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Richard Makin

Founder of Blu Top Ice Cream, London

Take a scoop of San Fran-inspired food culture, a playful passion for dairy products and a large sprinkling of chocolate chips and you’ve got yourself a recipe for sweet success. This is the world of Blu Top Ice Cream founder Richard Makin, whose hand-crafted ice cream sandwiches are proving to be anything but vanilla.

Working out of his South London space, Richard (and his signature baby blue van, lovingly known as Barbara) exploded onto the London street food scene earlier this year, making countless appearances at markets and events across the city. Our Instagram feeds were crammed full of his colourful creations last summer, resulting in some major kudos from Time Out and a recent residency at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant, Bread Street Kitchen.

We caught up with Richard at his Battersea kitchen, (an ex-ice sculpting factory, appropriately) and joined him at Bermondsey’s Druid St Market to hear more about his plans for dessert domination.

  • Joseph Perry

    Words

  • Joseph Perry

    Pictures

  • 09 Nov 2015

    Published

  • 10 min read

    Length

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Tell us a bit about yourself and briefly describe your path to now.

I grew up in a pretty rural area between Liverpool and Manchester with my Mum, Dad, brother and sister. We were a crazy close family. By crazy close I mean that we were close but also absolutely bat shit insane.

I left home at 18 to study Linguistics at Leeds University and totally fell in love with the topic. I did a Masters in a weird branch focussing on endangered languages and was eventually offered an internship at an incredible organisation in the States to help them document the world’s languages. I still find linguistics really fascinating but, in retrospect, it’s clear that my most influential experiences while in the US actually just involved eating!

I came back to the UK with a completely different idea of what I wanted to cook and eat and, eventually, I knew I had to work in food. Shortly afterwards, both my brother and sister changed their lives massively by starting their own businesses and I guess this was the final push I needed to start Blu Top.


Where did the idea for Blu Top come from and how did the concept develop?

When I was a kid, unbeknownst to my mother, I used to treat myself to “Icey Dinners” every Friday. This essentially involved spending my entire £3 lunch money at the ice cream van instead of the school canteen, and invariably bought me a Maxibon Ice Cream Sandwich and two Mini Milks (and ultimately about 4 years of blissful childhood obesity.) I guess this was the foundation of my love affair with ice cream and, in particular, ice cream sandwiches.

These feelings resurfaced when I moved to the States in 2012. I fell deeply and painfully in love with a small San Franciscan brand of ice cream sandwiches called It’s It. I was also blown away by a tiny ice cream parlour called Bi Rite Creamery which used an ice cream base made from only 4 ingredients: milk, cream, sugar and eggs. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t understand why a country like the UK which produces such incredible dairy goods, wasn’t also producing incredible ice cream.

At some point, I decided to teach myself how to make ice cream and began to request recipe books, cooking classes and ice cream equipment for every birthday and Christmas. I sold my first ice cream sandwich in 2013 at a friend’s gig and haven’t stopped since.

Talk us through a typical week as an ice ­cream sandwich maker.

Because I’m a masochist, I decided to keep a full time 9­ to 5 in addition to running Blu Top for as long as possible. This meant that during the summer, my days were pretty intense. In the week I’ll usually wake up around 5.30am and go to the gym (I unintentionally gained almost 30lbs in Blu Top’s first year, so this is a necessary precaution.) Depending on the day, I sometimes skip the gym and drive my van, Barbara, to West India Quay where I set her up for that day’s lunch service. I then head straight to work at a large art and design university where I drink too much tea and get really anxious about my inbox. My 9­ to 5 is really demanding, so in my lunch hour you’ll mostly find me on the phone outside ordering stupid amounts of milk.

I head straight from work to my kitchen in Battersea where I make everything from scratch until around 11pm. I currently pasteurise my ice cream by hand (because automatic pasteurisers cost roughly seventy million pounds) which means I spend hours stirring large pots of custard, staring at a probe thermometer.

