Artist of the Month: Chi Ndika
Chi Ndika is all about textures.
An ice cream maker and food aficionado, Chi began using avocado to fatten homemade ice cream as a response to her mother’s dietary restrictions. Now, Chi, her mother and her sister, sell vegan ice cream to Austinites across the city - working cleverly to retain classic textures while simultaneously incorporating new and fresh flavor combinations. We met with Chi at Cosmic Cafe on a warm October evening to discuss psychology degrees, oatmeal mouthfeel, and the technicalities of commercial cooking.
Jason: I remember that you were surprised when we asked you to be our artist of the month. Why did you feel surprised?
Chi: I don’t know! I guess I don’t personally – I don’t know why it was that I was so surprised. I mean cooking is an art form, but something about making ice cream feels like its just something you do, not necessarily that you’re making an art out of it. But I guess with the flavor combinations that I come up with and the fact that I use ingredients from the farmer’s market, I can see how it would be an art.
J: Have you always been into cooking?
C: Yeah, since I was a kid. My dad used to cook a lot. In the kitchen, not anything professional. Sous chef stuff. So, he taught me how to cook and he also taught me how to bake. We would bake together. I picked up on cooking through cooking shows and things like that.
J: Have you baked recently with your dad?
C: I can’t remember the last time I baked with my Dad. I did bake recently, but not with my Dad. I use his KitchenAid mixer whenever I do bake though!
C: So maybe he’s kinda with me!
J: The ice cream that you make; it has fats from avocado?
C: Avocado, coconut milk, coconut cream, and then there’s fat from olive oil as well.
J: Do you have to extract the fats separately?
C: I don’t! I guess they are added in separately. I also use cocoa butter as an additional fat. I kind of just try to keep it as similar to making dairy ice cream as I can.
A lot of people aren’t familiar with how dairy ice cream is made. Typically, you put your milks on the stove with the sugar. Then, a lot of big companies will add syrups - that’s what gives it a nice texture. Sugar with corn syrup. Vegan companies will use golden syrup. Then, you put your flavorings in - you’re gonna put strawberries, you’re gonna put chocolate in at that time. Then you take it off the stove and this is when you would normally put egg yolks in, but instead I use avocados. Just to add in more fat because coconut milk is fatty, but when its frozen it’s really hard and not smooth or the kind of creamy that we associate with ice cream. That’s why I added in more fat, a different kind of textured fat.
Then it matures overnight, or a day or two, its churned and then its hardened for ideally, 18-24 hours.
J: What gave you that idea to change up fats for the texture?
C: The initial idea came from – I don’t know if you are familiar with Daruma Ramen on sixth? They have an avocado soft serve! It was good and I’m not a soft serve fan so it really stuck with me. Later, my mom suddenly had this skin condition and nobody knew what it was. She eliminated a bunch of foods from her diet; dairy being one of them.
It was her birthday, I was just trying to make ice cream for her birthday to go along with her cake. I tried using avocados because every other dairy-free ice cream I had tried had horrible texture. I’m really big on texture. I won’t eat certain food because the texture will put me off!
But yeah, I was just playing around and it worked out really well. Plain avocado is now my hardest flavor to make because there’s nothing to thicken it. There’s no caramel to thicken it, there’s no sweet potato. The ones that are really thin usually turn out being icy and not creamy.
J: I feel like I just learned so much in like two minutes! (laughs)
C: Yeah ice cream is really so complex but it looks so simple. I really like simple things that look like anybody could make them, but that are actually really difficult to make.
J: What are some of the foods that have textures that you avoid?
C: Oatmeal! I cannot do it. I will not do it! (laughs)
C: At camp, there was oatmeal day and we had little pieces of toast to go along… I would not eat the oatmeal and I would just eat the toast. I refused! Even as a kid. Porridges…
J: Is it just too goopy?
C: Yeah, oatmeal in particular is just like a big bowl of boogers to me.
C: People are like “steel cut?” I’m like nah, I don’t want to do it.
J: (laughs) That’s funny!
J: So, are you making this ice cream in your personal kitchen?
C: No, I wish! I’m making it at a commercial kitchen because I sell at the farmer’s market. My food item is not under the Cottage Food Laws which include foods that you can make at your house like cupcakes, cookies, pickles… and if I want to sell to grocery stores I have to use a commercial location.
My machinery is really small. I don’t know if you have ever made ice cream before but you use that wooden bucket with rock salt and the hand crank – my hand crank is electronic I can plug it in, but even small quantities take a really long time to churn.
J: How much ice cream do you typically bring to a market?
C: Um, about twenty quarts or so depending on the market. My biggest market is Frida Fridays and we always sell out so I try to take as much as I can.
J: So you have a team?
C: My mom and my sister! My mom is like my saleswoman! Free labor! Love it! (laughs) No, she just naturally loves to talk to people, it’s great. Every time I’m at the market setting up people say “Hey Chi, where’s your Mom? Is she coming?” I say “Yeah, she’ll be here a little later!” Like okay, I know who you are really here for!
