The heavily tattooed woman walking the Shih Tzu ordered Secret Breakfast, the most popular ice cream flavor at Humphry Slocombe. The proprietor, Jake Godby — a man so shy and socially awkward that it never occurred to him when he opened an ice cream parlor that such an establishment might attract children — makes the ice cream with bourbon and toasted cornflakes, including so much Jim Beam that the scoops always run soft. The day was a sunny Friday, ice cream weather. Just before noon customers started lining up near the corner of Harrison and 24th Streets, an unrehabilitated crossroads in San Francisco’s Mission district: first, a gold-chained Latino laborer who ordered Chocolate Smoked Sea Salt; then three 20-something guys — each part hipster, part geek — who stared anxiously at the flavor board, as if they had come in on a dare.
Godby’s intention when he opened Humphry Slocombe in December 2008 was to create a challenging ice cream store. He has succeeded. The physical plant is straight-up soda-fountain retro: black-and-white tile floor, chrome-and-red-leather stools, simple Formica bar. Then there is the art, which tends toward food punk. Across from the front door hang four knockoff Warhol paintings, Campbell’s soup cans labeled Secret Breakfast, Salt & Pepper, Hibiscus Beet and Fetal Kitten. (The first three are Humphry Slocombe ice cream flavors; the fourth is Godby’s stock response to the question “What crazy new flavor are you making next?”) A mount of a taxidermied two-headed calf protrudes above the bar.
The three hipster-geeks started squirming and making frat-house jokes. “Dude, you need to eat that!” one said to another, picking a lard caramel off the counter. Godby’s palate favors salt, booze and meat. Each day he scoops 10 to 12 of his hundred-plus ice cream flavors, favorites including Jesus Juice (red wine and Coke) and Boccalone Prosciutto. Godby also produces novelties in the what might be called the nose-to-tail dessert paradigm: duck-fat pecan pies, foie-gras ginger-snap ice cream sandwiches, treats that incorporate odd animal parts. On occasion, next to the register (cash only), he sets out a glass-covered cake stand filled with brownies. Nobody buys them. As Godby, in his uniform of long green shorts, blue apron and white Chuck Taylors, explains, “I can’t sell cupcakes to save my life.”
Before starting Humphry Slocombe, Godby, who is 41, worked his way up through San Francisco’s fine-dining restaurant ranks: Boulevard, Zuni, Fifth Floor and Coi. Then, in 2006, his father died, leaving him a little money. By that point Godby had some experience making incendiary desserts. As the pastry chef at Coi, recently short-listed by Thomas Keller, the acknowledged master of American cooking, as one of the world’s best restaurants, Godby served a chocolate tart with smoked yogurt that, says Coi’s head chef, Daniel Patterson, made some diners so upset they wanted “to firebomb the place.” With Humphry Slocombe, Godby continued pressing food buttons, beginning with the name, which is aggressively obtuse. (Mr. Humphries and Mrs. Slocombe were characters on the bawdy old British sitcom “Are You Being Served?” Godby insists that if Alice Waters could name her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, after a highbrow French film, he could name his ice cream store after a lowbrow British farce.) Godby’s ice cream can be alienating, too. When I first took my kids, they ordered Salted Licorice, took three licks and then threw their cones on the sidewalk. This is a familiar San Francisco parents’ tale.
Still, Godby has drawn a loyal following from the start. His ice cream addresses two major grievances in the contemporary culinary scene: boredom with menus that all look the same, and irritation with the orthodoxy governing how we’re all supposed to eat (local, sustainable, organic, etc.). At $2.75 for a single scoop, $3.75 for a double, Humphry Slocombe solved both problems. As a result, its fan base swelled with the kind of jaded cooks and eaters who dream of never seeing another chicken Caesar or tuna au poivre again. Mark Sullivan, chef of the San Francisco restaurant Spruce, calls the Secret Breakfast flavor “an obsession.” Leah Rosenberg, an artist and a pastry chef, says, “The first time I tasted Jesus Juice sorbet, I felt like someone, at long last, understood me.” In the store’s first few months, Godby and his business partner, Sean Vahey, scooped from noon to 9 each night, ate nothing but ice cream, traded the leftover brownies for cocktails at a dive bar called Dirty Thieves and still lost weight. Since then they’ve hired eight employees and — hazard of the job — each gained back the 10 pounds they’d lost. Godby speaks for many colleagues and patrons when he says, “I just got to the point that I felt I’d have to kill myself if I ever made another crème brûlée or warm chocolate cake again.”
