From truck to table: Soft serve takes a luxurious, fine dining turn

High-low food juxtapositions, like gourmet hot dogs and caviar on Pringles, are hot right now. Here is another

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published May 16, 2024 12:30PM (EDT)

Soft Serve Ice Cream (Getty Images/Weiquan Lin)
Soft Serve Ice Cream (Getty Images/Weiquan Lin)

Soft serve is in. It never wasn't, per se, but it is really in now — especially in high-end restaurant dining rooms.

The dichotomous nature of high brow-low brow fare in food has become very en vogue in recent years, from hot dogs in fine dining to caviar paired with Pringles.

The newest entrant into this extravaganza is soft serve, often linked to summer memories, sticky finger and ice cream cones, and fine dining  which is sometimes dismissed as highfalutin, nose-in-the-air or stuffy. The melding of these two disparate concepts is now being seen across the country, with soft serve's ephemeral nature, sweet taste and familiar nostalgia offering a new, fresh juxtaposition at the end of a meal.

For instance, at Ruse in St. Michael, MD, executive chef Michael Correll is serving Matcha green tea soft serve with Oreo crumbs and raspberry. At Joy, also in Maryland, executive pastry chef Genesis Flores has put ube soft serve on the menu, coupled with salted peanut caramel, lemon-ginger syrup, honeycomb toffee, bee pollen and wae pieces. Over at Nama Ko, dessert is a miso-honey black truffle soft serve with dark chocolate toffee crunch, drizzled with both chocolate and caramel sauces.

For those (unfortunately) unfamiliar with soft serve, though, let’s take a look at its origins.

While many have named various figures and peoples as the “inventor” of soft serve ice cream, it seems as though the title truly belongs to Carvel  a family favorite local ice cream shop that I’ve been frequently visiting for over twenty years, never once realizing its legendary lore in soft serve circles.

Rumor has it that soft serve was created in a feat of happenstance  as all the best things are.

"When the tire of Tom Carvel’s ice cream truck went flat in Hartsdale in the summer of 1934, the sun was no friend," writes Dan Robbins in Westchester Magazine, adding "Carvel rushed to a nearby pottery shop to borrow electricity and save his stock. But passersby loved the melting custard, which he would later call 'soft-serve.' The truck stayed in the lot for the rest of the season, and Carvel netted $3,500 that summer (more than $60,000 in today’s dollar)." And the rest is history! (the official website also includes a variation of this story)

Of course, the modern soft serve operation as we know it today  swirling and swirling endlessly from machines with drop-down bars, akin to the way frozen yogurt dispenses  is a slightly different animal altogether, but for all intents and purposes, Carvel is the rightful owner to the claim. (It should also be noted, though, that History writes that Dairy Queen also has a similar claim.)

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Also, it should be noted that this isn't a brand new fad. Back in 2017, Monica Burton at Eater published "Why is soft serve on so many restaurant menus?" Last summer, Amber Gibson wrote "Soft Serve, Once a childhood treat, is now on sit-down restaurant menus" in Hemisphere Magazine. Gibson writes, "Forget chocolate and vanilla swirls and rainbow sprinkles; this summer, nostalgia-inspiring soft serve is going from Mister Softee to Michelin stars," specifically noting such ingredients as miso, edible gold leaf, tahini, oat milk, hazelnuts, halva floss, pistachio, buffalo milk, doenjang, toasted soybean powder, and chamoy. 

There’s no shortage to the ingredients that could be incorporated into these fine dining soft serves — we’ve clearly moved far beyond the simple dichotomy vanilla and chocolate here.

Last June, Charlotte Druckman wrote in Town and Country that the 'credit' for gourmet soft serve flavors should actually go to Christina Tosi, Milk Bar icon, since her 2008 introduction of cereal milk-flavored soft serve. Tosi said that soft serve is "operationally a light lift" and "Emotionally and creatively a nostalgic delight with infinite flavor possibility.” Druckman mentions some other wonderfully inventive flavors throughout the country, including matcha, maple, banana foster, fig leaf, egg tart and Thai iced tea.

As Max Falkowitz writes in Serious Eats, "But the soft serve machine didn't reach its peak until the '50s and '60s, when new technologies allowed for better aeration and churning of liquid bases." Falkowitz also adds that the "low-butter fat base" is "kept continually cool, then rapidly mixed with air to form a light foam right at the point of service," which is in line with Tosi's point that there's an inherent 'freshness' to soft serve  it's ostensibly mixed, fresh, in the machine, right as you order it.

Falkowitz finishes by writing "the best soft serve isn't completely loaded with air, so it feels dense on the tongue and melts slowly on your cone."

Now, though, the idea of soft serve as a fun lil’ treat to enjoy on a hot day has expanded into fine dining restaurants galore. I'm a sucker for tahini, brown butter, labneh and miso in any context, so I'm quite optimistic about many of these terrific-sounding options. 

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Correll adds "We use soft serve in two of our desserts. We currently run a cheesecake soft serve with toasted milk crumble and strawberry preserve. Come summer we will run the watermelon sorbet with chocolate pearls and mint." He also notes that Ruse uses Taylor machines, "the same ones used in McDonald’s", adding "yes, they break down often, too."

He credits the nostalgia of summertime and boardwalks and how his soft serve is a "high end product, but in a fun and playful manner." He also mentions Sip & Guzzle in New York City as a forward-looking soft serve option, where they serve "hokkaido milk soft serve with Japanese strawberries which is as luxury as luxury gets with ice cream."

Correll says that the first flavors added to the Ruse menu were labneh soft serve with pomegranate molasses and sesame brittle, followed by a matcha green tea with raspberry sauce and toasted milk crumble. He remarks on the fact that the labneh specifically was a neutral base that "wouldn't be too sweet and [would] be able to be a canvas for the garnish." He adds that "people love nostalgic foods and soft serve is one that most people can relate with."

Flores told me that she wants soft serve to be "the protagonist  to take advantage of the texture that the soft serve provides me and play with other textures to create a sensory experience." Flores also notes that the inspiration for the purple sweet potato flavor is due to the "famous ceviche at our sister restaurant," and also references a new guava prickly pear flavor, which is a "nice dairy free option for our customers."

Chef Alex Levin, Director of Strategic Business and Pastry Programs at Schlow Restaurant Group, which represents Nama Ko, told me that "soft serve is the conduit for most decadent ice cream sundaes," also mentioning how savory flavors — like miso or salted caramel  can elevate an experience and highlight the "fun factor" in a dessert.

"Soft serve is a home run for that," he said. 

Speaking to the oft aforementioned nostalgia, chef Michael Connell of Ruse also said that "one of my favorite desserts growing up was the watermelon roll from Friendly’s, my favorite restaurant growing up. My mom always bought them whenever we had birthday parties." He then capitalized on this, reinventing those familiar flavors at Ruse with a watermelon sorbet with lime curd and crunchy chocolate pearls.

"It's something that a lot of people try and go 'this reminds me of something I've had before.' As soon [as] they hear the story, it always brings a smile to their face!"

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Dessert Fine Dining Food Haute Cuisine Ice Cream Soft Serve