Jun 4, 2020

Anything But Vanilla

Q&A with Kaya Ogruce, founder, Death in Venice Gelato

Death in Venice Gelato

Gelato making, like baroque music, is a centuries-old art form that blends flights of fantasy and creative ingenuity with an emphasis on authenticity, skill, and craftsmanship. What better way to welcome summer than to pair a Tafelmusik concert with award-winning, artisanal gelato? Thanks to a new partnership with local gelato wizards Death in Venice, select Tafelmusik at Home virtual concerts may be complemented by home gelato delivery. Read on to learn more about Kaya Ogruce, founder of Death in Venice Gelato, and their amazing flavours.

Tafelmusik: How did you go from being an engineer to becoming one of Toronto’s top gelato artisans?

Kaya Ogruce:First of all, thank you for the compliment! I came to Toronto to become a chemical engineer. That was what I studied. I was an immigrant, and after getting a really good job as a refinery engineer at Unilever Canada, making margarine, I kind of lost my interest in the field because I thought it was becoming a little too predictable, too easy. I wanted to become involved in some kind of art. But I wasn’t an artist, so I thought the closest thing was the culinary arts. I enrolled in the Stratford Chef School with the idea that if I was successful enough, I could make the leap. I took a year off from my work and I told my boss that I was going to Australia for a year for my Master’s degree. In reality, I was actually going to Stratford Chef School to study cooking!

That’s how the cooking journey started. I got lucky, found a good job in Holland, and then I got transferred to France, where I lived for a long time. I started to teach cooking and then I went to San Francisco, Belgium, and Singapore, and I was cooking all over the world in the best restaurants. When I settled back in Toronto, I didn’t want to open up a restaurant or work in one. The idea was to find something that was creative and food related, but not a restaurant.

After a trip to Italy, I came up with the idea of opening up a gelato shop! That was influenced by my experiences there. I had this amazing time in Sicily, on a motorcycle — a perfect vacation with my girlfriend at the time. I came back with my own version of the art of making gelato, not replicating it but being influenced by it. It’s been about five years since this journey started, and Death in Venice has been growing and good things have been happening. The idea is to always be improving, to not be complacent, and to try and bring my experiences as an engineer and a chef together into the product that I make.

Death in Venice Gelato outdoor sign

TM: Why did you decide to name your company after the famous film by Luchino Visconti?

KO: Well, that’s an interesting story. I read the book Death in Venice by Thomas Mann when I was 20 or 21 years old. I was in university and I liked the book so much. I figured out that there was a movie as well, by Luchino Visconti, and both really influenced me — the aesthetic, the music. I happen to be a big fan of Gustav Mahler’s music, and the movie soundtrack includes the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony. At the age of 21 while I was studying engineering, I promised myself that one day I would start a company and call it Death in Venice. Pretty naïve! As an engineer I don’t think you would want to call your company Death in Venice Construction, or Death in Venice Plumbing! All these years later I happen to own a gelato company called Death in Venice, so it kind of works. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Venice, though. People think “oh, Venice, gelato, Italy connection.” No, it’s more about the book and the idea of the book, a kind of yearning for that ultimate perfection.

TM: There are definite parallels between the occasionally over-the-top baroque aesthetic and your daring flavour creations. Is that a coincidence or are you a fan of all things baroque and beautiful?

KO: Baroque music and baroque architecture are a little bit over the top … it’s calculated, it’s opulent, it’s basically design on steroids. And I like that. I like the content, the history behind it, especially in the music. When I’m making gelato, there’s the idea of being a little bit over the top as well. Not necessarily trying to get attention, but I do like the flavours to be very pungent and bright. What I’m trying to achieve is for people to get a big punch of flavour in a scoop. I’m not encouraging people to buy a pint of gelato and eat it in one shot, that’s not the idea of Death in Venice. Our gelato should be enjoyed in small doses, a tasting, an experience rather than pure indulgence or gluttony. The idea is to have much more of a refined experience, but a really exciting one, with bright flavours. And that’s kind of baroque in a way – it’s really in your face and you can get kind of carried away with it. So I guess there are some similarities. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s on purpose, who knows?!