SERVING CUSTOMERS is not Godby’s favorite part of his job. Creating desserts for restaurants is. Later that Friday afternoon, Godby and Vahey drove a few blocks down Harrison Street to Flour + Water, an upscale eatery that opened around the same time as Humphry Slocombe and has also been busy every day since. Thomas McNaughton, the chef and owner, unlocked the door. McNaughton doesn’t have a pastry chef; he consults with Godby instead. “What about rhubarb and peas?” Godby suggested as two white-coated cooks butchered a whole lamb at the nearby communal table. “We could do a swirl,” Godby said. “Or we could do candied peas as a topping for rhubarb frozen yogurt.”
McNaughton liked the yogurt-with-pea-topping idea. Techniques were discussed. Godby recommended adding beet juice to the rhubarb to give the yogurt a “pretty pink” color. (Godby refuses to use strawberry with rhubarb.) He proposed blanching the peas in simple syrup, draining them, then rolling them in sugar. Of course McNaughton also always serves a chocolate budino, or pudding, with espresso-caramel cream. But he called offering that dessert “almost shameful” and seems to wish he had the gumption to take it off the menu. “Menus here have to play it very safe,” McNaughton griped about San Francisco. “It’s that whole farm-to-table thing. People are afraid to step out from under that umbrella.”
That farm-to-table thing to which McNaughton refers was pioneered by Alice Waters. A great number of San Francisco chefs have worked at Chez Panisse, or trained with someone who did, and as a result, Queen Alice, as she’s also known, retains a firm grasp on the cuisine of the city. Her bucolic message is that food is about pleasure, purity and continuity. And in the Bay Area, at least, this remains the received wisdom. Few venture into molecular gastronomy, a food philosophy at the other end of the spectrum, the advocates for which argue, with their liquefied shrimp cocktails served in atomizers, that food is about innovation, technique and novel experience. Each meal is a chance to view the world anew.
Godby tries to play both sides. “It’s not like this is WD-50,” the food blogger Jesse Friedman explains, referring to the New York restaurant that serves its eggs Benedict with cylinders of poached yolk, tidy as batteries, and cubes of deep-fried hollandaise sauce, coated in English muffin crumbs. “What Jake makes is clearly recognizable as ice cream. It’s even ice cream that’s churned.” Godby, you could argue, is even of Waters’s pastoral San Francisco, making flavors, like Huckleberry Crème Fraîche, that showcase fetishistically selected ingredients. But he does not always choose the sanctioned taste profiles. For instance, he also makes Peanut Butter Curry — which includes house-made peanut butter and Vadouvan Golden Mix, a top-of-the-line blend of garlic, shallots, onions and spices. Godby does this under ice cream’s cloak of innocence and with a straight face, in the same spirit that Sarah Silverman dresses like a 12-year-old and tells bigoted jokes. “I only make ice cream I think tastes good,” he claims. Why do you not want to eat a foie gras ice cream sandwich? Or, why do you? The effect is disorienting. The joke might be on us.
According to Vahey, the store’s frontman, Godby is an artist who uses food as his medium: “He’s wielding his paintbrush in ice cream, and Jake would never tell you that.” That might seem like a slight overreach, pretentious even, but Vahey does have a point. Godby has painted or made prints, as a hobby, throughout his adult life. The only exception being the two years that just ended, the two years during which he conceived and opened Humphry Slocombe. Currently he’s working on a portrait series of Isabella Blow, the British eccentric and magazine editor who killed herself by drinking weed killer. Godby says of his attraction to her, “I like people who live their lives as art.”
