This celebrated pastry chef found fun and fortitude in inventive ice cream treats during the pandemic, creating the immensely popular Life Raft Treats.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Chef Cynthia Wong was already way ahead of those of us who were just about to question our work lives.
She’d already made the decision to spend more time with her two small boys, Sonny and Buck, pulled the parachute to escape from a 75-hour workweek as a restaurant pastry chef, and purchased an old postal truck at a government auction and converted it to an ice cream food truck she named
Life Raft Treats in Charleston, South Carolina. The truck was already serving seasonal ice cream flavors such as blueberry tres leches, mascarpone vanilla, and coffee almond fudge—which, despite the truck, garnered a sixth James Beard nomination for Wong in 2019—and she and her family were building a life around pop-up events, ice cream production, swim lessons, and dinner together.
But when concerns about Covid shut down in-person events, she and her small team at the time, including husband John David Harmon and assistant chef Hanna Yoon, doubled down, and in the process revolutionized the idea of ice cream novelties with a hefty dose of silly joy.
“I left restaurants because I was just so sick of plated desserts, that white plate with a swoop of something and all the food piled to one side, garnished with flowers. I’d done it so much, that that kind of work started to feel like torture, so I was not only looking for more schedule freedom, but less seriousness,” she explains. “That was ice cream.
“Then the shapes really started evolving during the shutdown. They were so absurd that we would laugh at our own jokes during production. Everything was heavy, and I needed to have that kind of joy again.”
The novelties of Life Raft Treats aren’t your standard rainbow rocket ship on a popsicle stick or teddy bear shape coated in a hard chocolate shell. They are intricate, joke-within-a-joke edible pieces of visual art that often strikingly resemble other foods, from chicken drumsticks to peaches to plated 1980s-era TV dinners, sandwiches on white bread with iceberg lettuce, small bananas, canned hams with pineapples on top, and even a “Wongducken” for your Thanksgiving table with “white” and “dark” meat that is only available through preorder.
Wong’s personality is deadpan and downright witty, and in high-pressure kitchens, she often would tire of the super serious nature of it all. Then she worked with Ryan Smith at Empire State South in Atlanta (who went on to become chef and owner of Staplehouse), and “he would sometimes just do things in the kitchen because it was funny. For instance, he once made one gigantic, cartoonish piece of bacon out of a whole pork belly, which took a high level of technical skill but was simply for his own amusement. That was my first inspiration for this kind of silly visual gag in really delicious food.”
Life Raft Treats’ fans resemble those looking for limited edition basketball shoes or designer bags, and often, the special edition treats do sell out in minutes. That’s because the assemblage of them is so intense for the team, they must limit production. Take, for instance, this year’s “Hungrydad” TV dinner of yesteryear. Gags are folded into the whole dessert, from the chocolate porter ice cream chicken drumstick to the “creamed corn” bourbon butterscotch ice cream with oatmeal cookies and white chocolate “corn” niblets, served beside “peas and carrots” and mashed potatoes that are actually peanut butter ice cream topped with caramel gravy.
“It’s a joke about the idea of American fatherhood, that they are these hapless, kind of doofus men that only like beer and bourbon and can’t cook for themselves,” Wong says. “John David is the better parent of the two of us and cooks most of the meals, so I wanted to joke about this idea of fatherhood since it’s so far away from our reality.”
Her business tagline is “Save yourself with a treat,” and she admits that that’s part of the gag too. “Save yourself with ice cream? That’s really not possible,” she says. But the idea is that for the 30 seconds you first encounter one of these treats, you’ll think not about the world but about the sheer fun of ice cream resembling other foods, then take a bite and have a moment of delicious delight.
For Wong, that world includes caring for a mostly female team (now seven employees and looking for more) in the current political climate that has her questioning the health of full citizenship for women in this country, while also navigating her own challenges of being an Asian American woman who sometimes experiences discrimination and pushback.
“We’re not a squishy workplace. In other words, these women are incredibly strong and don’t need an encouragement-hour meeting, but we work together as a team, and it’s just done. I really want Life Raft Treats to be a shelter in the storm for us, but also to make us giggle. It’s absurd to make pallets worth of fried-chicken-shaped ice cream coated in cornflakes, so we can’t help but see that.”
That kind of absurdity and play is what Wong and her team bring to the table, especially when those “not fried chickens” come packed in a cardboard bucket. The joke’s on us, and it’s delicious.
Stephanie Burt is a writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina, and the host of the podcast The Southern Fork.
Trevor Noah Gives Final ‘Daily Show’ Sign-Off
WNBA Star Brittney Griner Is Finally Free
Celine Dion Emotionally Reveals Health Diagnosis
The Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of “Bridgerton”
John Travolta Mourns Former Costar Kirstie Alley
Oprah on Her Scary Menopause Symptom
Jennifer Homans’s New Biography, Mr. B
When Does Harry & Meghan Premiere?
Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy
Al Roker Hospitalized Again Due to ‘Complications’
Bolu Babalola’s Honey & Spice
See the Trailer for Meghan and Harry’s Netflix Doc
Our editors handpick the products that we feature. We may earn commission from the links on this page.
©Oprah Daily LLC. All rights reserved.