Otto pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman’s olive oil gelato got me a date—with her sister. It was five years ago and I was an ambitious home cook and an editor at Zagat Survey. I was also dating online—the subject line of my profile was “At a Minimum, You’ll Eat Well.” (Cut me some fat, there was a lot of competition.) Meredith’s sister saw that I cited Otto’s olive oil gelato as one of my favorite things, and we agreed to meet up at the restaurant.
It was clear from the get-go that this would be no love connection; I distinctly recall her saying, “You remind me of my neurotic roommate.” But I enjoyed our conversation, especially getting the scoop on Meredith, whose low profile seemed at odds with her high talent. (Although her gelato is revered citywide, she remains altogether unknown, so much so that it took me a while to convince the Otto receptionist that she worked there: “Trust me,” I said. “She’s the pastry chef.”) When I invited the sisters to a Chinese New Year’s banquet, Meredith came as advertised: reserved, serious and dedicated to her craft, traits she inherited from her father, a cofounder of Mad magazine.
Meredith volunteered in her early 30s as an assistant at New School culinary classes and even did freelance catering out of her fifth-floor walk-up while maintaining a day job as a textile designer. Later she pursued the culinary arts full-time, beginning with an IA CP scholarship to the New York Restaurant School.
“I was too old to be a line cook, so desserts seemed like a natural fit,” she recalls. She became pastry chef at Diane Forley’s highly regarded (but now defunct) Verbena, then Bouley Bakery and eventually Mario Batali’s Esca, where she honed her gelato talents and was tapped by the Orange Clogged One to be opening pastry chef of Otto in early 2003.
To further her gelato education before the opening, she dashed off to Italy to study with masters such as Palmiro Bruschi in Sansepolcro and sample the offerings at such renowned shops as La Sorbetteria Castiglione in Bologna.
There are many reasons why gelatoscenti consider Otto’s among the best: Meredith creates new batches daily from the highest quality ingredients (e.g., Tristar strawberries and Concord grapes from Greenmarket farmers Rick Bishop and Don Wager, respectively). But what really sets her gelato apart is that she makes the custard for each flavor separately, tailoring it to the final flavor. (This added step was initially met with financial skepticism in some quarters.) What’s more, her $18,000 pasteurizer from Carpigiani (the Bentley of gelato equipment) cooks and cools the custard with infallible precision; her large-capacity Carpigiani batch freezer churns the base into gelato; and the finished product awaits the spoon in a special case that stays between 12-15 degrees, ensuring lusciously creamy texture. Note to self: apparently my two-quart Cuisinart Pure Indulgence home machine is not the final word in cold desserts.
But while the Batali brand is all but synonymous with Italia, Kurtzman’s trademark olive oil gelato holds two surprises. When asked how she came up with the masterpiece, which has been on the restaurant menu since day one and remains the restaurant’s most popular flavor, Meredith credits a recipe she adapted from Provençal chef Jacques Chibois of La Bastide Saint-Antoine, adding, “The French were making olive oil gelato as least as far back as 1994.” And while her version originally showcased extra-virgin olive oil from Carmignano’s famed Capezzana estate, “the price shot up [it's now $49 a bottle], so we now use Olave, an organic Chilean oil.” Chile?