Gelato master (and part-time leatherman) Jack Duke is one cool character

A SURE BET | In Italy, being a gelato maker is a respected but not-unusual profession, but here Jack Duke is ice cream royalty, as one of a few dozen true gelato masters in the entire U.S. (Arnold Wayne Jones)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
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When Jack Duke first moved to the U.S. in 2005, the captain of his volleyball team predicted — accurately, it turns out — that lot of guys would ask him out. And from a food standpoint, almost every one was a disaster.

“Every single date I went on, they took me to an Italian restaurant,” Duke sighs. Or rather, one they considered Italian: Spaghetti Warehouse, Macaroni Grill, Olive Garden. “They were just trying to make me comfortable,” he says with generosity. “But, like, Alfredo sauce? We don’t really have that in Italy.”

Duke hails from the north of Italy between Milan and Venice — “Near Verona, where Romeo and Juliet are from. I didn’t know them personally, but there is a statue of Juliet and it’s good luck to touch her boobs,” he laughs.

As an authentic Italian, faux Americanized versions of classics he grew up on didn’t impress him much. Especially since Duke is a chef in his own right.

Duke’s culinary roots are hereditary. “My dad is in the food business as well, doing prosciutto. In Italy, it is a small group of people who can really carve the prosciutto. And I grew up having good food anyway — my mom always cooked.”

And while he cooks a lot at home (he’s happily partnered now), Duke’s particular skills in the kitchen run cooler than his hot Latin blood would suggest: Duke is a gelato master — one of only about two dozen in the U.S. And while that’s impressive here, it is slightly less so back home.

“Gelato is way more diffuse in Italy — they say, one gelateria for every 3,000 people. So there’s a lot. Gelato masters go to school and there are several different schools Italy, but a lot of people grow up in it and you can be very good without school. But in America it’s different because we are so few — you get more status.”

(One potential downside of being multinational: “When I fly back and forth to Italy, I have to fill out that white[customs/immigration] card. Under ‘What do you do for business?’ I tell them ‘gelato master’ but he did not understand, so he just wrote ‘master.’ I thought: I can be that, too,” says the former Mr. Texas Leather, who came in third at IML last year.)

Modesty aside, Duke’s skills with frozen treats keep him busy, traveling the country and teaching restaurateurs and chefs how to make gelato, ice cream and sorbetto.

“Frozen dessert in general,” he says,  up to and including mousses, frozen yogurt and tiramisu. “In Italy there is no distinction. Sorbetto is something different — what you use in between meals — but they are all considered gelato: some made with water [what we could call sorbet], some with milk.”

There is, however, a big difference in Italian ice creams versus American.

“Gelato is made with whole milk, ice cream with heavy cream, sorbetto with water,” he explains. “Gelato has 4 to 8 percent fat; ice cream is 14 percent. And Haagen Dazs is 32 percent! Look at the label. There’s also more air in ice cream – 60 percent is air, where gelato is less than 30 percent air.”

If this also sounds esoteric — more chemistry than culinary — welcome to the wonderful world of the dessert chef.

“All frozen desserts have a base that is similar: Liquids and solids. Balancing those is how you create unique flavors,” Duke says. “The solids are the same: You have a stabilizer, or emulsifier, often a gum; it used to be eggs but not any more because of risk of salmonella. Then come the sugars, which are the major part of the solids.  The amount of sugar dictates how it melts. If it melts too quickly that’s because there’s too much sugar — sugar is not just a flavor, it’s an antifreeze.”

The kind of sugar you use — sucrose, dextrose, inverted sugar, corn syrup — also affects the consistency as well as the sweetness. And because fat molecules “grab” bubbles of air to make gelato fluffier, adding components like nuts (high in fat) alters the recipe … not that Duke is sharing any of his recipes.

Duke designed one of the most remarkable desserts I’ve ever tasted: A chocolate sorbet (made with water, mind you) at Cibus in NorthPark Center. How did he achieve such authentic richness? That’s for him to know…

“Most gelato stores try to keep their recipes secretive,” is all he’ll say. “We maintain a big hush-hush on the recipes.”

He has some favorites of his own creation, including a pistachio gelato that was salty and sweet. “I just got a machine that makes soft serve gelato or yogurt, so I made this mascarpone soft serve,” he says. “One I am most proud of was probably the Shiner Bock gelato: Red beans, goat cheese, basil, saffron and rosewater. I did a good job with a cucumber yogurt once. I just got a phone call for maple gelato. I’ve never done that before, but I’ll figure it out.”

If some of those concepts sound scary and unusual, that’s part of the fun of his job, Duke says — though sometime it leads to disasters.

“The worst one I ever tasted was in New Orleans: eggs and bacon. I’ve tasted good eggs and bacon in Michigan but there it was gross.”

He tries new things at home as well now, including one brand new recipe that will debut this weekend.

“For Pride, I am gonna make some pink grapefruit sorbet and a sangria dessert,” he says. “I’ve already tried it; it’s good.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.