The ultimate D.C. dessert. That’s what chef Sierra Georgia is aiming to bring to the competition this weekend at the area’s first Gelato Festival.
“This is a city that cares about being healthy,” says Georgia, 32, which is why she’s transforming 20 gallons of local chain Turning Natural’s freshly cold-pressed juices into her pineapple-ginger-apple sorbet. She’s spiking her concoction with algae to give it a vitamin boost — and a surprisingly cerulean hue — hence the name of her competing flavor, “Blue Majik.”
“Blue is not normal,” she says. Very little that Georgia cooks up is.
Her favorite response from folks eating her gelato: “How did you do this?” That’s a good question not just about her distinctive treats, but also her business, Gelat’oh Brick & Motor, a food truck/catering/wholesale operation that serves both D.C. and Philadelphia.
Back in 2013, the Howard University grad — then an executive staff assistant at the Federal Aviation Administration — decided her true calling was to own a cupcake truck. To help her baked goods-mobile stand out, Georgia sought to partner with a local gelato shop. When she linked up with Dolci Gelati and debuted the Dolci Gelati Truck that summer, she saw the real demand was for cones, not cupcakes. So she went all-in with gelato.
“It was the first gelato truck in D.C., and people went crazy,” says Georgia, who was equally smitten with the gig. “I’d just be turning people’s days around.”
So it felt “like a bad breakup,” she says, when she parted ways with Dolci Gelati over a licensing deal disagreement in 2016. Instead of moping, Georgia made plans to do her own thing. Next stop: Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy.
The three months she spent abroad studying, tasting and researching taught her several lessons. For starters, making gelato is a scientific process that requires the careful balancing of ingredients. So, if you want to make sweet potato pie gelato — one of Georgia’s faves — you can’t just toss the pie into a base without adjusting everything else in the recipe. “You have to do the math,” Georgia says, adding that she bakes entire pies for this recipe, since she hasn’t found any other way to capture just the right flavor.
Another valuable lesson came when she tracked down a technique that produces what she describes as “flavor journeys” — you get one taste at the beginning of a bite, and a different one at the back end. “The only way to have that time-release of flavor is an infusion,” Georgia says. In practical terms, that means steeping herbs or spices into a liquid, like making a cup of tea.
One day of school was devoted to making infusion gelato. Georgia remembers the students were greeted that morning by a table covered with “dried things from all walks of the earth.” She chose mint, which she paired with chocolate to approximate the taste of Andes Creme de Menthe candies. (Her instructor was dubious, but Georgia assured him that Americans would be into it.)
Another group that day selected coffee beans, which they made into a brown gelato that was fine but nothing special. Her instructor mentioned that while they had let the beans sit in the hot liquid base long enough for them to actually brew, it would have been possible to strain them out earlier. That night, Georgia kept wondering what would happen if she removed the beans as soon as they released their aroma. So the next day at lunchtime, she tried it herself. “It tastes like what coffee smells like,” she says of the resulting gelato, which somehow maintained a white hue. “It blew my mind.”
As Georgia has built up her Gelat’oh business over the past year and a half, that’s been her goal — to deliver the unexpected. She recognizes that she’s not like most other gelato chefs she’s met at school and at international events. “I’m usually the only American person, and usually the only brown person,” she says. So she’s also trying to infuse that outsider identity into her flavors, conjuring up combos that no one else has imagined. Her fun twist on cookies and cream? It’s with Nilla Wafers. She’s just launched a cereal collection featuring breakout star Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Her repertoire also includes pink Kashmiri chai, honeysuckle and Jersey corn.
Two weeks ago, she made her competition debut at the Chicago stop of the Gelato Festival’s American tour, and came in third place with her creation “White Coffee.” The success, she says, “inspired me to trust myself.” So she’s hoping to do even better on home turf scooping up “Blue Majik” this weekend.
“It’s such a smooth ride,” she says of the sweet-tart, tropical flavor. And, she promises, it won’t turn your mouth blue.
Want a taste?
Beyond this weekend’s Gelato Festival, there are many other opportunities to taste Gelat’oh. The company offers nationwide delivery. Owner Sierra Georgia, who splits her time between D.C. and Philadelphia, is about to open a cafe in northeast Philly, and has plans to launch a private class/event space in the District on Georgia Avenue. Customers can also soon find her stuff at the H Street Festival (Sept. 15) and on the menu at D.C. juice bar chain Turning Natural.
The scoop on the gelato fest
Gelato was invented in Italy, and so was the Gelato Festival, which invites chefs to scoop up samples of their coolest ideas and compete for the title of best flavor. It’s proven such a popular concept that it’s gone international — first conquering Europe, and arriving stateside last year. This weekend, it makes its D.C. debut (City Market at O, 800 P St. NW; Sat., noon-8 p.m., Sun., noon-7 p.m., adults: $25-$30 per day, kids 2-12: $20-$25, kids under 2: free). Here’s what you need to know about the festival:
There’ll be A LOT: All 7,000 pounds of gelato served at the D.C. stage of the festival this weekend will be made on-site in a mobile laboratory. That’ll require 600 gallons of milk and cream.
You can try everything: A ticket entitles you to a taste from each of the eight competing chefs, who are bringing such flavors as “Crusty Fantasy” (with caramel, cashews and Rice Krispies) and “American Dream” (salted peanuts swirled with Coca-Cola reduction). You’ll also get samples from special guests, including Susan Soorenko of Moorenko’s in Silver Spring. In total, there will be more than 40 varieties to try.
D.C. has voting rights: You get to pick which one you like the best, and so does a panel of expert judges. The combined scores will determine which chef wins this weekend. The champ also has a chance at a spot in the Gelato Festival World Masters. It’s basically the World Cup of frozen desserts — over the next three years, 5,000 chefs will compete in these festivals in cities all over the planet, and just 36 will make it to the finals in Florence, Italy, in 2021.