In a world where ice cream flavors are becoming more and more exotic (cranberry–goat cheese or lavender-honey anyone?), Pasadena residents Nancy Hytone Leb and Michael Leb are taking their premium brand of ice cream down to its roots. Their company, Choctál (a nod to the ancient Aztecs’ discovery of xocolatl), currently produces eight ice cream flavors — four varieties of chocolate and four vanilla. But these are not your everyday run-of-the-mill chocolates and vanillas. These premium ice creams are made from single-origin ingredients sourced from the far corners of the world.
So what’s so great about single-origin ice cream? What is single-origin, anyway? Similar to fine varietal wines (as opposed to blends) in which a wine is made from a single grape variety, Choctál’s ice creams are made from one variety of cacao or vanilla harvested from a single region. Choctál’s Papua New Guinea Vanilla, for example, would be more akin to a California Chardonnay than to blended French table wine. Like the Chardonnay grape, the Papua New Guinea vanilla bean has nuances unique to the region where it was grown. These nuances become gloriously apparent as your mouth, tongue and mind navigate their way around each exquisite, creamy spoonful. Is that cherry I taste? Almonds? Flowers? None of those flavorings are added. The essences float up out of the vanilla itself, a result of the terroir in which it was grown.
The concept holds true for all the other vanillas: the clean woodsiness of the Indonesian; the soft, spicy, classic taste of the Madagascar Bourbon; and the cinnamon-coconut-tinged Mexican. The vanilla ice creams entertained me thoroughly, perhaps because the nuances were easy to detect.
Then I tried the chocolate. Bam! This, I decided after a small spoon of Dominican, was the perfect vehicle for dark chocolate. No flour or nuts getting in the way of this cocoa, as with brownies. No eggs sullying the flavor, as with most ice creams. Choctál’s Dominican has hints of coffee, walnuts, maybe even cloves. The Kaliman-tan from Southeast Asia has a dark intensity that finishes like caramel. African Ghana chocolate evokes raisins and other fruit. The Costa Rican brought back memories of the best Fudgsicle ever, wooden stick included. The funny thing is, these are not necessarily the flavor profiles set forth by the owners of Choctál. That’s what makes tasting these ice creams so much fun. As with wine, it’s a personal thing.
Choctál uses two to three times more chocolate or vanilla than most ice cream brands, so the flavor is profound. But the creaminess is also remarkable, especially considering that there are no eggs involved. According to Leb, the smoothness is a result of how little air they put into the ice cream; also, the natural stabilizers impart a creaminess but leave the pure flavor of the bean intact. The final product is a dense, rich concoction with 16 percent butterfat (most ice cream has 10 percent) that satisfies after a few spoonfuls, as opposed to a massive, airy bowlful.
In 2013, Nancy and Michael Leb purchased Choctál from Mark Boatwright, founder of Old Pasadena’s Birdie’s Cafe, who had launched the company in 2007. The husband-and-wife team started producing Choctál in 2013 to realize their shared dream of finding a vocation that would mix business with pleasure. “What we’re really trying to do,” says Nancy Leb, “is combine a variety of passions — food, travel and community orientation. We want to have a little fun and at the same time promote better lifestyles.”
Their commitment to improved lifestyles goes well beyond bringing pleasure to ice cream connoisseurs. Ensuring that cocoa and vanilla beans are sustainably produced and workers are fairly treated is of utmost importance to them. Here at home, the Lebs donate product or offer a percentage of sales at numerous community events that benefit such organizations as Kidspace Museum, Pasadena Arts Council, Pasadena Symphony & Pops, Union Station Rescue Mission and the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA, whose supporters get to chow down at the annual Wiggle-Waggle Walk. “It’s important to us personally,” Michael Leb says, “and it breeds good karma.”
While Leb admits to being a “recovering attorney,” his wife worked in the nonprofit sector, so their eco-friendly approach is a natural for Choctál. “Nancy and I had these values long ago,” Leb says. “We operate Choctál as a triple-bottom-line company: people, profits and planet.” Consider their upcoming partnership in 2015 with One Percent for the Planet, whose member companies donate at least 1 percent of net revenues to environmental organizations. They plan to support environmental nonprofits in the countries where they source product. While plans are in the works to visit their Costa Rican cacao plantation, the Lebs have yet to visit all their source countries, focusing their attention instead on stateside production. This year they’ll produce 48,000 pints of ice cream at their facility in Irvine and 138,000 four-ounce cups in Wisconsin.
The future looks bright for Choctál, which has won kudos from such food gurus as former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, who called it “the perfect chocolate ice cream.” And new marketing strategies and social media are expanding its reach. Choctál can be purchased at 70 stores across California, including Bristol Farms and Whole Foods. Locally, it can also be found at Porta Via, Fresco Community Market, Ginger Corner Market, Nicole’s Gourmet Market and elsewhere. Of course, it’s always available online at choctál.com for $11 per pint.
The Lebs are considering expanding their product line to include crunchy toppings, chocolate sauces and mini-“flights” of ice cream. In the meantime, this Pasadena couple is living la dolce vita.