Ernst Knam: the secret to a good gelato is knowing your ingredients.

Ernst Knam: the secret to a good gelato is knowing your ingredients.

After arriving in Italy in 1989, and spending the first two years as chef patissier at Gualtiero Marchesi’s restaurant in Milan, Ernst Knam branched out in 1992 to pursue a solo career. Just a short walk from downtown Milan, he opened up the Ernst Knam “Ancient Art of the Sweet” patisserie [Pasticceria l'Antica Arte del Dolce]. 

In 1996, he began providing catering services, offering a seasonal menu either to take away from the shop or with a full catering service. In 2004 he founded Giolito Italia Srl, creating natural gelato for the retail and wholesale markets.

When did you first approach the world of gelato?
When I first started making pastries, and finished my apprenticeship, which is different in Germany from Italy: you learn by doing, and one of the things I learned was how to make gelato.
We used to make up just a few flavours with natural bases, especially in summer. It was a wonderful experience.

What is the connection between gelato-making and pastry-making?
Pure gelato-makers can only be found in Italy, whereas in Germany, for example, first we learn to be a patissier, then a chocolatier, then a gelato-maker and so on: you have to learn everything.
In my view, a gelato-maker has to be a pastry chef too, and vice versa, because in today’s market you can’t just sell gelato, you have to be able to make frozen desserts, gelato cakes, pralines, etc. as well, and that is a patissier’s job.
Later on, you can specialize, but the knowledge base is the same for each sector.

What then are the essential skills for a gelato-maker?
First of all you need to get an in-depth knowledge of raw materials: if you are going to be using fruit you need to know your job inside out, because one day it’ll be too ripe, the next day too watery, the day after that too sour, and you have to know how to fix the recipe, to balance it so you can always have the same quality of product.
That for me is the “secret”. There are very few people who know how to use raw materials, because they never even taste their work, and that is a flaw that patissiers and gelato-makers have in common: they follow the recipe, make the gelato and then go ahead and sell it. I reckon that we should be tasting what we make, day after day after day.

Knam and his shopWhat are the most popular products in your shop?
It’s mainly things made out of chocolate, even in summer, such as mini chocolates, and many different types of cakes; for this year’s European Football Championships, we made sixteen types of dried savoury snacks and sixteen fresh savoury snacks, one for each team, so fans can order and eat them while they are watching the matches.
But you have to keep renewing your production, keep changing – people want to see new things.
My take on the economic crisis is that it’s a time for change: people who are doing good work will continue to do so at a fair price.

Are there any differences between gelato in Italy and in other countries?
Every country has its own nuances, but for us gelato-making is Italian.
Germany has a lot of industrial ice-cream from Belgium, but there are also plenty of Italian gelato-makers, who came here back in the 60’s and 70’s.

Italy won the last Gelato World Cup. What was that like? [Knam was the Italian team captain, Ed.]
It was great!
It is really vital when you are at a competition like the World Cup to have the right approach – not just thinking about what appeals to you, but what would please the judges. For example, I love pine kernels, but half of the countries there don’t even know what they taste like, so I could have been automatically penalized.
So we’re better off choosing classic ingredients and flavours with, of course, original processes and recipes.

Knam's banana filling chocolate In your opinion, how far can a gelato craftsman go in the use of bases and semi-finished ingredients?
I don’t believe there are any boundaries: it all depends on what you want to communicate to your customers and to yourself. 
But if a gelato-maker wants to make a good hand-made gelato, he has to use the right products, with the best bases, made with natural non-chemical ingredients.
When I’m looking at companies that make semi-finished ingredients, I tend to go for the ones looking for a human relationship with the gelato-maker, and who don’t see me as just another number.   

Any advice for young people? Two key areas: training and relationships with established professionals.
Young people have to go beyond laziness and realize that just having passion for the profession is not enough – in fact, it can even disappear in a flash! If you decide to do it because you want to become somebody, then there can be no excuses: you have to work without ever thinking about the clock. You are studying the whole time.
Today there are 2 choices in this job: either go for quantity or go for quality, without increasing your prices.
Those who go for quality always come out top in the end. For example, we have recently introduced some more expensive butter and flour, but the result is better.

Does the consumer know the difference between quality and average produce?
If he is dealing with an exceptional product, then yes, he understands the difference.
We pass on our love for our gourmet products to the people who come to enjoy them.
In my shop, I create what most satisfies my taste buds, but I am always ready to listen to comments from customers.
Over the last few years, plenty of gelato shops have opened up, attracted by the promise of big profits, but it’s not that simple.

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Ernst Knam: the secret to a good gelato is knowing your ingredients.
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