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Meet Laura O’Neill, the accidental (healthy) restaurateur


(Photo: Van Leeuwen)
Laura O’Neill is an (often vegan) ice cream maven and restaurateur, co-host of Brooklyn dance party “No Lights No Lycra,” and, last but not least, she’s in a band. (Photo: Van Leeuwen)

Laura O’Neill was working as an event producer in Melbourne, Australia, when she got a call from then boyfriend Ben Van Leeuwen.

“He said we should start an ice cream truck in New York,” O’Neill recalls. “I didn’t have anything else to do, so I said yes.”

Fast forward to 2014, and the accidental entrepreneur now owns six pastel yellow Van Leeuwen ice cream trucks (four in NYC and two in Los Angeles) and three brick and mortar Van Leeuwen shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn (plus a pop-up store), with Ben and his brother Pete. In 2012, the trio also debuted a Balinese restaurant, Selamat Pagi, in Greenpoint.

And every scoop, pint, and plate comes with carefully-sourced ingredients, like all-natural, hormone-free milk and fresh fruits from local producers. “Our tagline is ‘perfected by nature, not science,'” she explains.

Part of that focus can be attributed to O’Neill’s Australian roots, since she says growing up there—where it’s easier to get staples like bread without additives—made her hyper-aware of paying attention to ingredients.

“A lot of stuff in modern ice cream that’s made on a large scale is in there to cut corners and costs,” she explains. When the team started doing research and experimenting with recipes in 2007, they decided to stay away from that.

O’Neill, whose mother and sister were vegan growing up, was also excited to introduce dairy-free options, which are made simply with organic coconut milk, cashew milk, organic cane sugar, raw cocoa butter, and organic extra virgin coconut oil, in flavors like Sicilian Pistachio and Banana Nut. (Getting hungry?)

“It doesn’t have any fillers to make it thick and chewy like artificial vegan ice creams, and it’s easily as good as the dairy,” she says. “Most people can’t tell the difference.”

(Photo: Van Leeuwen)
Van Leeuwen ice cream’s East Village storefront. (Photo: Van Leeuwen)

In October 2012, the trio branched out when they moved their ice cream production into the back of an old Polish restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

In the front of the space, they opened Selamat Pagi, which is inspired by Van Leeuwen and O’Neill’s travels to Bali and also offers vegetarian and vegan options for most dishes. “I’m obsessed with the flavors,” she says, about their 180 from ice cream. “There are only a handful of Indonesian food spots in the city, and we wanted to echo the ingredients and the quality of cooking that we remember. It’s such a departure from ice cream, but the results are awesome.”

What kind of results? We’re talking traditional flavors with a health-forward focus, which are manifested in dishes like sauteed coconut kale, tamarind-glazed tempeh, green papaya salad, and sticky black rice made with coconut milk and mango (click for recipe).

You’ll still find the creamy good stuff on the dessert menu, there, too, and down the street, Van Leeuwen now even offers a Balinese Sticky Black Rice ice cream.  Which doesn’t really sound like it should work, flavor-wise. But based on O’Neill’s success so far, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. —Jamie McKillop

For more information, visit www.vanleeuwenicecream.com and www.selamatpagibrooklyn.com, and check out the recipe for Selamat Pagi’s Sticky Black Rice, here.