Writers are used to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” but ice cream entrepreneurs are suddenly chiming in with answers. Some ice cream shop owners openly admit to appropriating ice cream flavors from competitors’ offerings or other sources.

The Atlantic Monthly (February 24, 2010) reports that many flavors, such as “ice creamer” Adam Simha’s invention of Burnt Caramel ice cream, are the result of happy accident. Other ice cream makers’ popular new flavors are really just riffs on existing flavors that have been “tweaked.” For example, anything can have chocolate chips included, and the variations are literally endless. Flavors that contain Grape-Nuts are also increasingly popular, as the cereal stands up to being frozen in ice cream. Additionally, once an ice cream guru decided to include Oreo cookies into a new flavor, that opened the floodgates for many other cookie (branded or not) inclusions.

Sometimes, ideas come from world travel. Gus Rancatore, co-founder of Cambridge-based shop Toscanini, says, “Italian flavors, like Nocciola and Gianduia, were the inevitable result of traveling to Italy. We’re still trying to make a rice flavor as good as I once had at Vivoli’s in Florence.”

Rancatore’s South Asian flavors came from customer suggestions, and one notable experiment with green tea Kit Kat bars brought from Japan. Other sources can be websites—and not just those of ice cream makers. Pastry chefs, candy makers and restaurant chefs also can provide ideas on unique and sophisticated flavor combinations, such as spices and herbs, or the use of salt and/or hot peppers.

Secret Stash
Apparently, reading and ordering from a menu is for amateurs. According to a recent online poll, conducted February 2010, by CIA’s Pro Chef Smart Brief e-newsletter, some 75% of readers say they have, at one time or another, ordered food that was “not on the menu.”

How, one may ask, can this be possible? The New York Post (February 21, 2010) pondered this question in an exploration of some NYC restaurants’ “hush menus.”

Sometimes, regular customers find out about “secret” dishes of which one-time customers are not made aware. For example, many are ignorant of famous French restaurant Le Bernadin’s secret eel dish--or The Egg, a milk chocolate pot de crème served inside an actual eggshell and topped with caramel foam, maple syrup and a pinch of sea salt.

Other venues cite preparation constraints, such as NYC’s The Lambcetta at Bar Blanc Bistro, which serves an off-the-menu lamb belly that has been cured and spiced, served with fresh linguini, Parmesan cheese and egg yolk. The time needed to produce the dish (three weeks for the curing) means it must keep its limited-quantity status.

Sometimes, a customer favorite may not fit into a restaurant’s overall style. Such is the case with El Café, a 5th Ave. museum restaurant. Chef Mark Spooner says customers love the Oaxacan cheese-filled classic quesadilla, and he loves it too, but, “We try to do a bit more pan-Latino dishes.” So, it remains a best-kept secret for savvy patrons only.pf