Of a weekend I get about an hour’s lie in and wake up at around 6.30am, before driving to Druid Street Market, where I’ll assemble ice cream sandwiches all day. Whenever he’s free, my boyfriend will come along and help out. Barbara is very small, so it’s good that we get along well.


You mentioned you spent some time living abroad in San Francisco. How does the food culture over there differ to the London scene?

At the risk of making a sweeping cultural statement, I’ve always identified with Americans (and particularly Californians) because or their lack of reservation when displaying enthusiasm or, actually, just any emotion. The difference between the UK and US was exaggerated by my situation immediately prior to crossing the pond. I had recently come out of a long term relationship with a very, very English guy who was capable, on a good day, of displaying only mild apathy (again, I’m a masochist!) The culture shock was incredibly refreshing.

I think these different attitudes are also really evident in the food scenes of the two countries. Whilst London was stoically enjoying the monochrome of priceless nordic bone marrow dishes, California was wolfing through two dollar Korean burrito hybrids. The San Francisco food truck movement blew me away with how loud, bold and boisterous it was. I couldn’t wait to be a part of it, even if it just meant buying a stack of crab tacos. Admittedly, the UK’s street food scene has changed dramatically in the last few years and I feel really lucky to have arrived at a time when big, enthusiastic traders like Decatur and Fatties Bakery are around.

The San Francisco food truck movement blew me away with how loud, bold and boisterous it was. I couldn’t wait to be a part of it, even if it just meant buying a stack of crab tacos.

Tell us about your childhood home and your experiences growing up there. Do you still feel a connection to your hometown?

My childhood home was set in a leafy suburb just outside Liverpool. My parents were from incredibly poor backgrounds and had worked ridiculously hard to get out of the city centre. My childhood was very different. I know it can’t have actually been the case, but I don’t ever remember being inside. We had a woods at the top of our street and a massive field at the bottom where me and my siblings would play for what felt like days.

We moved to the actual countryside when I was about 11 years old. My Mum likes to insist that I had a really hard time at school because I was fat and gay, but actually, I had a blast! I had a pretty sharp sense of humour which meant I made some really good friends and ultimately managed to talk my way out of 5 years of bullying. My school was very white and provincial though, and despite coming out to my parents when I was around 12, I never felt fully comfortable doing the same at school. I can’t imagine how differently things might have turned out if my family hadn’t been so cool about it.

You currently live in Brixton, South London. What brought you to London and why did you choose to settle in this neighbourhood over another?

I originally moved to London to study, so my main challenge was to find a place which was cheap and cheerful. Somehow I managed to find a house on a gorgeous street in Stoke Newington which was borderline affordable when rented with five other friends. North­ East London became my home for a good few years, but when I returned back from San Francisco all of my mates had moved south to try to escape the soaring rents. I followed suit and moved to Stockwell. It was much less “village­y” but there was something exciting about the area. Brixton Village Market had just opened and I found myself spending evenings, on my own, eating numerous dinners at numerous restaurants desperately trying to find somewhere which felt like San Francisco. It didn’t happen, but I fell in love with South London as a side effect, which is also nice.


The variety and success of small ­scale food businesses in London seems to be growing massively. Which homegrown food brands are creatively inspiring you right now?

You’re right. ­It’s such an exciting time to be involved in food. I really admire the simplicity of what Pip and Nut are doing. Their nut butters are all over the place and yet they aren’t too big to make appearances at tiny markets like Druid Street. Their Coconut and Almond Butter tastes like Nice biscuits and I go through about 1kg a week (you think I’m joking…)

I’m also super tight with Chloe, the genius behind Fatties Bakery. She makes the most insanely delicious caramels which are so simple but SO good. She also makes an incredible salted caramel peanut butter which I want to be buried with when I finally die (from eating too much peanut butter).

Finally I have to shout out Decatur London. They’re a street­ food stall run by a guy called Tom who makes Louisiana-inspired soul food. He’s a beautiful smiley bear and I think I cried the first time I tried his cinnamon beignet donuts.

