The pieces of “not-fried chicken” come piled up in a yellow-striped bucket. The “canned ham” is topped with pineapple rings and cherries, and the ice cream sandwich uncannily duplicates the look of a ham sandwich with cheese and lettuce on white bread. But despite appearances, it’s all ice cream, made by one of the most talented pastry chefs in the industry and her tiny team, who have been creating treats out of a commissary kitchen and selling them to order, or out of the window of a jaunty teal food truck.
But that’s all changing, as Cynthia Wong and her Life Raft Treats move into a 2,500-square-foot “ice cream lab” and factory in North Charleston, South Carolina. The company has vastly expanded its partnership with online marketplace Goldbelly, and signed with a southeast distributor to get the treats in more retail locations beyond the South Carolina lowcountry. She even has her eye on a future retail spot that could be a flagship brick-and-mortar for her venture. All this, and she’ll still be home in time most nights to make dinner for her sons, Sonny and Buck.
While these days custom Life Raft Treats are currently available at retail locations and at Charleston restaurants Handy + Hot, Jackrabbit Filly, and Chubby Fish, there was a time when Wong would have been creating pastry perfection in a restaurant on the regular. A native of Mobile, Alabama, she headed west to begin her career as the baker at Reed Heron’s Restaurant Lulu in San Francisco in the early ’90s and then went on to earn the Grande Diplôme de la Cuisine Française at École Lenôtre in France. In 2008, she opened Cakes & Ale with Billy Allin in Atlanta; in 2011, she joined chefs Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith at Empire State South in Atlanta, then worked two years in London before returning to the southern U.S. to work at Rhubarb in Asheville and then Butcher & Bee and The Daily in Charleston. The awards and accolades kept piling up. But they didn’t give her the flexibility to tuck her kids in at night.
“The restaurant industry day-in-and-day-out can grind you to dust,” she explains. And she was looking for a way to somehow reconcile spending more time with her family while still being a creative professional. In 2018, she had an inkling that ice cream might be the way to do it, and with her husband Jon David Harmon formed Life Raft Treats.
“I thought, ‘Work can’t be my entire life,’” she says. “And I’d always loved working with ice cream. It makes everyone happy, it makes me happy. And I realized I could make ice cream ahead, freeze it, so my time could be more flexible.”
And those awards? Wong is a 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017, and 2018 James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef. That last one was the first year of Life Raft Treats, marking a nomination achieved while working out of the food truck. It was an indication that she was on to something with her ice cream ideas, in a very visible way.
And then came 2020 and its stay-at-home orders: suddenly, the grown-up ice cream novelties of Life Raft Treats became Instagram stars. “During the pandemic, the visual aspect became even more important,” she says. “We needed to capture attention on Instagram, and when everyone was stuck at home, there was a certain outsize importance to it.”
Years ago, Wong’s first 3D ice cream confection was a cherry ice cream bomb for a Cherry Bombe party, complete with a mirror glaze, and then with Life Raft Treats came the Not Fried Chicken, drumsticks of waffle cone ice cream surrounding a chocolate cookie bone, all with a crunchy coating. In 2020, Wong revisited those original cherry molds, and she and her assistant, Hanna Yoon, began experimenting with a sorbet peach. What resulted was finished with a little spray gun magic, and soon the pair was perfecting more fun treats, from a taco with shredded lettuce and cheese garnish to that aforementioned canned ham. In addition to the 3D treats, the company has always also sold bars on sticks and pints of ice cream, as well as custom creations as the mood strikes.
But these treats are more than just pretty faces. Wong’s flavor combinations and attention to detail would set the company apart regardless of the fun shapes. She sources local when it’s best, including Lowcountry Creamery milk, Storey Farms eggs, and even mulberries from the tree in her backyard, then crafts flavor combos that range from miso butter pecan ice cream sandwiches for Jackrabbit Filly to a bar of milk jam ice cream and muscadine jelly in an almond shell.
The anchoring of Life Raft Treats in its own workspace not only means more treats, but also invites additional collaborations with chefs. It also carries on the ice cream legacy of the warehouse building itself, which was previously occupied by Charleston’s own Paolo’s Gelato, making it turn key for Wong’s ice cream experiments and expansion. The dessert landscape in Charleston and beyond is brighter because of Wong’s creations, beloved by fans of all ages, and increasingly in demand as chefs discover the unique treats and want to add them to their menu — a sweet, pre-prepared solution when many kitchens are undergoing a staffing shortage.
“Life Raft Treats are the most whimsical, creative things I’ve ever seen,” says Vivian Howard, chef at Handy + Hot, and the newly opened Lenoir. “That doesn’t make sense in every category but it does with ice cream. Why wouldn’t you want that in your shop?”
Stephanie Burt is an audio producer, and food and travel writer. She is the host and producer of The Southern Fork podcast and has contributed to Saveur, The Washington Post, The Bitter Southerner, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy too.