C: It’s perfectly fine. I don’t really like talking to people, especially people I don’t know. I’m not one for small talk and so she is really good at that. She makes our customers feel comfortable and seen. She’s a therapist, that’s what she lives for. I make the ice cream and scoop the ice cream and she pretty much just talks and takes payment. It’s really nice!
J: I want to ask a question that gets at your relationship to cooking. You were saying that [ice cream making] doesn’t register for you as an art form, more as something that “you just do”. I feel like for your art particularly, there’s an interesting balance between cooking being something that you have to do as a human to survive, and then also the fact that your cooking is very much commercialized in that you are making food for other people to consume. I’m unsure of what the question is, but can you speak to that balance?
C: Yeah, [making ice cream] feels like a technical thing and that’s why I’m hesitant to refer to it as art form. Honestly, nowadays I’m not my most relaxed when I’m making ice cream. It’s such a process now. It’s a process to get to my kitchen, it’s a process to get to my ingredients. I don’t know, things could be a lot easier and then I might feel a lot more creative.
I guess where it comes from is that I’m not yet where I want to be with my ice cream creations. I was just telling my sister this – if I had five other people in the kitchen, I can only imagine what me flavors would be like. People think my flavors are crazy now? I wish that I had the help and proper equipment to make what I really want to make. So for now it feels like an act that I’m doing to get through it at this point in the process. That’s why I don’t know whether or not what I’m doing is really art. But I know that it is, it’s just me in my head.
J: And you cook other things that aren’t ice cream as well!
C: I do! With everything I do, I put so much effort into the tiniest things. Like, why am I making this buttercream so damn difficult! It shouldn’t be this difficult. I just like to add extra stuff. And I want to be able to do that with my ice cream.
After while, I just realized that that’s not where I’m at right now, but I’ll get there. Someday, I’ll have ten people in the kitchen helping me out and the flavors will be where I want them to be, but that’s just not my reality right now.
I guess people appreciate the ice cream that I make now so I should also appreciate it.
J: Where do your flavor inspirations come from?
C: Flavors that I like - ones that I haven’t necessarily seen together, but that I know will work. I’m really into lemongrass. I put lemongrass in everything. And lemongrass should be put in everything, because it’s so damn good!
I’m also really into pink foods. I’m drawn to colors, certain spices and herbs, and also educating people on certain foods. Kenyan Black Tea is one of my really popular flavors and I think that there’s a misconception of what chai is. People will ask, “What is Kenyan Chai?” I ask “Well, you drink chai every day, don’t you know what you’re drinking? You tell me!” (laughs)
It’s a nice chance to educate, I wish people would have done that for me when I was younger. I don’t know, I get excited about stuff like that. When food is good, you should be excited!
J: Looking back, through the lens of ice cream, what was your college experience like?
C: Yeah, I got a psychology degree and looking back I feel like I wasted time and money since I just ended up making ice cream. [Making ice cream] doesn’t require a degree and I wouldn’t be in debt. I’ve never liked school. I’ve never liked the fact that we had to sit for so long and listen to someone talk at us. None of my teachers were ever relatable. Even as a kid I never liked it.
J: Do you feel that there is influence from your cultural heritage on any of the other flavors besides the Kenyan black tea?
C: I made a burnt plantain ice cream one time.
J: Yo, what?
C: That’s something that I always ate as a kid and my dad would leave it in the oven waiting for my mom. It would be so crispy. It would be so overripe that it was pretty much caramelized. It’s just something I I grew up with. I thought, “I haven’t ever had burnt plantain ice cream…I like burnt plantain!” I pretty much just take things that I really like and make them into new flavors.
J: Is there such a thing as ice cream culture?
C: *nods emphatically* Mhm. Yeah! I feel like I’m learning about it now, especially on Instagram. There’s this guy I follow, and he eats ice cream every day. I thought I was bad! When he goes on trips to different cities, it’s literally just for ice cream. He’ll go to two or three ice cream shops in one day, and these are double, triple scoops that he’s eating. I’m so impressed, I could not do that.
I feel like nowadays, people are really obsessed with ice cream. The culture is not as serious as coffee, just because ice cream should still be fun.
J: Well, are you going to be at the farmer’s market tomorrow?
C: I’m not, my equipment broke! My little sad machine! The motor’s out. I think I either need to get a new motor or have other people churn the ice cream. If you know Thai Fresh, I’ve spoken with them about churning my ice cream, but they’re trying to open up their own ice cream shop right now, so they are kind of busy. So I’m trying to figure that out. I just don’t like going to the market with very little ice cream.
J: We’ll be sure to catch you at some point!
C: I always try to post on my Instagram where we’re going to be!
Chi Ndika makes ice cream and she sells it across the city of Austin. Find her to get your pint! Written and conducted by Jason Ikpatt, photos by Eileen Wu.