Put aside all of the excitement and glamor of working in a fine dining restaurant, the “art on the plate” image, the unusual ingredients and groundbreaking new techniques, and of course the image of sophisticated food and simply ask yourself “What do people want to eat?” Long ago I came to grips with this question and began to realize that, as cooks, we have a few basic responsibilities:
- Be professional
- Respect tradition
- Do things right
- Prepare consistently delicious food
- Ensure that everything we do looks as appetizing as it tastes and tastes as good as it looks
- Provide recognized value
- Help the restaurant be successful
- Always consider what people like
- Entertain using food as the centerpiece
This is our calling, this is what makes cooking enjoyable and worth the passion that we exhibit whether we work in a Michelin restaurant or the neighborhood-meeting place – this is what makes the job a life-long career choice.
I invest a considerable amount of time focusing on those who actually cook the food that a chef imagines and orchestrates. These individuals (line cooks, prep cooks, bakers, and pastry chefs) are the heart and soul of a kitchen. These individuals are the vehicle at a chef’s disposal that make or break a restaurant and the experience of the guest.
In this article I wanted to pay homage to a particular “workhorse” in many kitchens across the country. This individual is responsible for the number one most popular item on U.S. menus, yet rarely do you see articles with a focus on his or her contribution – so I felt compelled to talk about those cooks who stretch the dough and work in front of the fires of hell – ahhh..The pizza cook.
Why is this person so unique and how significant is he or she to the operation of successful American restaurants? Let’s look at the profile of the pizza cook:
 BAKER OR COOK
So – where does the pizza cook fit? There is little question that the overall quality of pizza lays in the crust. Mastering the simple, yet exacting process of making great pizza dough is paramount and in many cases the pizza maker wants to maintain control over this process as well as shaping, topping, and sliding the dough into an oven. Maybe, the pizza maker is a hybrid – both baker and cook thus greying the lines between the two, as is usually the case in restaurants.
 MASTER OF TIMING
All cooking is closely aligned with timing, but in the case of pizza, especially open hearth baking, timing is measured in single digit minutes, sometimes seconds. Three or four minutes in an open fired oven is typically all it takes to bake a thin crust pizza.
 GATEKEEPER OF SIMPLE PLEASURES
When push comes to shove most people will relish the way a comfort food makes them feel as “most important” in restaurant dining. The crunch of the crust and chew there after, the full tomato flavor of a sauce, the spice of sausage or pepperoni and the saltiness of prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, the aroma of fresh basil and grated parmigiana off the wheel meld together to create one of the most sinfully delicious combinations – a memorable experience that many Americans not only look forward to, but tend to replicate multiple times in a month. It is the pizza maker who holds the key to this experience and fully understands what he or she is building.
“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
 WHEN THE DOUGH IS RIGHT
There are numerous formulas for pizza dough and just as many variances between incredible and mediocre crust. When you consider that the ingredients are so limited: flour, water, yeast, and salt, is evidence that the nuance is in the quality of those ingredients and the skill of the dough maker. Knowing when the flour is just right, the gluten is developed to the right point, the proof is timed, and the dough temperature is perfect for stretching and forming is in the hands and soul of the pizza maker. Simple, yet precise, the skill is unique to a person who feels connected.
 ONE WITH THE OVEN
Now that the dough is right it must be in sync with the oven. There are many types used by pizza restaurants: the old standard Blodgett deck oven (gas), a modern Turbo Chef impinger oven, wood fired or gas open hearth – all of which can produce acceptable pizza, but it is the oven hearth that sets the pizza at a new level. The pizza maker depends on the oven and as such must know it and how it performs. Are there hot spots or other temperature variances and is the temperature true? The pizza maker must fully understand these variables. A line cook may be able to work with ovens simply cranked up to level 10 and keep an eye on the cooking action, but the pizza maker needs to depend on very specific temperatures. The oven to a pizza maker is as important as the personal French knife to a cook.
 HEAT AND MORE HEAT
All cooks have an interesting relationship with fire, seem to be somewhat immune to the heat and the inherent danger, and relish the opportunity to sweat, but pizza cooks work on a different level. The temperature of an open-hearth wood fired or gas oven will hover around 760 degrees. Standing next to this oven will dry the skin, curl your arm hair, impart an oven tan on human skin, and remind the cook of the gates to hell. Extreme heat in the kitchen emanates from the pizza station.
 CONTROL OF THE PIZZA EXPERIENCE – ALL EYES ON THE COOK
The pizza station in a restaurant is the centerpiece of the line and as such is usually designed to be visible to the guest. Suddenly the pizza maker moves from being a seasoned technician to also taking on the role of showman. It is the cool, calm demeanor of the pizza maker who spins the dough, flips it in the air, and incorporates tricks and flips that draw the admiration, and even applause, from guests eager to participate in the process. The pizza maker becomes the conductor of the orchestra, the ringmaster at the show, and the “face” of the restaurant. His or her skill set must incorporate the unique skill of the actor.
 THE STATION THAT EVERYONE RESPECTS AND ONE THAT MAKES OTHER COOKS NERVOUS
Ironically, in many restaurants the pizza maker stands alone. Every station has it’s complexity: the grill needs to understand degrees of doneness, the sauté cook must know how and when to add ingredients to a process of aggressive refinement, and the fry cook is focused on creating the crunch without over cooking, but the pizza maker understands the skill of the baker, the exactness in timing of the time keeper in a race, and the showmanship and slight of hand of a magician. Because of this, many line cooks shy away from moving to this station – it is unique and very specialized. Once an exceptional pizza maker – the job is theirs.
 KNOWING THAT EVERYONE LOVES PIZZA
The saving grace for the pizza maker is the satisfaction that comes from knowing that everyone loves his or her product. Quality pizza has been known to make or break a restaurant and because of this pizza operations are some of the most sought after by young entrepreneurs. If you have a well defined dough, that special sauce, and the right oven, the opportunity for success is in your hands.
 PIZZA IS, AFTER ALL – THE REAL DEAL
Pizza is the real deal – the product that most people have an immediate positive relationship with. Pizza is the full dining experience that incorporates sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Few items on a menu can fulfill this promise of total satisfaction.
“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s amore.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
****PHOTOS: Pizza from Sovana Bistro in Kennett Square, PA
Master Pizza Maker – Super Chuck at Sovana Bistro
SOME EXCEPTIONAL PIZZA RESTAURANTS
- Sovana Bistro – Kennett Square, PA
- Pizzeria Verita – Burlington, VT
- American Flatbread – Burlington, VT and Waitsfield, VT
- Sotto13 – NYC
- Robertas Pizza – Brooklyn, NY
- Coppa Enoteca – Boston, MA
- Nonnina – Chicago, IL
- Bocce Club Pizza – Buffalo, NY
Sorry, I know that everyone has a favorite pizza shop – these are simply some of mine.