Nitrogen is becoming the not-so-secret ingredient for gelato lovers as two Melbourne stores turn to molecular gastronomy to give them an edge.
At N2 Extreme Gelato on Fitzroy's Brunswick street and its CBD competitor The Lab: Nitrogen Gelato, shop assistants dressed in lab coats or safety goggles will create your gelato from scratch in a theatrical shroud of liquid nitrogen.
Liquid nitrogen "crystallises" the gelato mix in seconds, allowing N2's "gelartists" to prepare the flavour of the customers choice at lightning speed.
In these stores there is not the standard line of tubs in a freezer. Customers select from the menu and watch the creation.
The arrival of the gelato trend comes amid the cooking craze of molecular gastronomy, that co-owner of N2 Extreme Gelato AnnGee Yeoh, says was "probably put in the spotlight" by Heston Blumenthal.
Ms Yeoh said her business had drawn inspiration from that approach, which she says "has been done all around the world." By setting up N2 Extreme Gelato, she hoped to make it more accessible. "I guess its more about bringing it to the masses. For people to actually come across [it] you have to go Fat Duck, or Vue De Monde, whereas now you can actually get it right at your doorstep for a $6 gelato."
Six dollars is certainly a cheaper option to the $525-a-head meal at Blumenthal's anticipated Melbourne restaurant the Fat Duck.
But Blumenthal's science approach is trending. The Lab's Carman Chan said people love it in their store, "They're actually really inquisitive and fascinated? and people go 'oh yeah, that's really cool.'"
Ms Chan's overseas experiences inspired her to set up shop. "I went overseas and saw a lady in San Francisco do it by herself in a market. She had her one little machine, with one tank of liquid nitrogen."
Beyond the theatrics; the smoke, and beakers, or "the show to it" as Ms Yeoh described at N2 Extreme Gelato, the nitrogen is changing the gelato taste.
"It freezes so quickly you'll find that liquid nitrogen gelato is a lot smoother and a lot creamier" Ms Yeoh said.
Ms Chan said because of the technique "it obtains a lot of the freshness and the texture from the actual gelato itself."
Ms Yeoh believes this makes the style of gelato more than a gimmick. "At the end of the day if the product is not there, people won't come back they'll just say that its a show."
"So we change our flavours. Eight new flavours every week," and "that's where 'extreme gelato' comes from." Flavours at N2 have included red velvet cupcake, bounty, and even beer among others.
Ms Chan said The Lab took a simpler approach. "Not everyone always wants to try really out there flavours." Flavours here are more focused on "creating the old classics," including a cheesecake gelato, that one customer said 'tastes exactly like my mum's."
As for the competition between the two?
Miss Yeoh, who opened N2's Melbourne store just a month and a half before the Lab's arrival, said "we just have to keep trying to be better."