Alison Gray has the best job in the world – she tests and invents ice cream flavors for Häagen-Dazs and she’s done it for 13 years now. Born and raised in Scotland, Alison was always fascinated with food and how it works. We had the chance to chat with Alison over a scoop of delicious Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and she tells us how how she won every ice cream lover’s dream job.
Hi Alison. You may get this question a lot, but we feel a people want to know how one can land a job as an ice cream inventor.
I worked for General Mills in the UK, and I worked with dough and bakery products. One day my boss called me up and he said, “There’s an opportunity at Häagen-Dazs. Are you interested”? It was as simple as that. I’m a food scientist by training to so I studied food sciences at university and I’ve always been a product developer who loved ice cream. So you can imagine that when the chance came up to move to Häagen-Dazs, I jumped at it!
What are some of the perks of the job? Apart from tasting the ice-cream, what else do you get to do?
A little bit of traveling for sure. I’m here [in Malaysia] for a seminar with some chefs who are creating ice cream cakes and creations for the Häagen-Dazs shops, and at the same time, I get to learn more about Malaysia and taste the desserts too! I also get to travel around Europe to meet different suppliers, and I sometimes get to meet some famous people. I wish I could meet Bradley Cooper but I didn’t get to. But I once met the famous UK chef Heston Blumenthal. I got to work with him a few years ago and it was a real highlight for me to meet him.
Since you travel a lot for work, what are some of the most memorable travel experiences you’ve had?
I was in Shanghai recently and I tried this dessert that was very popular in the region. It wasn’t sweet at all and it had shaved ice at the bottom. There was jelly, two kinds of balls in different colors on the top, and everything was also jelly-like. That dessert was very memorable for me!
Did you enjoy the dessert?
I wouldn’t say I disliked it. I tasted it and got to know it, but I wouldn’t say that I would rush to go back and have it. I guess it’s a matter of acquired taste!
And another memorable thing is the durian. Surprisingly, I’ve gotten to liking it because I’ve tried it a few times now. The first time wasn’t pleasant, but I’ve gotten used to it and really quite like it now.
Have you tried durian ice cream yet? Will Häagen-Dasz make Durian ice cream in the future?
No, I haven’t! That’s a good idea, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that.
Traveling a lot can stress you out. What do you do to de-stress and re-energize?
When I’m traveling, I find that a leisurely dipping in the pool is really relaxing when I’m traveling. When I’m at home, it’s quite different. My husband’s quite a good cook, so when I get home from work, I like to watch my husband cook! I just sit with a glass of wine, he cooks, and we talk. It’s a great way to unwind after a long day at work.
When it comes to creating an ice cream flavour, do you follow a list of food trends?
What we try to do is have something that’s known by consumers to we have a point of reference. We try to give it a little innovative twist. Like one of the most recent launch was the salted caramel flavour, which is a trending in Europe at the moment. If you get too innovative, people get a little too scared to try it. Häagen-Dazs offers flavours that are known but we always give it a little innovative twist
The Chocolate Hazelnut Brittle is Häagen-Dazs’s new flavour. How did the idea for the product come about?
Before we come up with a flavour, there’s a process behind it. The first thing we do is maintain our knowledge on food trends. It could be from internet research, flavour tours and sometimes going to restaurants and eating lots of desserts! For the Asian market, we work with our marketing colleagues and they keep us a bit more informed about the food trends in Asia. This is the basis of our knowledge and then we start proposing new flavours. Another method is where our business team gives us a list of flavours, so we create them and offer it to consumers for feedback to see what’s more interesting for consumers.
As for the Chocolate Hazelnut Brittle, we went with consumer research to develop the flavour. We researched it with consumers in Asia and the one that came out to the top was the Chocolate Hazelnut. The business team gave us brief, and then we developed the product. First, we started thinking about what chocolate ice cream do we want because it can go from a mild, milky and creamy profile of vanilla chocolate ice cream, right over to a dark, bitter chocolate profile. So we have all these possibilities in an ice cream, and then we also have the possibilities around hazelnut. We had the choice of roasted hazelnuts, caramelized hazelnuts, hazelnut brittle, etc.
We came to a dark chocolate profile with a slight bitterness that matched well with the sweet toffee brittle which contained hazelnut. So the sweetness and the bitterness really balances together on the flavour terms, but the texture also plays a role – you get a smooth creamy ice cream and the crunchiness of the brittle really works well! There are times when we have 50 prototypes to finally decide on one.
What is your personal favorite Häagen-Dazs ice cream flavour?
Strawberry. Fruity flavours are my personal favorite because it’s really pure and simple. All of our ice cream contains four basic ingredients – cream, milk, egg yolk and sugar. And this only contains one extra ingredient which are strawberries.