Since its debut in 2015, West Ashley-based Cirsea Craft Ice Cream and its adventurous flavors—think coffee and bacon as well as strawberry goat cheese—have become favorites at more than 20 local restaurants and markets. Here, get to know owner (and mad ice-cream scientist) Kelly Chu
CM: Did you grow up in Charleston?
KC: I was born in China, and when I was 10, my parents and I moved to Brazil, where my great-uncle was opening a hotel. Then we moved to Charleston when I was 17. I finished high school at Academic Magnet.
CM: Did you speak English?
KC: At the time I was mainly speaking Chinese and Portuguese. I knew simple English phrases and words, but nothing conversational. That I learned by watching Seinfeld. Every day after school, I’d watch reruns with the captions. I’d listen to the dialogue, write it down, and repeat it. I learned so much, especially humor and sarcasm. I still love the show. It’s hilarious.
CM: Were you always interested in F&B?
KC: I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2001 with a degree in information systems. It was the hot degree back then. My husband, Tony, and I—we met in school—moved back to Charleston to gain management experience before getting our MBAs. We planned to open a coffee shop, but when that fell through, a family friend was selling a restaurant (now called Red Orchids China Bistro), and we took it over.
CM: So when did the ice cream start?
KC: I felt that our menu at Red Orchids had lots of variety. But most Chinese restaurants aren’t known for their desserts. There are the typical orange slices, almond cookies, or red bean and green tea ice creams, but they’re very average—unimpressive. So I thought I’d try my hand at my own green tea ice cream. I made my first batch in 2005.
CM: I’m guessing it turned out well.
KC: Everyone loved it! The next flavor I tried was jasmine, and when that was also received well, I tried ginger, coconut, and then made a jump to black sesame. That was the first flavor that really exploded. I started experimenting more—and I’d serve flights of ice cream so people could try a few at a time. When diners started asking to take pints home, I began to think about my own business.
CM: Working in a creamery testing out new flavors seems like a dream job.
KC: My employees and I all love ice cream, yet I’d say we love making it more than we love eating it. We consider ice cream a treat—and that’s good for inventory.
CM: What’s been most challenging?
KC: Marketing. With a restaurant, it can be a little more passive. People walk by, they come in, and you welcome them. But wholesaling is different. I’m constantly reaching out and presenting my product.
CM: What’s with the name, “Cirsea”?
KC: It’s a Southern term for a little surprise. Lots of grandmothers say it, and I love the association the term has with tradition. Even though our flavors aren’t too traditional, I wanted that nostalgic feeling one gets when eating ice cream. “Circe” is also the Greek goddess who turned men into pigs; I thought that was funny. But I spelled it “Cirsea,” referring to circling the globe and the seas—and the limitless combinations of flavors from around the world.
CM: Do you have a favorite flavor?
KC: It’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. It depends on the day. We’ve made some unique ones recently. For Lowcountry Local First’s Chefs’ Potluck, I made a sweet cream with a strawberry-honey swirl and black-truffle cheese. Fat Hen carries a margarita sorbet; and we made two customized flavors for a Veuve Clicquot event: a ginger-pear sorbetto and a strawberry-honey sorbetto that pairs well with a rosé.
CM: Who are your ice-cream role models?
KC: I’m a big fan of Graeter’s. It’s a family-owned company that never compromises quality. That’s key for me. I only use all-natural ingredients—and no food coloring. Some companies will add various juices to get different colors. But my lavender ice cream, for example, is just white, because lavender doesn’t give out a purple color. Honest goodness is my goal. If you’re eating a spoonful of ice cream, it should be worth the calories.