It all began with an adventure straight out of a Roberto Bolaño novel. Three people avidly scouring the outskirts of Mexico City for an unnamed town renowned for an elusive delicacy: Mexican ice cream, traditionally prepared in wooden barrels. What they found was a highway between two towns, lined with ice cream vendors using raw milk and fresh mangos. “It was the best ice cream I’ve ever had,” Fany Gerson said of this quest. And so began La Newyorkina, the latest addition to a buzzing community of small-scale enterprises by international chefs in NYC.
After training at the C.I.A. (no, not the spy agency), Gerson, who calls herself the “anti-pastry chef,” took her talents to Rosa Mexicano in the Big Apple. But visa restrictions forced her home, where she spent time exploring the deep culture of Mexican dessert cuisine. An absence of cookbooks on the subject didn’t stop her. “As I started to research, I realized that Mexican sweets in particular are passed down through oral tradition. I was fascinated by that,” Gerson says, “and since then, I started to think, there must be so many places and stories like this in Mexico.” She started a year-long research venture, little knowing it would become the backbone of her first book—My Sweet Mexico: Recipes for Authentic Pastries, Breads, Candies, Beverages, and Frozen Treats.
Gerson didn’t stop there: after her book was published, she decided to open her own business. “It was always about self-expression, less about the business angle. I became an entrepreneur by default,” she admits. The result, as any visitor to La Newyorkina will undoubtedly realize, is a veritable museum of Mexican treats, assiduously curated to mirror the tremendous diversity of the country’s cultures and cuisines. But making ice cream is an expensive task, and Gerson needed a more realistic starting point. Paletas, ice pops dear to Mexicans young and old, offered a perfect (and affordable) chance to whet the appetite of New Yorkers. “I really wanted to do something authentic,” she says.
Taking on two jobs to support her venture, Gerson worked with a friend to prepare paletas for the Hester Street fair. “Before we even opened, New York Magazine called us asking us to send them ice pops,” she remembers. In a rush to fulfill this unanticipated demand, she flew to Mexico just to pick up the molds. Gerson says, “I think I must have slept only 5 hours the week of the fair.” A rocky start ensued. “As I was filling the cart with ice pops, I ended up fracturing my nose and bleeding everywhere. So that was day one of La Newyorkina,” she laughs. But they sold every single paleta within a few hours, with flavors ranging from tamarind to mango-chili. By the end of the summer, she had quit both her jobs to focus on her paletas phenomenon.
La Newyorkina’s menu reflects Gerson’s love of Mexican cuisine in all its diversity. She started out with flavors straight out of a conventional paletaria menu, but quickly started incorporating local fruits. “Mexican cuisine is so regional,” she explains, “it’s all about taking advantage of your surroundings. So, then I decided it was OK, as long as what we created held a Mexican essence.” Her vision of Mexican cuisine extends across borders. “For me, one of the best compliments is if a Mexican comes in and says it reminds them of their home,” Gerson says. While tacos and burritos can be found throughout the US, she’s using ice cream as a powerful vehicle to carry unfamiliar Mexican flavors to American palettes, such as chamoyada, an ice pop flavor consisting of pickled plum juice and salted chili. Moving away from assembly-line cuisine, Gerson tries to innovate with her cooking each day, pairing new fruits and flavors together.
Perhaps Gerson’s most powerful message is her advocacy for a new perspective on non-western cuisine in the US: “One of the problems is that people group Mexican food into a whole, even though it’s very regional. It’s richer and more sophisticated than people give it credit for.” La Newyorkina’s menu hosts an array of regionally-inspired flavors while also promoting Mexican dessert cuisine, something entirely unrepresented on most tacqueria menus. Gerson refuses to sacrifice the complexity of Mexican cuisine to the limits of what’s popular or expected. “The value perception that people bring to foreign cuisine is completely off. If you go to a really nice Italian restaurant, people don’t blink when they charge $30 for pasta. But if you charge the same amount for a molé and enchiladas, people will think it’s ridiculously expensive,” she said. “There’s still this association that because a dish is European, it’s fine dining.” Instead of letting this stop her, Gerson has redoubled her efforts to make La Newyorkina an educational experience.
One scoop of her molé ice cream will convince you of the sophistication inherent to Mexican cooking. She’s also curated the store to highlight arts and crafts from Mexico, and donates a percentage of La Newyorkina’s profits to CREA, an organization that helps low-income Mexican women develop their own businesses. Gerson joins the ranks of dedicated international entrepreneurs redefining their cuisines through small-scale startups in New York. La Newyorkina stays true to its name: adapting Mexican flavors and cooking styles to NYC, while retaining the complexity inherent to the cuisine. And although she hasn’t found the famed ice-cream highway again, her magnificent desserts carry the same magic in every bite.