Growing up in Breckenridge, Colo., Ian Kleinman found career inspiration in a Roald Dahl character.
"I've been a huge Willy Wonka fan since I was a kid," he says. "I must have watched the movie 100 times. I always thought it would be cool to grow up and work in the factory."
He came from a family of chefs – both his father and grandfather made a living in the kitchen. Kleinman at first pursued a traditional culinary career in fine dining. Then he made a leap into the wild world of molecular gastronomy when he started The Inventing Room, a catering company and dessert shop, in 2007. Since then, he's used liquid nitrogen and premium ingredients as well as a dollop of showmanship to make some of Denver's most creative desserts.
Take his Mexican Fried Ice Cream.
Kleinman starts with housemade custard; freezes it in liquid nitrogen; rolls the result in fried tortillas, cinnamon and sugar; ladles on some salted butterscotch; and finishes it with his trademark "exploding whipped cream" and "magic chocolate."
For the uninitiated, exploding whipped cream is simply whipped cream after a few seconds in liquid nitrogen that's 321 degrees F below zero. "The gas from the liquid nitrogen gets trapped in the structure of the whipped cream," says Kleinman. "You get plumes of smoke that come out of your mouth."
Magic chocolate is chocolate that's undergone a similar process, with different and ornate results. "I kind of compare it to a Colorado snowflake," he says. "No two are the same."
When you dig in, you'll notice that the custard froze into some of the creamiest ice cream you've ever had. That's not your imagination. It's science. "The quicker you freeze something, the smaller the ice crystal," explains Kleinman. "Ours is probably about a tenth the size of a normal ice crystal."
While it competes with traditional ice cream parlors, The Inventing Room has an entirely different banana split. "We don't have a freezer," he laughs. Instead, there are several shiny tanks of liquid nitrogen, used to flash-freeze ingredients into desserts to order.
He says the operation is "chef-driven," as the menu regularly changes in response to the availability of fresh fruit and other ingredients. But he says he likes to reverse engineer classic desserts like peach pie and s'mores into something that's at once true to the original and totally distinct. "It is a lot of experimentation and getting to the point where we can produce it in front of people," he notes.
Kleinman relocated The Inventing Room west from downtown to the Sloan Lake neighborhood in 2017. With a cyberpunk-meets-Wonderland vibe, the new place features faux clouds hanging from the ceiling and all sorts of geared gizmos on the walls. The move also gave him some much-needed elbow room. "It was 400 square feet," he says. "This is closer to 1,000, and we have a patio."
The catering side of Kleinman's operation works more than 200 events a year, everything from bat mitzvahs to weddings to conventions; he recently made desserts at Black Diamond's booth at the Outdoor Retailer show at the Colorado Convention Center.
The Inventing Room is currently in expansion mode: Partners have licensed Kleinman's concept and opened five locations in the Middle East. He says he's now actively looking to open additional locations in the U.S. "I have people walk in here every day and say, 'I'd love to do one of these,'" he says.
Until then, you'll have to come to Denver to experience The Inventing Room stateside and see Kleinman ply a trade that's one part culinary art, one part science and one part magic.
On the wall next to the counter, an assortment of packaged goodies includes "edible wallpaper," another nod to Willy Wonka. It's made of rice paper printed with a fruit pattern, and Kleinman hand paints the appropriate flavors on each fruit.
For $3.50, you can take some of his magic home in your suitcase.
Ian Kleinman at work above. Photo by Aaron Colussi.