A WEEK LATER, in the back of the shop, Godby was again in his Chuck Taylors and apron, making Coconut Candy Cap Caramel sorbet. Because he doesn’t want to spend $100,000 on a commercial stove, hood and ventilation system, he uses a Bunsen burner to melt the sugar for caramel. (The hot plate he uses for most cooking jobs doesn’t get hot enough.) Godby opened a Ziploc bag of dried candy cap mushrooms and offered me a smell. “A little goes a long way,” he said of the horsy aroma. Godby once tried making porcini ice cream. That and harissa are his only acknowledged busts.
Godby dumped a half-cup of the mushrooms into a spice grinder. He then pulled out a 20-liter bucket, poured in two gallons of Straus ice cream base (California code requires anybody selling more than 2,500 gallons of ice cream a year and not pasteurizing on premises to start with a pasteurized “mix”) and set to work on Salt and Pepper, adding Si chuan, pink and cubeb peppercorns and sea salt. Ice cream is simple, but its chemistry is not. Ice cream, according to C. Clarke, the author of “The Science of Ice Cream,” is “just about the most complex food colloid of all.” It’s an emulsion (fat droplets in aqueous solution), a sol (ice crystals suspended in liquid) and a foam. Eventually Godby’s young, bearded assistant returned carrying three plastic bags of bourbon and bananas. “For the first time ever the guy at the liquor store said, ‘Why do you buy so much alcohol?’ ” the assistant told Godby. “I said I put it in ice cream. He said, ‘WHAT?!’ I said he should come by sometime.”
Godby nodded. He’s not a talker. Vahey describes him as “pathologically shy.” Godby did mention that the previous weekend in Sonoma, he walked by the dead body of a homeless man who’d been hit by a car. He knew this was a dark tale, and entirely out of sync with the expected portrait of the happy ice cream man selling ice cream to the happy children. But that was the point. Godby enjoyed the dissonance. The batch freezer whirred in the background. “That’s the ice cream talking,” he said, then sank into quiet again.
Godby grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, the only child of a mother who worked 30 years at AT&T and a father who owned a bar. Godby describes Zanesville as “the kind of town where you can’t buy olive oil”; himself as “an odd kid.” “I’d just wander off; I still do,” Godby said, passing the Salt and Pepper to his assistant to freeze and returning to the Coconut Caramel Candy Cap, dumping a large can of congealed coconut milk into the stainless-steel pot. Godby’s mother, Linda, is laconic, like her son. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” she told me when I called. “Jake was always backward. You can tell that yourself.” When I asked what she meant by “backward,” she described Jake as “fearless.” “Jake was never afraid to try anything. At age 5 he had a fit because he wanted to go to a big mall and shop by himself.” One of Godby’s strongest childhood memories is of watching one of his father’s bar regulars shake so hard in the morning that he had to rig a string, as a pulley, around his neck to help raise his shot glass to his mouth. Predictably, Godby hated school — “all weird kids do,” he told me. AtOhio State University, he majored in art, smoked a lot of pot and watched a lot of TV, including “Are You Being Served?” When he committed to open Humphry Slocombe, Godby had 31 ice cream cones tattooed on his arm. Part of the impulse, he said, was to have something to show San Francisco’s fanatical food community, to deflect attention away from more deep-seated aspects of himself.
A TUESDAY, MIDAFTERNOON: two men in slacks and button-down shirts who looked like Mormon missionaries walked into Humphry Slocombe. They were reps from Sysco, the food service company, and from an insulated shoulder bag they pulled out a kielbasa. People bring Godby food all the time, on the theory he’ll put anything in ice cream. “Thanks for stopping in,” Godby demurred.
“You betcha!” said one of the reps. “Nice to meet you! We also sell a great pulled pork.”
