At Quintessence Sorbet, a Spotlight on California's Bounty

Kramer Collins stands with his sorbet stand at Tacos Oscar. (Ruth Gebreyesus/KQED)

On any given Thursday night, nestled between the bright pink and yellow shipping containers of Tacos Oscar in Oakland, you might find a gentleman selling a medley of sorbets from an old-school ice-cream cart. Shifting with the season’s harvests, Kramer Collins’s flavors are often named after their primary ingredient. His pistachio for example, is a sorbet made from Santa Barbara pistachios, water, cane sugar and sea salt. Offered with Maldon salt flakes as a topping, the sorbet tastes clean and true — the delicious pistachios have changed form but not flavor.

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Collins came into sorbet making in 2008 when he was hired as a dishwasher at Oakland’s Scream Sorbet. It was his first job in the food industry and eventually, he moved into sourcing ingredients, developing flavors as the kitchen manager. “I hated so much of that job. It's yelling at people, firing people, telling people to be on-time. I was bad at all that stuff,” he confesses.  “Ordering packaging. Ordering paper towels for the bathroom. It's the least romantic thing.” When I ask if there’s more romance with Quintessence, he answers assuredly, “Yeah. Because I make it that way.”

After Scream shuttered in 2013, Collins returned to sorbet making in 2017 buying his own equipment and serving in Port Costa’s Honey House Cafe and Bull Valley Road House but earlier this year, his plans were put on hold. “I was diagnosed with leukemia in January and I got super sick and I was in the hospital. I got the chemo and all that stuff. Many, many chemos.” he shares. 

For the next six months, Collins couldn’t do much besides stay put, read, meditate and contemplate his future. “I just made a bunch of resolutions that when I was better and made it out of that situation, that I would take more advantage of things that make me happier and are more for my own enrichment.”

In June, when he finally got well enough, Collins returned to Bull Valley Roadhouse’s kitchen with a renewed sense of direction. This August, he debuted Quintessence Sorbet at Oscar Michel and Jake Weiss’s Tacos Oscar after meeting the two back when they popped up at the Bull Valley Roadhouse.

A scoop of pistachio sorbet is served with some Maldon salt.
A scoop of pistachio sorbet is served with some Maldon salt. (Ruth Gebreyesus/KQED)

By night’s end, Collins sold out of his pistachio, strawberry and coconut lime sorbets. This is all that I could really dream of especially my first time doing this. It's unbelievable people who work here, unbelievable people who come in the door. Just really adventurous people who are willing to give it a try,” he shares. 

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Collins, who grew up in Orinda and spent many weekends at a family friend’s farm in Moraga, has a special appreciation for the pinnacle taste of produce at the peak of its season. “You look forward to all that stuff coming into season,” he tells me. “It's a treat when you're finally pulling heirloom tomatoes off the bush, or your keeper squash has finally been cured and it's ready to eat in the wintertime.” 

This is the mindset that informs his sorbet venture which he runs alone out of Bull Valley Road House’s kitchen and at pop-ups in Oakland he announces on his Instagram. “[First], what's the absolute best version of a pluot that I can possibly find?” he tells me.  “And then, when somebody thinks of a pluot, or they're talking to somebody about a pluot, how can I be the definition of the absolute, the ultimate version of that?” 

The brilliance of Quintessence Sorbet comes from Collins’s pursuit of the quintessential flavors he’s drawn towards and his technique gives his frozen treats an impossibly creamy texture — all the more impressive considering they’re all vegan. “I'm using some fat, but also naturally occurring pectin,” he explains, “A lot of the structural properties of these fruits can actually give body to a sorbet.” 

Part of the appeal in the pop-up model for Collins is the instability of his product since he doesn’t use any binders or stabilizers that can maintain the tiny ice crystals that make up his smooth sorbets. Once made, his sorbet has to stay at the right storage temperature and sold off before it melts into a more granita-like texture. “I have a refractometer, which measures Brix, which is a way of measuring dissolved sugars,” says Collins explaining that sugar is how he controls the freezing point of his desserts. 

While his sorbet is on the Bull Valley Roadhouse menu, he most enjoys the rewards of a pop-up experience where he’s serving customers himself.  “I really like the ephemeral quality of being in this moment here. We're all here at the same time and how magical it is that?”

Collins offers a taste of his persimmon sorbet.
Collins offers a taste of his persimmon sorbet. (Ruth Gebreyesus/KQED)

This winter will present the challenge of making sorbet appealing in a colder climate as well as figuring out how to make a sorbet out of citrus fruits whose juices are low in pectin. “I love citrus, so I've got to figure out a way, because minneola tangelo...” he trails off. Until he solves the citrus dilemma, there’s his take on the always seasonal chocolate that leans deliciously sweet while still holding toasted, bitter notes. Or Honey Sesame Neroli Sorbet, a more complex symphony of flavors. 

As customers taste his sorbet, Collins is always subtly looking out for their responses. “Who doesn't want to make someone smile? It's everything with food,” he tells me. “Imagine if you could make a plate of food and then walk out and serve it to somebody. I think, to some people, it might be a little bit scary, but if you really believe in what you're doing and you love it, who wouldn't want to see someone's reaction.”

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