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Ice cream is timeless. We still serve it during birthday parties, crave it in warm weather, and seek its sweet comfort on a bad day. It's that one ubiquitous dessert that most people associate with childhood memories and celebrations. Anyone with an appreciation for sweet endings will find it hard to resist-let alone love-ice cream.
And for some people, that love is enough to fuel one's lifelong passion.
"The reason why I love ice cream is that it's one of the ultimate comfort food.
It brings you back when you were a kid."
The story behind Sebastian's Ice Cream is one nostalgic ride. Ian Carandang recalls going to Virra Mall in Greenhills back in high school, where Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book, with its attractive cover and colorful layout, caught his eye while he was inside a bookstore. Years after, in the mid-1990s, when shopping at Duty Free was considered a rare opportunity to access imported goods, Ian chanced upon pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream at the frozen section. Fascinated, he bought every flavor available, some of which are no longer in the market: Cookie Dough, Chunky Monkey, New York Super Fudge Chunk, Wavy Gravy, and Cool Britannia, to name a few.
"I remember the first night-I was trying all of them. I'd never had banana ice cream. I'd never had cookie dough, or chocolate ice cream that had more than one chunk in it. It blew my mind. Butter pecan-I finally tried butter pecan! It's so good! Up to now, it's still my favorite flavor to eat."
That chance encounter was life-changing; it began Ian's longstanding affair with ice cream. His love for Ben & Jerry's grew to a point that when he could no longer get it locally, he felt the need to recreate his favorite flavors and make his own ice cream. An aunt living overseas granted his request for an ice cream machine and the Ben & Jerry's recipe book, and soon Ian began experimenting. The first flavor he successfully recreated was Chunky Monkey.
Soon, he was serving ice cream to customers at a family-owned restaurant. Two classmates from college saw an opportunity and invited him to join a business venture where his focus would be product development.
Ian became head sorbetero and Sebastian's Ice Cream was born.
So why ice cream, not burgers or pizza or noodles? Or if he wanted to make desserts, why not cakes or pastries? The less romantic reason, as Ian himself puts it, is that ice cream is much easier to make.
But while ice cream is easy to make with a little imagination, genuine interest, and a reliable machine, managing an ice cream business can be difficult. Logistics can easily be a problem.
Ice cream needs to remain frozen before getting served. If the required temperature isn't maintained, the ice cream melts, and if you put it back in the freezer after, the consistency changes. Ice forms from the water content the ice cream become less creamy-something that you don't want, but that can happen to ice cream during stock transfer.
Ian has come up with around 100 ice cream flavors over the years-from his first-ever flavor, Cookie Dough and his all-time favorite, Butter Pecan; to the flavor he's proudest of, Once in a Blue Moon, an uncommon concoction made with blue cheese. He has mixed all sorts of ingredients into ice cream: chicharon, bagoong, ampalaya, fish. Name it, and he has probably experimented with it at some point.
When Ian first made Cookie Dough, an original Ben & Jerry's flavor, cookie dough flavored ice cream wasn't available locally. It was the perfect time to share it with Filipino ice cream lovers. Ian himself was fascinated with the flavor.
"I loved how simple it was where vanilla ice cream and unbaked cookie dough would make something magical," he said.
Being able to come up with new flavors used to be an exercise that stroked Ian's ego, but he's way past that stage. Out of the hundred or so flavors he has developed, only about a quarter of them remains on the menu.
This is not to say that Ian hasn't been doing his homework. In fact, he has expanded the menu to include not only ice cream served in cups and cones, but also in other forms.
The Chilly Burger was inspired by yet another old school favorite: Coney Island's Eskimo Rolls. Coney Island was a brand of artisanal ice cream that became popular in the 1980s when "artisanal" wasn't even a thing yet. And if you were already around to experience Coney Island back then, you'll agree: The Chilly Burger is a lot like the Eskimo Roll, with creamy Sebastian's Ice Cream tucked between thick and chewy cookies. So sinful, but so worth it.
