The guy outside Miami Flavors Homemade Ice Cream and Sweet Shop, smashing long sticks of what looks like bamboo with a mallet, is Frank Matos. He's a specialist in shucking sugarcane to extract the syrup, and once a month he provides this service to Miami Flavors's owner and chief ice cream maker, Robert Bouyer, who uses the syrup to sweeten his homemade concoctions.
The practice, like many of the shop's flavors, is common to the Caribbean. Because he uses naturally sweet fruit, like watermelon, mango, guava, and mamey (which looks like a coconut and tastes like a cross between mango and cantaloupe), Bouyer explains, he prefers a fresh sugar base. "Processed sugar would take away from the fruit," he says. "And we need to use a lot less."
Some of the shop's most unusual flavors, like avocado and tomato, contain no sugar at all. And many are also lower in fat than other gourmet ice creams: Bouyer often replaces the cream with soy milk, yogurt, or low-fat, unsweetened condensed milk. "I found through trial and error that there were a lot of ways to make a less filling, more healthful and refreshing ice cream that didn't compromise the flavor," he says, "that in fact really made the flavor front and center."
Bouyer, 29, was raised all over Chicago--in Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, and Edgewater. His parents' roots are in Italy and the Bahamas, and he was exposed to a variety of flavors at an early age. "From day one we had everything from curries to mostaccioli, and then we'd go out to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant," he says. "We lived in so many ethnic neighborhoods, that was just normal to us." As a kid he'd spend summers at the Michigan home of his Italian grandmother, where he and his cousins would help her make ice cream and baked goods using local produce. "We had fruits and vegetables up the ying-yang," he says. "Apples, cherries, peaches. And she'd use a lot of things that as kids we always thought were vegetables--we'd make avocado ice cream, zucchini breads, those kinds of things."
Bouyer studied journalism at Virginia Union University in Richmond, where he met his wife, Roshelle. He got his BA in 1998, then got a summer job as a youth reporter for the Sun-Times. But clashes with his editor there left him frustrated. "The editor leveled with me about how there is a political side of journalism and you have to keep under the strings of what people want to read," he says. That's when he quit.
That fall he enrolled in culinary school at Kendall College. "I had always realized I liked cooking," he says. "It was always a big part of me being happy. I thought I could be really creative and passionate about it. And if nothing else came from it, at least I'd be able to cook for myself."
After graduating from Kendall in 1999 he became an apprentice to Koren Grieveson, then the sous-chef and pastry chef at Blackbird. "She was really at the frontier of what was going on then, with her combinations," he says. He remembers one of her flavor combos in particular: grapefruit and pear ice cream. "It was really exciting to see how into it the customers were." He started keeping a journal of interesting flavors and ideas he was exposed to in Grieveson's kitchen. He took the journal with him on a yearlong stint as a chef for the Royal Caribbean cruise line, where he was once challenged to make a granita out of Kristal champagne for a marriage proposal. "That was the first time I'd used a liqueur in ice cream," he says. His journal filled with other new flavors, like yuca, breadfruit, and tasso (spicy cured ham).
Then, at a port of call in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Bouyer had what he calls his "defining ice cream experience." He wandered to the nearby town of Lades, where he came upon a shop offering about 50 varieties of ice cream--"everything from bean ice cream to tomato, avocado, yam, corn, even beef and chicken," he says. "It was like a full-service restaurant that only served ice cream." While he realized that meat ice cream would be a hard sell in the States, all the exotic flavors inspired him to experiment on his own. When he got back home he worked in Harris Bank's executive dining room, where he treated the execs to ice cream flavors like star fruit, tamarind, plum, merlot, and mamey.
Soon his ice cream obsession took over, and Miami Flavors was born. The first location opened two and a half years ago in Miami Beach. "If ice cream was going to be our major focus," he says, "the climate of Chicago is hard. We had to go for a climate that was a little more year-round. Plus it's easier to find fruits there." The Humboldt Park shop followed in July 2003. The Miami store remains open all year, operated by a few of Bouyer's cousins and great-aunts, but the Chicago store's closed between November and April. Roshelle is currently in New York, overseeing the opening of a third shop, in Brooklyn's largely West Indian Crown Heights neighborhood.
Many of Bouyer's recipes require imported produce, but he takes advantage of midwestern bounty when he can. "Illinois has really sweet corn," he says. "It makes a great ice cream." Midwesterners are slowly coming around to some of his more exotic flavors. "I've seen a lot of changes in Chicago in the last five to ten years," he says. "Ten years ago a lot of people didn't know what a mango was, or a kiwi, or lychee. Now they come in and demand their mango ice cream."
A lot of his ingredients--like tamarind, guava, and sour sop--are already familiar to people in Humboldt Park, which has a large Puerto Rican population. But Bouyer is hoping to attract nonlocals too. "It would be great if our foot traffic brought wider attention to all of the fantastic Latin-owned businesses here," he says. "A lot of people come in and out of this area who don't know anything about its culture."
Miami Flavors hosts regular chess tournaments, book-club meetings, and a Latin-movie night. The store also occasionally features traditional Puerto Rican cakes baked by local abuelitas--literally "grandmothers" but more generally neighborhood elders, keepers of ethnic traditions. Bouyer displays the baked goods alongside the bakers' photographs. "The place I wanted to open was a place with a lot of heart, a lot of spirit, that was warm and welcoming," he says. "That goes hand in hand with the spirit of Humboldt Park. This shop may be a destination for some, but it is foremost a part of the community here. We need both of those things to survive, but more than anything, I want a place where people who live in the neighborhood can bring their families, hang out, and have a good time."
Miami Flavors is at 2504 W. Division, 773-227-2337.
Next week: a survey of local ice cream parlors
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jake Herrle.