The rush to capitalize on Millennial nostalgia is strong to say the least. You don't have to run a blog about your ungodly lust for LaCroix to know that retro icons of the 80s and 90s are having just a tiny bit of a resurgence. Witness the tweens now wearing Doc Martens, the relaunch of the Nintendo Entertainment System, and now this: the reinvention of the highlight/scourge of every science museum you ever went to on a school trip. We're talking about astronaut ice cream.
Back in a time when Vince McMahon and Ronald Reagan were the undisputed sovereigns of the universe, freeze-dried ice cream flowed aplenty. Despite never actually being brought into space a single time, "astronaut ice cream" was the bountiful, space-themed fodder of many a gift shop. Should you have been alive at the time, you're probably also painfully aware of how bland, chalky, and generally shitty astronaut ice cream actually was. Well, Robert Collignon wants to change all that and he's hoping to do so one bar of freeze-dried ice cream at a time with his new company, Gastronaut Ice Cream.
Collignon is a man wholly obsessed with creating truly unparalleled astronaut ice cream, and he's even gone so far as to end his career in advertising and live in a van to do so. He's currently in the middle of crowdfunding Gastronaut Ice Cream on Kickstarter; he calls it the "world's first artisanal freeze-dried ice cream." The stuff also happen to be organic and is far less sweet than its predecessors.
Determined to find out just what makes Gastronaut so special and why a man would be willing to throw everything away for a product that has all but disappeared in recent years, MUNCHIES recently sat down with Collignon to get the scoop.
MUNCHIES: Can you tell us how someone even ends up making astronaut ice cream for a living? Robert Collignon: I moved to New York around ten years ago and started doing design work and eventually got into advertising. I was working 12-hour days and wearing it like a badge of honor. I was getting burnt out, and before I reached my breaking point, I decided to start making freeze-dried ice cream in my apartment. I always loved astronaut ice cream as a kid. Once I got interested, I started looking around for a freeze dryer and someone finally invented one that was small enough for home use—it's kind of the size of a dishwasher or a mini-fridge. I started to force the ice cream onto my co-workers, and it was getting good results, so I decided to focus on it full time. I'm hoping this can sort of be my way to avoid working in an office anytime soon.
What do you think makes for good astronaut ice cream, and how does it differ from regular ice cream? The freeze-drying process seems space-age and blows people's minds, but scientifically it's somewhat simple and it's all-natural. Freeze-drying allows you to maintain the structure because the ice cream doesn't actually melt; it goes straight into a gas state and leaves all the air pockets. When you put it in your mouth, it takes a few seconds to actually absorb the moisture in your mouth and melt down into the sweet creamy ice cream you are used to. I like to sprinkle a little sea salt on top before I put it in the freeze dryer, so you are instantly getting a savory taste in your mouth before it melts—then you get the sweet flavor. I want to make astronaut ice cream that will interest more than just five year olds at a space museum.
Do people dismiss astronaut ice cream as a gimmick? To be honest, at first I kind of did, but then I tasted it and thought, "Oh wow, this is really good ice cream!" Yeah, there's a lot of cynicism when people first hear about it. I started making my own ice cream and over time it got better and better. But once I made this into a business, I decided to source my ice cream from Blue Marble here in Brooklyn. It's organic and, really, they make the best ice cream in the country. People taste it and their mind is blown from the get-go.
So what is the manufacturing process like? You take the Blue Marble ice cream and then you freeze-dry it yourself? I've been getting the ice cream here in Brooklyn, packing it in dry ice in multiple coolers, and then bringing it to in my van to upstate New York, where I live. When I'm here in Brooklyn, I'm mostly living out of the van. Upstate, I take a large amount of ice cream, I slice it up, sprinkle it with a bit of sea salt, and then throw it in the freeze dryer, which takes about a day.
How will you be using the money you raise on Kickstarter? What I want to do is to scale up from my personal home machine, which only makes about 20 to 40 ice cream bars at a time. I'm contracting out to a commercial freeze dryer, which has an enormous machine that takes up a whole room. That way, I can actually bring it to market for a reasonable price. I hope to launch into retail stores soon. I've already met so many people who are interested—stores offering to put it on their shelves. The Museum of Ice Cream that just opened here in Brooklyn has asked if I could be in their gift shop. I'll also sell it online at gastronauticecream.com.
What flavors do you have now and what flavors do you hope to bring out in the future? My three launch flavors are mint chocolate chip, Mexican chocolate chip, and cookies and cream, all of which work really well for freeze-drying because they've got great texture, which is one thing that separates good freeze-dried ice cream from just regular ice cream. I'm actually going to announce a new flavor today. I haven't checked the poll yet, but supporters on Kickstarter are voting on my fourth flavor. It's likely gonna be peanut butter chocolate chip. I think that should work out well because it has texture. It has flakes of chocolate chip throughout and that peanut butter taste—it's amazing. And then I'm thinking I might launch milk chocolate hazelnut. But Mexican chocolate chip seems to be the most popular so far. It's got a little bit of spice.
Any big takeaways about ice cream or yourself in general that you've gleaned from all this? I think the big thing is this: It's not about the idea. It's about actually going out and doing it. I've been having beers with friends and talking about ideas for ten years now, and the amount of things that we talked about but never actually done could fill a book. This was one where I finally had to prove to myself I could follow through with it. And I think a big step to making that happen was leaping in without knowing everything. Instead of having everything completely buttoned up and figured out, just dive in and do it.
Thanks for speaking with us, Robert.