Godby is not the first or only chef to make meat-flavored ice cream, but historically this has been a restaurant trick, not a parlor one. In 2000, Heston Blumenthal, chef of the Fat Duck in London — this year No. 3 on S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — started making a crab ice cream to accompany a crab risotto. Customers did not respond favorably. Blumenthal suspected that everyone would have been more comfortable had he changed the name to “frozen crab bisque.” “Ice cream can absorb just about any flavor,” explains Marilyn Powell, author of “Ice Cream: The Delicious History.” “That’s what makes it dangerous. It’s the shape-shifter.” One of Blumenthal’s most famous dishes is scrambled-eggs-and-bacon ice cream, which he has served with tomato jam, French toast and jellied Earl Grey tea.
The brilliance in such food — if you subscribe to the idea that there is any — lies in upending expectations. Patterson, the head chef of Coi, describes Godby as having “a homey middle-American sensibility wedded to some very weird ideas — and when I say weird I mean a little subversive.” Over lunch at his sandwich shop, Cane Rosso, Patterson went on: “Jake gets the heartland nostalgic element of ice cream, but he’s not afraid. He doesn’t have that extrovert’s quality of needing people to like him. You walk in and you see that Fetal Kitten on the soup can, and that’s everything you need to know. If you like John Waters’s movies, you’ll like Humphry Slocombe.” Patterson is a little weird himself. At Coi he serves a frozen mandarin sour, with satsuma ice and a mandarin vodka gel that he describes to diners, sotto vocce, as “basically a Jell-O shot.” In Patterson’s mind, to succeed as a chef, “you have to say, ‘This is who we are and this is what we do,’ and not worry too much about everybody else. Then you hit your sweet spot.”
Godby’s willingness to be disliked — and to do so by creating such übertraif as Elvis (the Fat Years), which is banana ice cream with bacon peanut brittle — has indeed created conflict. It started with the vegan collective Vegansaurus, which defines itself as a “definitive/arbitrary” guide to “eating/living” vegan in the Bay Area. Vegansaurus did praise Godby’s sorbets. “Humphry Slocombe has some damn delicious vegan creations,” a reviewer posted on the Web site. “We tried the Carrot Mango. That was THE BEST. It was all super creamy and smooth and carrot and mango?! Who knew!?” But the liver and pork flavors set the vegans off. “This is the place with foie gras ice cream.. . . And that is super duper [expletive] disgusting. I mean, it’s the grossest. . . . Everyone should write Humphry Slocombe and ask nicely for it to be taken off the menu because again, THE GROSSEST. HOWEVER. I will say that dairy is also THE GROSSEST.”
Godby’s phone started ringing day and night. One message said: “You better watch yourself. Maybe one night you’ll leave work and someone will force-feed you to death.”
Godby, quiet but not a pushover, responded in his medium of choice: symbolic food. He began leaving meat products around Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, a worker-owned vegetarian store. Then, in February of this year, “Jasper Slobrushe,” who identified himself as a proprietor of a fictitious and eponymous ice cream shop, began harassing Humphry Slocombe on Twitter. “Makin’ poop shakes. Yeah, that’s right — there’s dookie in ’em! And bacon!” Slobrushe posted. “Ever wondered what a burrito would taste like as ice cream? It’s gross. But we made it anyway.”
Twitter, the microblogging service, is important to Humphry Slocombe. Nearly 300,000 people follow the store, with Vahey announcing flavors through such edgy confections as “That’s right Rosemary’s Baby is back. Toasted pine nuts and fresh Rosemary . . . a ‘killer’ combination. Muwah-ah-ah!”
Godby and Vahey were furious, especially when Slobrushe upped the ante by creating a Web site that looked exactly like the Humphry Slocombe Website, but with the ice cream cone in the blue-and-white logo upside down. Under FLAVORS Slobrushe listed Tylenol PM and Newsom’s Pomade, a reference to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s hair.
