At my last job, I occasionally coordinated events. One year, we needed a venue for our Office Safety Team appreciation dinner. Irvine Lanes had conference facilities, so a budget was determined and planning began. Dinner was a "South of the Border" buffet. For dessert, free play on the lanes and a selection of gelato made especially for our party--not by an outside firm, but at Irvine Lanes itself. Years later, I still remember how creamy and bright the flavors were.
John Heuler is the operations manager for Irvine Lanes. A business graduate from Pepperdine, his time is divided between three family businesses his father started: the bowling alley, a pistachio/almond farm, and two venues named Amazing Jake's (not to be confused with the old Flakey Jake's in Anaheim). In the time he has left over, John is the guy for gelato when a request comes through the Back Bay Conference Center's catering team.
About six years ago, this Yorba Linda resident purchased equipment from another family-owned company, Taylor Freezer. While his shiny new appliance was also capable of creating ice cream and custard, John's interest was in gelato. Taylor Freezer offered all-day classes on making the chilled confection, with Italians teaching the finer points of making the dessert.
John was kind enough to let me be his assistant and quality control person for the flavors we created: mango and hazelnut.
While baking is an exact science, gelato making is about guidelines. Recipes are a starting point from which chefs make minor adjustments until it's to their liking. Our mango mixture consisted of defrosted mango pieces, sugar, peach-mango flavor, fruttosa (a stabilizer that prevents lumping) and vellutina (used in water-based gelatos to assist with texture). We measured, blended multiple times and mixed the contents for about 20 minutes or so. The finishing touches were drizzles of raspberry and dots of kiwi-lime sauce. Oh, the insanity!
John does some cool stuff with gelato at Irvine Lanes. In summertime, the watermelon flavor is mixed with chocolate-chip "seeds" and served in a scooped-out watermelon shell. The staff goes gaga over staccitella, a chocolate-chip version. John is a fan of roasted almond with fig sauce. An unusual flavor to most Americans, jalapeño chocolate is surprisingly tasty and common in European shops. His seasonal arsenal includes pumpkin pie, persimmon and pink grapefruit. He even incorporates alcohol into certain flavors, further enhancing them. Besides his own stuff, John says the best can be found at the Bellagio or Venetian in Las Vegas.
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For a lunch-service catering request, John can start as early as 5 in the morning to have gelato made and chilled by 11:30 a.m. He makes it look easy-peasy. However, he does admit that dulce and coconut flavors were some of the more stubborn ones to perfect. Any flavor is possible; chefs are simply limited by their imagination.
A new batch of gelato only has a shelf life of three days (after that, it starts to develop undesirable ice crystals), so Irvine Lanes does not have flavors readily available. Don't expect to walk up to the snack bar and have someone ring up a scoop. Your best bet is to book a party through the Back Bay Conference Center and drool over selecting dessert. That said, it is possible to place an advance order for a particular flavor. It will cost you--pricing starts at roughly $100 for a pan of 33 4-ounce servings of a single flavor. Bear in mind the rigorous sterilization process John puts every part through before and after gelato making. If you order more flavors, the price should go down. This, of course, leads me to wonder: Who has enough freezer space?
Irvine Lanes, 3415 Michelson Dr., Irvine, (949) 786-9625; www.irvinelanes.com.