DEVILISHLY GOOD: COVENT GARDEN JOURNAL INTERVIEW WITH MATT O’CONNOR
Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu meets the founder of The IcecreamistsMatt O’Connor – ice cream evangelist, peerless publicity maker, and the man who wants to do for frozen desserts “what the Sex Pistols did for music”
Table of Contents
Do you really eat, sleep and breathe ice cream?
I’ve never slept with an ice cream in my life – I’m a married man. I’m an entrepreneur by day, a provocateur by night, and a huge ice cream aficionado. The Icecreamists are here to liberate the world one lick at a time, baby.
How long have you worked in ice cream?
Nearly 25 years. I’ve worked for all the big brands and still work as a consultant. Ice cream is a passion of mine. I think it’s a really interesting food because of its fleeting, fickle nature. Life is always in flux, as is ice cream. I was a seaside boy, brought up on Planet Thanet and Morelli’s ice cream parlor on top of the cliff at Broadstairs – I had my first knickerbocker glory there.
Tell me about The Icrecreamists.
The name came about through my political experiences. The police came to see me in Hampshire a couple of years ago even though I’d retired from political campaigning. I told them I was in ice cream but they didn’t seem to believe me. They must have thought it was some kind of front for overthrowing the government and were worried about domestic extremists. But I said: “I’m not an extremist, I’m an icecreamist.” And the name was born. There was a young people in Belarus who defied a ban on political demonstrations by gathering in the main square to eat ice creams. I thought that ice cream could be satirical, provocative, and also a unifying force for change. And then the Israelis bombed the only ice cream factory in Gaza. But the fact is that both the Palestinians and the Israelis love ice cream. There is a higher consumption of ice cream per capita in Baghdad than in most American cities. You go to Afghanistan, you go to Pakistan – everybody loves ice cream.
When did you launch The Icecreamists?
We launched with a popup store at Selfridges in September 2009. We wanted it to be funky, different, and revolutionary. We went to Italy to work with gelato masters, who are like Jedi masters only taller and then brought the ideas back. Our chef Mark Broadbent worked on them and I also brought in a cocktail guy called Alex Kammerling. We did ice cream on toast and we came up with the Molotoffee Cocktail, which is the one we blow torch at the table – I’ve got pyromaniac tendencies, so I like to see ice cream that’s on fire. We managed to do stuff that was new and different, and at the centre of this complete swirl of ideas was me orchestrating it. So gelato master, chef, mixologist, pull a team together, give it a funky, daft, political name – and that’s it.
What makes your ice cream so good?
A lot of ice cream hasn’t seen a cow in its life. Some of the ice cream you buy in America is crap – it’s vegetable fat. Then you get the Ben & Jerry’s and the Häagen-Dazs, which are higher in fat, higher in sugar, and full of just really bad, unpleasant stuff. It tastes fine but a lot of it is just sugar and sugar and sugar. We’re trying to create more balanced, more adult ice cream, so we use things like Angostura Bitters and balsamic vinegar, all sorts of weird stuff just to balance out the flavors. So there’s a real subtlety to it. A lot of love and thought go into the recipes. We’re about the smoothness, purity, and richness of the ice cream. It’s freshly made every day at our shop on Maiden Lane.
What are a few of the highlights?
The Choc & Awe is a 70 percent Ecuadorian dark chocolate – literally chocolate and water mixed in a way that gives you the texture. Technically it should be a sorbet, but in reality, it’s a very smooth, beautiful yet powerful ice cream. Our Sex Bomb has been known to raise people from the dead. It’s got a whole range of natural Brazilian stimulants in it. The Miss Whiplash is a seasonal berry sorbet with a little cheeky splash of raspberry vodka, so it will throw you forward as you throw it back, neck brace is not included. We also do one called the Apocalypse Chow. I love the smell of ginger in the morning, and that one’s got ginger, chili, and lemon grass. So we’ve got fire, we’ve got ice, we’ve got stimulants – you name it, we’re doing it. We’ve got a back catalog of 250 different ice cream ideas. Honestly, we have so many ideas – we just don’t have enough time.