TM: Raspberry ginger tandoori. Grilled cheese and sourdough. Pad Thai … You’re obviously not afraid to break away from the traditional gelato flavours! How do you decide whether a flavour you’re experimenting with is a success?

Death in Venice Gelato - Staff with rhubarbKO: I get that question a lot, and the answer is I don’t know until we start serving. I always stay true to my tastebuds: I can’t really serve something that I don’t like, or that I feel is “meh.” There are a lot of flavours I could offer that would be big sellers, that people would love and kids would like, that might attract even more business, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Everybody says, “Oh you should do marshmallow, kids love marshmallow! Or vanilla.” We have never actually served vanilla, and we don’t really have a plain chocolate gelato. I just find those to be a little bit boring — those flavours have been done for so many years. So the idea is to do things that I like, the flavours that I would eat, that I would feed to my son. The idea is to give people more credit. I feel like a lot of these gelato and ice-cream shops think of their customers as the “vanilla crowd” or “strawberry crowd.” I go against that because people love being surprised, people love being challenged! Even if they come in with vanilla in mind, once you explain the product and the idea and the ingredients and how much work goes into it, they become interested and they always end up liking something different. We serve 16 flavours, so I don’t feel like I have to serve something that everyone will like. We don’t have any safety nets when we’re making or serving gelato.

Do I know if it’s going to be a success? Not really. Sometimes I can tell if a flavour is going to be more successful than others. But the flavours that are less successful sometimes mean more to me because they’re more interesting, they’re more experimental.

TM: What was your reaction when Tafelmusik approached you about a partnership combining home gelato delivery with our “Tafelmusik at Home” online concert series?

KO: Well, it’s like a dream come true because classical music is a huge part of my life. Classical music is like my meditation. Running is a big thing in my life, that's how I keep my sanity. Every time I run I listen to classical music, which grounds me.

I have this ultimate dream where maybe one day I’ll go to a symphony concert and the conductor is suddenly sick. Mahler is on the program and the orchestra would ask if there’s a conductor in the audience. Because I know all his pieces so well, I would just raise my hand and go up on stage and conduct the symphony! I have those dreams!

Tafelmusik approaching me for a collaboration is like a dream come true, where classical music meets my product. Basically, it’s the best thing that could happen. I’m super excited about it.

I think our baroque-inspired gelato flavour, rhubarb and licorice, will be quite good. It’s a little bit of an experiment, but I think it’s very bright and pungent. This collaboration is a great way for me to meet other fellow classical music lovers and introduce my product. I hope they enjoy it as much as I do.

Death in Venice Gelato - staff taste testing

TM: Imagine that you were commissioned to create a gelato flavour called “Music.” What would it taste like and why?

KO: Music is everything! When it comes to gelato and music, they are similar in that there are no rules. And anything can be successful, from Bob Dylan to Bach or Boccherini. When I make gelato, I always think of the balance. Just like a symphony, where you have the winds, the strings, the percussion … you need to have a balance. And the same with the gelato. For me it’s always a bit of a fight against the sweetness of the gelato, because I’m actually not a huge fan of sweets, so I always try and incorporate acidity, saltiness, and herbs to balance the sweetness. It’s almost like a symphony: you’re trying to keep your gelato in check so it’s not too sweet or too acidic. And you’re also worrying about the texture. And that’s just like music. Music has texture. When you listen to Maurice Ravel, it’s all about the texture and how impressionistic it is, and some gelato is like that too. When I taste my saffron vanilla ginger gelato, I find it’s very expressionist, you’re painting with the flavours. The idea is to have some kind of harmony between the flavours, just like music does.

What better way to complement your Tafelmusik at Home weekly concert than with delicious gelato from local artisans Death in Venice, delivered to your door! You will be able to add on gelato and view details once you have added a Tafelmusik at Home concert to your cart. Available for Fantasia (June 10), Caprice (June 17), and Sonata (June 24) — visit the concert pages for more details.

Images courtesy of Death in Venice Gelato

Tafelmusik Together
Tafelmusik At Home