Are you actively associated with any gay communities, either online or in person? How much of an affiliation do you feel with them?

Growing up in a provincial area meant I was never really aware of real­world gay “communities” until I left for University. However, as a teenager, I figured out most of my identity as a gay guy via online communities – mostly just forums back then – but it felt real and it felt safe.

When I was slightly older I joined a gay networking site called Thingbox, right before I moved to London. It’s difficult to describe the kind of community it catered for, but it involved a lot of beards (not in a sexy way) and a lot of cake. It was sort ­of an anti­-Gaydar.­ I think about 80% of its users were on the spectrum, so it developed a really unique register of its own. I didn’t know any gays when I turned up in London but I’d say that about 90% of the gays I know now were, at some point, on Thingbox. The site still exists, I think, but that need to distinguish oneself from the average “Soho gay” seems to be way less important to people these days. Maybe people are finally coming to terms with how naturally diverse the gay community in London really is.


Gay food bloggers, such as
Gastrogays, and magazines, such as Jarry and Mouthfeel, seem to be celebrating sexuality as much as the food itself. Do you think there is an intrinsic relationship between food and gay culture?

I think it can sometimes be pretty patronising to try to link gays to one specific field. I’d like to say that, in some ways, it’s irrelevant that people who like Mouthfeel are gay. Gay guys like food as much as straight guys. These are food stories which just happen to be told by gays. But in reality, I’m not sure it’s that simple. I’m a massive fan of Mouthfeel and for me, their appeal is that their sexuality brings a new perspective to a subject which, actually, could easily be very boring.

I also think it’s pretty liberating to stop compartmentalising areas of your life – the “foodie by day, gay by night” approach isn’t healthy – I’ve tried it. It is actually possible to be a sexually active human but also, at the same time, to be interested in eating food. Straight people realised this a long time ago. That’s why Nigella Lawson exists.

It is actually possible to be a sexually active human but also, at the same time, to be interested in eating food. Straight people realised this a long time ago. That’s why Nigella Lawson exists.

How do you feel social platforms, like Instagram, are influencing the way gay men and gay communities interact with one another?

I had this exact conversation with some friends just the other day. Instagram, in particular, gets a lot of bad press for apparently encouraging narcissism and allowing young people to focus inwards rather than outwards. A lot of people seem to be lamenting a time when being a part of a gay community meant going to a bar and getting wasted rather than sending selfies to gays on the other side of the world. But honestly, I don’t know if the effect of social media is quite as ominous as everyone makes out. As a provincial gay growing up in a pretty homophobic part of the world, this kind of online community was a really important part of my coming out process. I can remember feeling like a member of a gay community despite being completely dislocated from one geographically. I’m obviously only speaking for myself here – my experience is completely subjective ­– but I’m pretty sure some young people feel this way about Instagram too.

Even as an adult, I’ve had amazing support from international gay Instagram followers who often make a point of stopping by the van if they’re visiting London. It’s that sort of online/real­-life crossover that makes it feel a bit magical.


What are your future aspirations, both personally and professionally? What’s next for Blu Top?

I recently left my 9 to ­5 job so the future is a little daunting, particularly with the long dark winter looming, but I have big plans for 2016. Barbara the van has been a trooper but she can only reach so many people per day – the aim is to figure out how to feed more people without compromising on quality.

I’ll also be teaching a lot of ice cream masterclasses over winter, which I really enjoy. It’s great to see people’s faces light up when they realise just how easy it is to make really delicious ice cream. In my personal life, now that I’ll actually have my weekends, I plan on getting really fit and strong (and maybe wearing Speedos 24/7.) I haven’t been outside my van and kitchen in about 12 months so my vitamin D levels must be at an all time low!

Catch Blu Top’s latest collaboration with Vicky’s Donuts at The Crown & Anchor, Brixton on 11th, 18th and 25th November 2015.

Follow Richard (and Babara)