Sweet career for island chemist
When I first met Dr. Dirk Koeppenkastrop, he handed me one of the oddest gelato concoctions I'd ever heard of: hurricane popcorn gelato topped with furikake. I gingerly tried it on air when I interviewed him live on the morning show, and to my genuine surprise, I liked it!
It's the right combination of savory and sweet, salt and sugar, crème and crunch. I might be the only person surprised, though, that any sweet creation coming out of Il Gelato Hawaii is superb.
The secret, aside from decades of corporate business acumen and a sincere passion for this second-career craft, is quite possibly Koeppenkastrop's chemistry background. He has a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Koeppenkastrop and his wife spent a couple decades in their native Germany raising their family, though they had lived in Hawaii for a long time, and had always missed the Islands. He was running 20 large environmental laboratories for Eurofins, the world leader in food, environment and pharmaceutical products testing.
"It was a long-time dream of ours to return to Hawaii after our children graduated from school. One of the things we missed about Europe while we lived in Hawaii was gelato, so I thought it would be perfect to open a gelateria and fill a niche in the market," he recalls.
Koeppenkastrop started taking teacher training course in Italy to learn to make gelato, and "I just knew from the first class that this was what I really wanted to do."
It's the perfect blend of his talents. "Freezing is all about physical chemistry. Adding sugar, reducing the freezing point, adding salt, understanding how fats and solids react" is all in his wheelhouse.
This, he says, "lets me make the best, healthiest, creamiest, all natural, and still great-tasting product." It's an advantage most competitors lack, he says; most don't have chemistry degrees.
Additionally, he says, he brings to the table a deep understanding of the financial savvy needed to make a business run. "I'm very detail oriented, and I'm also very sensitive to the P&L (profit and loss report.) Hawaii is a very expensive place to run a restaurant, so I am able to use my experience at Eurofins to manage my costs well."
Today, the Koeppenkastrops have three outlets: the original factory in Iwilei, and two branches in Kahala Mall and the North Shore Market Place in Haleiwa. His wife manages the Haleiwa store and is the Marketing/ HR person.
Dirk is the flavor developer and maestro gelato maker, and here's a taste of some of the new products he's developing for this fall/ winter: German apple strudel, pumpkin stracciatella (hot chocolate mixed in with pumpkin gelato), pumpkin cheesecake, a line of cranberry flavors, champagne/raspberry swirl, eggnog (this is the only gelato we have with egg in it), and candy cane.
"I'm the mad scientist in the laboratory, and the great thing is, I can taste my own creations to see if I like them or not!" he laughs. His own favorite flavor is pistachio with dark gianduja.
Here's another beautiful thing about being his own boss now: he picks his store locations based on his love for kite surfing, surfing, and stand-up paddling. No word on a new store location, but if there is a fourth store, you can bet it'll be minutes from a great beach.