Wasn’t one of those ideas to make ice cream using breast milk?
Yes, the Baby Gaga – it’s now called Baby Googoo. People said: “You can’t do breast milk ice cream, breast milk is designed for babies.” But guess what, cow’s milk is designed for calves. Would you rather have a cheeky suckle of an attractive woman or a cheeky suckle of a cloven-hoofed beast covered in dung? Obviously, Westminster Council waded in like the Gestapo. They seized the last two scoops and marched out like they’d discovered some biochemical hazard. It’s breast milk – relax. There’s not a single recorded death from anybody consuming breast milk in the history of the world. They banned it for a couple of weeks and then capitulated, saying that it was safe for human consumption.
I gather Lady Gaga wasn’t a huge fan.
After we had all this publicity Lady Gaga jumped on the bandwagon and threatened to get an injunction against us using the name Baby Gaga. We got this letter from her solicitors threatening to sue us. It was a ridiculous and stupid overreaction on her part. She called the ice cream “nausea-inducing” – this from a woman who wears dresses fabricated from the flesh of dead animals. So, yeah, it did cause a bit of a shitstorm. We thought it would cause a ripple, but it was a storm in a D cup.
You don’t seem to be the sort of bloke who takes things lying down.
It’s my Irish heritage. My family comes from Kerry, where they pick fights with just about anybody. But it’s not so much that, it’s the fact that they threatened me as an individual in the first letter – my personal assets, my house, bank accounts. But I’m not worried, because a couple of people have threatened to shoot me before – that’s when I was worried. I’ve dealt with some very serious stuff in my time – this is frothy and fun. We deal with more serious stuff than a pop superstar with no sense of humor.
Weren’t you the founder of Fathers4Justice?
Yes, guilty as charged. I started that in 2002. Four members of Counter Terrorism Command used to greet me off the train at Waterloo Station and then follow me around all day, wherever I went. I’m not joking. I once hailed a taxi, but the police car stopped it from pulling out. So I jumped out and ran through Soho to a sex shop that a friend had told me about – obviously, I’d never frequent such places. I knew it had two separate entrances and exits, so I ran inside, followed by these cops, and accidentally fell into the big stand of vibrators. All hell broke loose. I ran out the other exit, down towards Regent Street, and jumped onto a Routemaster bus. The cops were running down the road and I was just waving away: “Love you! Thank you for looking after me today.” I felt like Bill Clinton, going around London with four cops around me. I was the most protected man in London.
Do you have a favorite Fathers4Justice stunt?
I guess it was Batman at Buckingham Palace. Big Ron Davis was on trial that day for his part in flour bombing Tony Blair, so we were in court at Bow Street. I had a woman from Time magazine with me, and all the police, and it gave the others a clear run at Buckingham Palace. They dropped into a fancy dress shop, picked up a Batman outfit, and then picked up the ladder, which they didn’t even tie properly to the roof of the van. And off they rolled. I got a call saying: “I’m up. We’ve taken Buckingham Palace.” That’s probably the one because you are trying to create awareness about a problem. In each one of those protests or stunts, we were just pressing the alarm button. But Fathers4Justice is unfinished business.
And are you on a similar mission with The Icecreamists?
Yeah, this is a kind of pop culture juggernaut really. It’s the intersection between life, death, sex, and ice cream. We’re just trying to do something with attitude – to do for ice cream what the Sex Pistols did for music in the 70s. We are more Sid and Nancy than Ben & Jerry. And it isn’t a bullshit manufactured brand. This is a name and ideology that has a soul at its very heart. I’m just hoping people buy into it. Nobody’s done what we’re doing and I’m just flying by the seat of my pants. I genuinely don’t know if it’s going to work. If it doesn’t, you’ll find me selling The Big Issue underneath Waterloo Bridge. Then you’ll know that it’s all gone horribly wrong.