The Birthday Cake Shake is arguably the prettiest thing on the menu. It's mostly purple with splashes of rainbow colors and rightfully earns its place as one of the masterpiece milkshakes at Sebastian's. To make this masterpiece, pound cake is blended with sweet cream ice cream. Then candy sprinkles, ube fudge, ube whipped cream, pink frosting, and colorful fruity pebbles on top are added.
Poppits are essentially ice cream nuggets. They save you the trouble of using a spoon when all you want to do is to pop food into your mouth when watching a movie. Poppits are dipped in hard shell and won't melt in your hands. You can't go wrong with the Birthday Cake, Hazelnut Crunch, Oreo Mint, and Bubble Gum flavors.
The Avocado Leche Flan Torte is this amazing dessert that combines the distinct flavor and texture of leche flan with the refreshing taste of avocado ice cream. It's a refined version of the leche flan pizza of Sebastian's, when it was created back in 2013. Ian has perfected this reincarnation. This blissful fusion of avocado, custard, and the cookie crust looks a bit like cheesecake and is exquisite in terms of texture, presentation, and taste.
Ian doesn't pressure himself as much to come up with new ice cream flavors these days but is still keen on bringing new ideas to the table, seeing them take shape, and sustaining the business-hence the new products. So, even if one goes to Sebastian's to find out that it doesn't have a newly launched ice cream flavor, one can still order something new, innovative, and most importantly, delicious.
"I never think of a flavor as unusual. I never think of making something weird. I never aim for that."
This claim, coming from a man who made the decades-old running joke of making green mango ice cream with bagoong a reality, is unexpected.
He then shares the story of how he thought of making green mango sorbet after successfully making ripe mango sorbet, and how the idea for adding bagoong came when he remembered the flavor profile of sweet bagoong he tasted at a shop a while back.
"Maybe that's the secret. I never think of it as I'll be making bizarre food. It comes from an honest place."
He also admits that most customers would normally just go for safer options like Cookie Dough and Chocoholics Anonymous and that despite years of experience, he still hasn't figured out what makes a hit flavor.
"The public will like what it likes, and I can't guess that, honestly. I've tried. You never know what the public will embrace."
What surprises him even after all these years, is when unusual flavors like Green Manggo with Bagoong, Champorado with Dilis, and Sapin-Sapin-one of the bestselling flavors at the moment-get depleted in stores.
"What I love about this is that our market, our customer base," Ian says, "trusts me to go in these directions. Sometimes it will work. Sometimes they'll accept it, sometimes they won't. The freedom is there, the permission is there. You don't have to worry about holding back."
Ian acknowledges that the food business is much like fashion, where there's always something new. He is aware of the competition in the artisanal ice cream market. He has, after all, endured humbling experiences in the 15 or so years he's been in operation and at some point, he asked himself if he should continue.
And he did, for a simple, practical, yet meaningful reason: it's the only thing he believes he's good at. Nevertheless, he takes nothing for granted and works extra hard to keep the business running so Sebastian's can have its rightful place in the sun, without melting.
"I don't want to be a passing fad. I want to be rock solid. I want something with a solid foundation, something that's not gonna go away."
A visit to Sebastian's is extraordinary because it brings back fond memories: like that first time you tried mangga't bagoong as a kid, those mornings you ate champorado for breakfast with your siblings, or that time you had coffee with someone you liked and the coffee jelly kept you wide awake into the night. Letting the flavors slide down your mouth is an experience in itself that triggers cherished fragments of your past.
Ian couldn't have said it better: "The reason why I love ice cream is that it's one of the ultimate comfort food. It brings you back when you were a kid. You know, it's soft, it's easy to eat, it's safe. It's one of the first foods you're given as a kid, as a treat. Because you know, it's soft, there are no chunks. It's sweet, it's comforting, even when you're a grown-up, it brings you back to that. It touches you deeply, makes you happy. I think that's what special about ice cream."
One thing's for sure: there will always be someone out there craving Sebastian's Ice Cream. Because, let's face it, Filipinos love food and Filipinos love ice cream-two things that you can read on Sebastian's menu.
"We do. We love eating, and Filipinos have a sweet tooth. Plus, we're a tropical country. Those things for me makes the Philippines a good market for ice cream in general, and it will always be a thing; whether or not we endure or survive in the long term, Filipinos will always eat ice cream."