Shaun Chavis took the leap from journalism to craft ice cream. (Photo: T. Scott Carlisle)
What does an entrepreneurial, food-adoring Army brat who loves to write end up doing with her life? Just ask Shaun Chavis. The 47-year-old director of training and brand development for High Road Craft Ice Cream in Marietta, Georgia, has morphed from TV journalist to culinary school/gastronomy graduate to chocolatier to cookbook editor and now to craft ice cream connoisseur. The two constants: writing and food.
“With my dad in the military, I lost my friends every time he got a new assignment,” Chavis says. “Books were my friends, and then I started writing my own stories. I also began cooking when I was 6 and have been cooking ever since.”
This is a tale about good writing and good food. But it’s also about nimble reinvention and following your bliss — key ingredients in the recipe for happiness.
Chavis initially followed her passion for writing into journalism, but during a stint at a North Carolina TV station she had an epiphany. “I’d always wanted to open a bakery or dessert café,” she says. “I thought, ‘Ah ha, why don’t I become a food journalist?’’’
To help her write more knowledgeably about food, Chavis enrolled in Boston University’s master’s program in gastronomy (the study of food and culture) and its culinary arts program — both of which were cofounded by chefs Jacques Pépin and Julia Child. Her focus was partly on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, inspired by her Moroccan ex-husband. Their eight-year marriage ended, but her love for his native food remains strong.
After a stint as a Health magazine nutrition editor she landed in Birmingham, Alabama, to edit Cooking Light cookbooks for a division of Time, Inc. Chavis dreamed of being the next Judith Jones, the legendary cookbook editor who introduced us to the culinary wizardry of Child and other renowned chefs. “I really enjoyed scouting and finding authors, people with a unique voice and take on food,” Chavis says.
At the same time, she launched a chocolate-making side business, tempering the rich Santander chocolate from Colombia on her kitchen table. Chavis’s confections sold. She credits her father’s entrepreneurial example; he ran a government contracting business after retiring from the military. However, her foray into chocolatiering only lasted one holiday season before she decided it was either that or publishing. She chose publishing.
Taking the high road
“I was looking for someone with a witty voice so the science wouldn’t be dull and a fresh approach to explaining it, someone who could develop recipes and loved teaching,” she said. “He had all of those elements.”
Chavis and Schroeder collaborated on the book, "Cooking Light Mad Delicious," which was published last October. Their partnership was richly gratifying, but privately Chavis began worrying about unsettling changes in publishing — layoffs and budget cuts that were just too close for comfort. One morning she invited Schroeder to breakfast and asked if they could make their work relationship permanent. She came on board at High Road this spring, tasked with helping promote the company's novel ice cream concoctions and ensuring that every flavor tastes amazing.
“Keith and I have a love and respect for really good ingredients that come from places where people care about the quality of food and want things to taste real,” Chavis says.
High Road has gained a reputation for its artisanal ice creams. There’s a custom line of ice creams aimed at chefs and restaurants (fanciful far-flung flavors like Saigon Cinnamon and green-tea-inspired Matcha) and a line of consumer crowd-pleasers that are sold in food stores (temptations like Roasted Coconut Makrut Lime and the award-winning Bourbon Burnt Sugar).
Chavis scours the world for authentic ingredients and delights in fusing flavors the way a composer weaves melody, harmony and rhythm.
In fact, her quest for perfection has earned her the moniker “Picky Pants” around High Road’s production factory where she does daily culinary quality control to ensure each ice cream flavor is a savory chef d’ oeuvre. She recently nixed a day’s batch of olive oil gelato, for example, because it wasn’t up to snuff. “When it’s right, it’s lovely — very smooth and you can taste the full spectrum of the olive oil,” Chavis says. “But they used a different olive oil that day — it was ... on the edge.”
Chavis spends the rest of her time seeking new High Road converts. After failing to achieve the big buzz she wanted with social media tools like Twitter, Chavis switched to a more effective old-school approach: spoon-in-mouth marketing. “We realized the best medium to promote our ice cream is the ice cream,” she says. “If I can get a spoon in your mouth, that’s all I need.”
The next chapter
Ice cream isn’t the only thing new for Chavis. She’s back to writing again, currently at work on a travel and food memoir, complete with Middle Eastern recipes, about a 2012 culinary trip she took to Turkey with a grad-school friend who had terminal cancer.
Also new: the discovery of an inner homebody that has her not only contemplating homeownership but also adopting kids. Chavis gives partial credit to Schroeder, his wife and children for embracing her so fully into their family. “It’s in my blood to be nomadic and try new things — being a military brat puts that in you,” she says. “But I really want to settle down now. I want a home I feel good about and somebody to cook for every night. I hope I’ve found my place.”
And now for the recipes:
Chavis shared two recipe favorites, both made with traditionally tasty, good-for-you ingredients and a little background on each.