Godby and Vahey assumed that the culprit was Vegansaurus, but I wanted to know for sure. After many direct messages on Twitter and assurances that he could remain anonymous, Slobrushe agreed to meet me at a downtown bar. I presumed he would fall into one of three camps: 1) vegan, 2) ex-employee or 3) spurned lover. I was wrong on all counts. At the appointed hour, in walked a handsome, seemingly sane 28-year-old who reported that he was not a vegan, or even a vegetarian. He was a tech start-up employee who had neither met Godby nor worked in food. When I asked what about Humphry Slocombe drove him to such extreme measures, he rejected the assumption behind my question. “This is just kind of what I do,” he said, shrugging. “I make fake Twitter accounts” to blow off steam. “I have about 15.” He did allow that he had been irritated by a Humphry Slocombe Twitter post that insulted customers who asked why the Balsamic Caramel tasted like vinegar. But little about his story made sense until his closeted fandom leaked out from the prankster’s facade. He welcomed the idea that the parody might land him in trouble. Apparently he, too, was caught up in the chef reverence expressed by Food Network loyalists and cookbook obsessives: the feeling that cuisine rivals Hollywood and sports as an arena for celebrity. “It’s like when the Beasties were maybe going to get sued by the Beatles,” Jasper Slobrushe told me, “and Mike D said, ‘What could be cooler than getting sued by the Beatles?’ ”
THE ROLE OF alternative ice cream man involves a surprising number of public appearances. One Saturday I accompanied Godby to Bloomingdale’s in downtown San Francisco. He’d agreed to bring duck-fat pecan pies and to be interviewed in front of a group. The prospect of public speaking was making him panic.
To distract his partner as we drove downtown, Vahey asked for my benefit, “Should we tell her?”
Godby said, “No, we can’t tell her.”
Vahey said, “We have to tell her.”
As we parked, they disclosed that their friend Chris Cosentino, chef of Incanto and proprietor of Boccalone, had just invented “foie-dka.”
“It’s foie-infused vodka,” Godby said, confessing, “I love meat and I love booze, and it’s too advanced even for me.”
A week later we were all driving again, this time to Oakland, for an event at Blue Bottle Coffee in honor of Rose Levy Beranbaum, the grande dame of American baking. Blue Bottle, too, has inspired Godby. Its owner, James Freeman, is, like Godby, an artist-turned-foodie. One day in the winter of 1999, he wrapped up yet another clarinet rehearsal of Gustav Holst’s “Planets” with the Modesto Symphony Orchestra, and he realized he “couldn’t go on.” He now runs six cafes and roasts six tons of coffee a week.
Godby placed his dessert — sticky toffee pudding, soaked in wort syrup (unfermented beer), served with stout ice cream — in the kitchen, alongside the creations of six other pastry chefs. All had concocted riffs on Beranbaum’s cakes. Then Freeman showed Godby around the place. It was huge, beautifully remodeled and filled with antique Probat coffee roasters and other retro gems. The business office upstairs was outfitted with two long columns of vintage stainless-steel desks. Godby eyed them longingly. “When I was a kid,” he told Freeman, “I measured success by how many keys a person had.”
Freeman patted him on the back. “You’ll have more metal desks than I do soon enough.”
Downstairs a crowd had gathered to taste the Beranbaum-inspired desserts. As Patterson told me earlier, explaining Godby’s emotional following, “A lot of people have ideas, but not a lot of people can effectively express those ideas in a quick word or symbol.” Not a lot of people can express them with food. One chef made a chocolate cake topped with raw-milk ice cream; another, a coconut Bavarian with mango-passion fruit gelée. Godby’s gooey, beery concoction stood out, both for its hominess and its impertinence. (Wort syrup? Really?) Still, it was delicious — especially the ice cream. A young man approached Godby to ask if he’d also brought the bourbon-laced “breakfast one.”
“I’ve created a monster,” Godby muttered under his breath. Then he retreated into the kitchen.