Some festivals are just work work work, but occasionally I’ll go to festivals where there are friends there and I’ll get dragged along and get stuck into what’s going on. I can’t have late nights though. The first couple of years I did festivals I was trying to burn the candle at both ends. I would be in bits afterwards because of the stress of the job and the drinking, plus camping too. It obliterates me. I was trying to do too much, but I have always done that. A big weakness for me in work is that I try too hard to do too much. Now I say, ‘I just do ice cream.’ I don’t do breakfasts, and I’m not doing tea and coffee. I’m not going out afterwards. I’ll go back to my hotel and I’ll start the ice cream service at 11am.
What’s next for Ginger’s Comfort Emporium? The aim for this year was to get into retail and wholesale, and by and large it’s gone really well. We’ve done as much as we can. There are a few places that stock our ice cream now and hopefully there’ll be more in the future. We’ve got ice cream going into the new food hall at Bents garden centre in Cheshire in the next few months. They’re extending and their plans for the food hall are really impressive. Nigel Haworth has our ice cream at The Nags Head too.
The van is the most important part of the business really. Sometimes we will do really disappointing events, when the weather’s rubbish and things don’t go well, but on the whole the van really works for us. I can’t retire it and I actually don’t want to now. I’d imagined that going into business would work in a quite linear way – I’d go from a van to a shop, to this, to that, but I’ve now realised that I have to keep the van. All of the different things come into play at different times and they all contribute different things. So for the future it’s going to be less of a linear track and more of a spider-like direction.
Find Gingers Comfort Emporium online at http://www.gingerscomfortemporium.com
On Twitter @gingerscomfort
On Facebook https://www.facebook.com/gingerscomfortemporium
Don’t forget to visit the Ginger’s shop on the 1st floor of Afflecks Palace, and books can be bought from the shop or lots and lots of good retailers.