Circassian Chicken Salad
Serves 6 to 8 people
“This is my version of Circassian Chicken, which shows off a couple of cool things about Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish cooking: First, even though this is a creamy chicken salad, there is not a single dairy product or even mayonnaise involved — the dressing is a purée of bread and nuts. Second, the dish gets a drizzle of Aleppo pepper oil, which is also used in other Turkish dishes. It’s sometimes made with butter, but for this recipe, use olive oil. You can get Aleppo pepper (increasingly recognized for its possible health benefits) at Middle Eastern markets, at specialty spice stores, or online.”
For the chicken and stock
- 1 large whole chicken, rinsed and innards removed
- 1 onion, quartered
- 1 carrot, peeled & halved
- 1 stick celery
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
- Cold water to cover
1. Poach the chicken: Put the chicken and all ingredients in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil; turn down the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes, skimming impurities. Cover, turn off heat, and leave the chicken in the stock for 30 minutes to finish cooking.
2. Remove chicken from the stock and let the chicken cool. Remove and discard the chicken skin. Shred the chicken with two forks or with your fingers. Keep the meat covered to prevent it from drying out.
3. Reduce the stock to about 5 cups. Strain, cool, and reserve the stock.
For the dressing and to finish the salad:
- 9 ounces walnuts, toasted and divided (8 ounces for dressing and 1 ounce reserved for garnish)
- 4-5 pieces stale bread, crusts removed
- 2-3 cups reserved chicken stock, divided
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar or lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper, divided (1 teaspoon for dressing and 2 teaspoons for pepper oil)
- 1 tablespoon walnut oil if you have it; otherwise skip
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Handful of cilantro, chopped
- Arugula or watercress
- Toasted pita bread/pita chips
1. Toast the walnuts in a 300°F oven until they are fragrant and lightly colored. Reserve 1 ounce to chop for garnish.
2. Tear the bread and soak it in 1 cup of the reserved stock.
3. Place 8 ounces of walnuts and the garlic in food processor; process/pulse to fine crumbs. Squeeze the liquid from bread and discard the liquid. Add the bread to the food processor along with the vinegar or lemon juice, walnut oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon Aleppo. Process, drizzling in enough of the reserved reduced stock to create a thin sour cream/mayo consistency. (If you have walnut oil, drizzle it into the processor too.) Taste and correct seasoning; you may need more salt, vinegar or lemon juice, or Aleppo.
4. Warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small saucepan or skillet; add 2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper and continue warming until oil becomes fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.
5. Combine the walnut sauce with the shredded chicken, and add additional broth if necessary to create a light, creamy texture. Chill the chicken salad at this point until ready to serve.
6. Just before serving, stir the chopped fresh cilantro into the chicken mixture. Top the chicken salad with 1 ounce chopped walnuts and drizzle with the pepper oil. Serve on a bed of arugula or watercress with toasted pita or pita chips.
Indigenous Americas Sundae
Makes 4 sundaes
“When I came to High Road I wanted to create a sundae to celebrate America without fake red and blue ingredients, so I used ingredients that are indigenous to the Americas. Vanilla, corn, black cherries, some plum varieties, and a number of berries and grapes all fit. Depending on where you live, you may be lucky enough to find some interesting fruits only found in local farmers' markets or by foraging." The toppings don't have refined sugar (unless the cornbread is made with sugar.)
- 2 cups of fresh or frozen fruit: black raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, pitted black cherries, pitted and sliced beach plums, or muscadine, scuppernong or Concord grapes (seeds removed)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons your favorite spirit (rum, amaretto, vodka, Grand Marnier...)
- 2 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup
- Pinch of kosher salt
- Leftover baked cornbread
- 1 tablespoon butter, melted
- 2 teaspoons turbinado sugar
- 1 pint vanilla ice cream
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Taste your fruit. This will guide you on how much alcohol and maple syrup to add. The measurements in the ingredient list are general guidelines, and you should adjust to taste. Cut large berries, cherries, or stone fruits in half or in bite-size pieces. Crush the fruit in your hand and let it fall into a non-reactive bowl. Douse the fruit with the alcohol and maple syrup, and sprinkle it with salt. Fold to combine, cover the fruit with plastic wrap, and let the fruit macerate overnight in your fridge (or at least a few hours).
3. Crumble the leftover baked cornbread to make 1/2 cup of medium to large crumbs. In a bowl, drizzle the cornbread crumbs with the butter, and then sprinkle the crumbs with 2 teaspoons turbinado sugar. Toss the crumbs with your hands to coat them evenly. Dump the crumbs onto the parchment, spread them in a single layer, and bake them for 15 to 20 minutes or until they are browned and a little crispy. Remove from the oven. It's your choice to let them cool or to use them warm. If you decide to store them, let them cool and then put them in an airtight container.
3. Scoop 1/3 to 1/2 cup of ice cream in each of four sundae dishes.
4. Top each sundae with one quarter of the fruit mixture. Sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of the crisped cornbread crumbs.
Optional toppings: whipped cream, of course; roasted peanuts; or roasted, chopped pecans.
* If your fruit is really at its peak, you can just toss the fruit with the maple syrup and alcohol, sprinkle with salt, and set it aside for about 20 minutes.