If you told John Rivera he’d be making a living off putting stickers on gelato tubs one year ago, he would have laughed in your face. But 2020 had a plan; the fine dining chef joined forces with friend, pastry chef and business partner Minh Duong to launch Kariton Sorbetes, a dessert concept that puts South-East Asian flavours front and centre.
Rivera has spent time in some of Melbourne’s most lauded kitchens from Amaru to Lûmé and Sunda; he also snagged the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Pacific title in 2018. The young gun originally trained as a pastry chef, but largely worked as a chef throughout his career — that is, until the pandemic hit. Rivera found himself in the same position as many of his colleagues — out of work with creative energy to burn.
“It started off with Minh and I not having work over iso,” says Rivera. “We met up at a park to kick a ball around and thought we’d do something to kill time. The dream as a chef is always to have your own place, but we wanted to do something that made people happy and hadn’t been seen before.”
That ‘something’ was Kariton Sorbetes; a concept that uses gelato as a foundation for a holistic dessert experience. “There’s a lot of great gelato in Melbourne, but we had never seen any that excel and specialise in South-East Asian flavours,” says Rivera. “We knew there was a massive population of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Malaysian people who longed for the flavours of their home countries.”
The pair thought they’d put together 150 tubs a week, but the demand for the Kariton experience surpassed expectations to the tune of 700 tubs at its peak. And it all comes down to the offering, which is reminiscent of what you’d see in ice cream carts in the Philippines.
“We take inspiration from what we had growing up, but we put a twist on it so there’s more texture and it’s more of a dessert,” says Rivera. “The gelato base is a canvas. Flavour-wise, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; we’re just trying to put some spinners on them.”
Duong and Rivera create around eight flavours every week covering everything from their signature — ube halaya (ube, blackberry, coconut) — to buko pandan (coconut, pandan); keso (cheddar cheese, bourbon vanilla, crackers); turon (banana, caramel, jackfruit) and kalamansi hinebra (calamansi and gin sorbet).
The pair currently sublease a commercial kitchen and operate on a delivery-only model, but there are plans in the works to open a bricks and mortar site and create a cart for events.
“We want to evolve from a single-faceted business to something that goes out to the people and that people can go to as well,” says Rivera. “We’re looking at Footscray. We see the cultural importance as immigrant children and how it’s evolved into a hub of different cultures. Hopefully by the end of this year it will come to fruition.”
Rivera always wanted to open a restaurant, and the plan is definitely still on the cards. “Kariton is a great business that’s a base for everything we want to set up later on,” he says.
“When we open the gelato site, there will be a mini bakery offering Filipino and Spanish breads and then that will help us open other projects like a bar and eventually a restaurant. Hopefully it means we can do it with minimal intervention from angel investors or backers and do it organically.”
The chef is looking ahead, and has plans to instil a workplace culture that will benefit his future workforce. As someone who has only recently started enjoying nights and weekends off, balance is front of mind. “We all know the effects of long, hard hours and pressure and [it’s about] really changing the culture of hospitality,” says Rivera.
“Making it a great career to be in and rewarding, but also [implementing] good habits and business practices to change the way we think and operate from the get go.”
Kariton is just one of the many businesses to come out of 2020; it just happens to have shaken up Rivera and Duong’s career paths and they couldn’t be more chuffed about it.
“It shows the resilience, hard work and grit of people who started their own businesses and found what makes them happy,” says Rivera. “For us, we get caught up in the rat race of reviews and hats, but when it comes down to it, what you do should make you happy.”