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Chef Interviews

Q & A With Popcycle's Michelle Sallah: A Lifetime in Restaurants & on Bikes + A Popsicle Recipe

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Fri, Jul 9, 2010 at 8:44 AM
click to enlarge Michelle Sallah and John Cassidy of Popcycle - J. KOSLOW
  • J. Koslow
  • Michelle Sallah and John Cassidy of Popcycle

The arrival of consistent summer sunshine is well received by Michelle Sallah and John Cassidy of Popcycle, which means they are finding it quite easy to sell out of their frozen creations. And it's easy to understand why. Not only are they creating local, seasonal, and well crafted popsicle treats, but also it's their mode of transportation that makes a statement. In a city dominated by cars and mobile food trucks, Sallah and Cassidy set themselves apart by operating their pops business the old-fashion and 100% green way - on an orange dutch cargo bicycle built by Cassidy.

While earlier this week, we talked with Lake Street Creamery about their ice cream and float parlay into LA's mobile food world, we now turn to Sallah and Cassidy to chat about their carbon-conscious choice, their love of bikes and popsicles, and their dessert island foods. Sallah also shares an easy recipe for flavorful, currently in-season, vanilla grapefruit chamomile freezer pops. All this after the jump.

SI: How did you start cooking professionally?

MS: I've always been involved in the restaurant world; my parents owned a diner and so I worked in restaurants on and off since I was 12. After college at NYU, fine dining just seemed like the next step.

SI: What brought you then to Los Angeles?

MS: Well, I went to French Culinary Institute, did my stage at their restaurant, L'ecole, and then ended up at The Spotted Pig. I was there until I left New York for Northern California in 2005. I worked at another very seasonally focused restaurant in Squaw Valley called Plumpjack - associated with the Napa winery. Then I moved down here to reopen Bar Marmont with Caryolynn Spence - my old sous chef from 'The Pig' who was taking over the Chateau kitchen and needed someone to run the bar. After two years there, I decided I wanted to work for myself and have become a freelance private chef. It's allowed me the freedom for a side project like Popcycle.

SI: Can you recall your a-ha moment when you two decided to operate Popcycle out of a bike?

MS: We have always talked about what kind of business we could have together, John a photographer and me a chef. Cookbooks? Styling? But then, one day, he showed me an ice cream cart for auction on eBay and said, "this is the kind of thing we could do together." Then we realized we could do it in our spare time and the idea really appealed to us both.

SI: How did John decide to build the bike himself?

MS: As for building the bike, John has always been a handyman. When he did some research into the cost of an assembled freezer bike, he just thought to himself, "I can build one better and cheaper." So he, did implementing the dutch cargo design as opposed to the tricycle design.

SI: Does this mean, then, that you two have a cycling background?

MS: John and I both have backgrounds in cycling. John grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania riding bikes and his older sister was a competitive cyclist for years. He moved to New York in 1998 with a bike and was an avid all-weather bike commuter. In the last two years he lived in New York, he can count on his hands the number of times he rode the subway. The habit came with him to LA, where he became more involved with the biking community, Bicycle Kitchen, Wolfpack Hustle, etc.

SI: And you?

MS: I grew up in Toledo, Ohio with a mom who rode her bike everywhere with me on it until I was old enough for my own. She got the habit from my grandpa, who at 81 still rides his bicycle to the post office and grocery store daily. I didn't bike much in New York, but when I moved to LA in 2006, I lived in an apartment with terrible parking. I was working nights at the time, and had to spend hours looking for parking when I got home. My decision to get a bike and ride to work everyday was totally pragmatic, but I really started to enjoy riding, and when John moved to LA in 2008, we started riding together a lot.

SI: Do you still have a car?

MS: We do. I use it for my private chef work as I am often lugging around bags and bags of food. I try to do smaller client shopping and my own errands all by bicycle and I am fairly good at staying motivated. John rides everywhere - even to work three to four times a week. And of course, on the weekends, we're out for hours at a time on the Popcycle and my bike.

SI: So total hours a week...

MS: Probably 20 hours or so.

SI: That's, wow, inspiring. Ok, on to popsicles. How did you decide to make them?

MS: Other than just loving popsicles? Well, another reason we like this project so much is that it leaves us room for flexibility. If we want to go out of town, we go. If we sell out, we sell out, and go home. I love that concept.

SI: And a brick and mortar place did not appeal to you?

MS: I think many storefront businesses have so much debt that they compromise their integrity by trying to make their sales as high as possible, stretching their employees too thin, and/or using low quality products. With Popcycle, we keep our other jobs. We don't plan to be millionaires - we're not depending on treat sales. We're having fun, making a quality product, and riding bikes together on the weekend. If it stops being fun we aren't going to do it anymore.

SI: So what fun flavors are you making right now?

MS: The flavors are changing as the season change, but right now, this week, I'm making what have come to be our two standards, coconut milk chocolate and salty cucumber lime. I'm also doing a spicy peach ginger, raspberry Arnold Palmer, and experimenting with a yogurt pop with fresh apricots. Some other early summer flavors were strawberry lemon basil cherry limeade and vanilla grapefruit chamomile.

SI: Any thoughts on future flavors?

MS: As melons come in season I look forward to doing a watermelon mint and a cantaloupe with star anise. I'm hoping for good mangoes, too, to try a mango cardamom. Oh, figs and grapes should be fun in the late summer.

SI: Last question: Do you have a desert island food?

MS: I don't have a desert island food - I go through food phases, where I eat the same thing for like a week and then forget about it when a new obsession comes along. So I have a different favorite meal all the time. For some reason buttered bread and a hunk of really sharp Parmesan keeps popping into my head, but that can't be right...

John says his desert island food is a coconut milk chocolate pudding pop, but I think he's just being nice.

SI: Seeing that it made our Top 10 Popsicles in LA list, he's probably speaking the truth.

Follow Popcycle on Twitter.

Vanilla grapefruit chamomile freezer pops

From: Chef Michelle Sallah, of Popcycle Treats.

Note: Michelle suggests purchasing grapefruits and fresh chamomile (available in the spring and summer) from one of the many Certified Farmer's Markets in Los Angeles. You can, however, use Grapefruit juice.

Makes: Around 6 popsicles

4 cup fresh grapefruit juice (from approximately 8 large ruby reds, but any variety will work well in this recipe)

2/3 cup organic sugar

1/2 cup fresh chamomile flowers (available at most CFM's in the spring and summer)

1/2 cup vanilla bean, split and scraped

1 tablespoon organic vanilla extract

pinch kosher salt

1. Bring all ingredients to a simmer over medium heat (do not boil), stirring to dissolve sugar. Simmer 10 minutes, then turn off heat and let the mixture cool.

2. When no longer hot, strain out flowers and vanilla bean and discard (not pressing on the flowers) or else bits of the flower will find their way into the base.

3. Chill liquid in fridge. when cold, pour in to molds, put stick in place, and freeze until set.

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