Gotta Taste It to Believe It: Atomic Ice Cream entrepreneur Raymond Lai freezes up such untraditional delights as Bad Cold-flavored ice cream, featuring double shots of snot and cough syrup.Yummy!
Gonzo upstart Raymond Lai brings a new level of subversiveness to frozen confections
By Sara Bir
There’s no better place to enjoy ice cream than at Baskin-Robbins –especially when the ice cream you are enjoying is not a Baskin-Robbins product. It’s a sunny day in Petaluma, and Raymond Lai, clad in the white lab coat of a mad scientist, is setting up a smorgasbord of Atomic Ice Cream as we sit at Baskin-Robbins’ outdoor dining area. Inside, Baskin-Robbins’ flavors are Mint Chocolate Chip, Butter Pecan, and Cherries Jubilee; outside, Atomic offers Burning House, Road Rash, and Blood and Oil. We eat with little pink plastic tasting spoons and discuss the finer points of ice-cream existentialism.
“I guess I envisioned a violent verbal exchange with the staff of 31 Flavors,” Lai admits disappointedly as we proceed to eat Atomic Ice Cream undisturbed. Despite our purloined napkins, tasting spoons, and contraband ice cream, Baskin-Robbins’ teenage staff, looking slightly understimulated, seem as if they couldn’t care less as Lai, a thirthysomething ex-dotcommer and a teacher at a Bodega preschool, shares the dairy-liscious fruit of his fledgling ice-cream company, Atomic Ice Cream.
How fledgling is Atomic? It’s not in stores, the research and development lab is basically Lai’s kitchen, and there are no Atomic employees, only a loosely affiliated bunch of friends. “I’m not a real businessman,” he says. “The only title I’ll give people is ‘you’re part of the R&D team.’ People come over and we kick around ice-cream-flavor ideas.”
Lai has been experimenting with ice-cream flavors for 10 years, but the birth of Atomic came through casual ice-cream socials, which evolved into antisocials.
“There was one year where I was fed up with crowd-pleasing flavors,” he says. “And then we said, ‘Let’s just make a whole bunch of messed-up flavors.’ . . . So we did the first ice-cream antisocial.” From that event sprang flavors like Road Rash–“It’s like a car accident meets ice cream, with blood road grit [crushed Oreos], and bits of broken glass [rock sugar]. We also had Bad Cold that year, which has a double swirl of ‘snot’ and ‘cough syrup.’ But it’s delicious!”
You can see where this is going. If Edward Gorey and Charles Addams made ice cream, Atomic would be it. Take Blood and Oil: strawberry ice cream sandwiched between coffin-shaped chocolate cookies, all topped with Atomic’s adobo-laced Hot, Hot Fudge sauce. The strawberry ice cream tastes not like strawberry ice cream, but like strawberries in ice cream, as the subtle chile heat of the fudge sauce bounces off the strawberries’ icy, ripe fruitiness. The overall effect: both delightful and politically enlightening, perfect for those who care not for the Bush administration but love ice cream (a fairly good cross section of the populace).
High-concept gross-outs are just the framework and not the heart of Atomic. Ultimately, the core of its mission is to make good ice cream, not kooky ice cream. “Part of what I want to do is to get people to think of how their food is processed,” Lai says. “We’re really trying to do all organic. I think that ice cream should be the best possible ingredients. Nowadays, ice cream is chock-full of preservatives and stabilizers. And so it kind of distances you from what ice cream really is. It might be called ice cream, but it’s not really ice cream.” Atomic’s dairy products come from Marin County’s greatly respected Straus Dairy; their chocolate is Scharffen Berger; their strawberries, organic.
Freshness is another important factor for Lai. “It’s going to be a real challenge if I’m going into stores, because you don’t have the shelf life without those stabilizers. So I don’t know if I’m going to do an Odwalla thing where I pull ice cream and I date it every time I go in.”
With a three-year-old son (the Atom from whence the “Atomic” comes) and a six-month-old daughter at home, it’s tough for Lai to stick to a regular ice-cream-making R&D schedule, but he has been charting progress. A few months ago, Atomic created a coffee, brownie, and Bailey’s ice cream for Bodega’s Cup o’ Mud cafe. Also in the works is Sexy, developed for a wedding Atomic is catering with ice cream. “It’s pomegranate-rose, which are very sexy flavors” (remember Like Water for Chocolate?). “And I just threw in all of these herbal aphrodisiacs. It gives you a kind of buzz. . . . A lot of what these aphrodisiacs do is to increase the flow of blood to the genitals.” So Atomic has, in effect, produced the first R-rated ice cream.
Though Atomic Ice Cream has been approached to make vanilla ice cream for local restaurants, Lai had to say no. “I just couldn’t tell them that I can’t do vanilla. I’m such a snob.” Plenty of ice cream makers do vanilla, but how many do Moldy Jack-o’-Lantern (pumpkin ice cream with a black-sesame-pudding “mold” swirl)? Or Boonville Barroom Brawl (oatmeal stout ice cream, pretzels, nuts, and white chocolate teeth designed by the artist Todd Barricklow)?
After my first encounter with Atomic Cream, I discovered just how fun making up flavors can be (in fact, it’s a wonderful game to keep you occupied while stuck in traffic). But the daring of my Thanksgiving Leftovers idea (sweet potato ice cream with caramel “gravy” and cake “stuffing”) pales in comparison to some of Lai’s failed attempts. “I’ve made pickle-flavored ice cream twice, and it didn’t work out,” he says. “Pizza flavor started with a tomato base, and then we added pineapple and then black olives–which got a little strange. I tried to top it with a caramel cheese sauce–I was trying to get Velveeta or something like that–but the only one I could find was like a nacho mix. That just did not work.”
Pizza is now retired, but the cheese-with-ice-cream idea is still going strong. Atomic is currently developing ideas for cheese ice creams for the Cheesemaker’s Daughter, a cheese shop in Sonoma. “One with a creamy blue cheese, candied walnuts, and balsamic–which just sounds wrong, but I had to try. There’s a really fresh ricotta we’re looking into, too.”
For the time being, to get Atomic Ice Cream, you have to either be at one of the antisocials (often held at the preschool where Lai works) or special-order from Lai, who’s been toying with the idea of home delivery. But bigger growth, he says, is not really his main objective. “What excites me is making ice cream for events, like weddings–or wakes. Because my marketing plan isn’t very conventional, it’s hard to educate people as to what I’m trying to do and at the same time try to get the ice cream out there. So I’m kind of reassessing how to sell ice cream. It’s more about finding the market as opposed to forcing the market.
“I think ice cream is such a feel-good food. When you think ice cream, you think ice-cream socials, Americana, and I think it’s interesting to be a little subversive with that, twist it a little bit.”
Atomic Ice Cream will hopefully come to a place near you someday. Contact Lai at www.atomicicecream.com or 707.766.6285.
From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.