A View From the Kitchen – Pizza Confidential
… and Other Tales of Midflight Plane Assembly
At our “baby” restaurant, Stones #1 Social, I was sitting upon my favorite barstool equidistant between our drink mixers and their counterpart dough stretchers.
Within a 20-foot span, our tight team of four works together but separate — an operational ideal inspired by an iconic Chicago restaurant, Au Cheval. Only two nights earlier, while sipping on a seltzer, I listened as the bartenders discussed the preciseness of ingredient measures. The effective balancing of an artichoke-based liquor, Cynar, is not to be taken for granted. There was agreement that short of enough lemon, the drink borders on unpleasant. Use artichoke in a cocktail at your own risk.
On this night, same stool and likewise within earshot of the two chefs’ conversation, I heard “… grams …” and grew immediately eavesdroppy. “Wait, grams, what?”
They were brainstorming the new Throwback Thursdays pizza promotion — and challenges presented by my strategy to wait eight months before utilizing our wood-fired hearth to discover our pizza power. More on that later.
I recalled the expression “building the plane while flying it” as the head chef claimed to have adjusted the dough recipe yet again, “… 600 grams of flour.” The younger, co-fantastic Chef AJ was intrigued. “And how many grams of yeast?” They continued: grams of water, the higher humidity in the past few days, mixing, proofing, kneading — all the challenges to creating the “perfect” crust. More on that later, too.
During the previous (extremely cold) week, six weeks into the ongoing development of this new initiative, they had achieved what I have always defined as “the eureka moment” — the peak at which a developing recipe yields the elusive ideal and a composing chef believes the dish could not be any better. Rarely are the great ones truly satisfied — and, I contend, thusly linked.
On this occasion, their consensus standard was a medium-to-high (puffy) rise, medium char, light-to-medium chew (gluten); the reward of weeks of tweaks. The satisfaction of their triumph was short-lived as yet another variable was introduced. We ran out of dough. The promotion’s popularity was rising weekly, now challenging the goal of having enough but not too much — one of the many doctrines of a successful restaurant. It was now required that we increase the recipe, and frustratingly, maintaining the ratio between flour, water and yeast does not produce consistent results. Balancing the science with the art form is an omnipresent condition in our environment, but one thing is certain: When consistency is the goal — and in my book, it is king — being precise in measurement is essential, and weighted measure yields the best science. For hard-core clarity, it is worthy to note that there are 28-plus grams to an ounce, and hence, “my guys” were talking grams. They were resolute in reestablishing the perfection attained a week earlier.
There were multiple reasons why we chose to postpone pizza when we opened last June. Aside from the uniqueness of the brand we sought to initially nail, I had also sought to minimize the pressure of direct comparison to the previous restaurant at this site, the incredibly talented chef-owner having been a friend who has since passed away. Not ironically, his emerging vision of “the best” while he was running our first two restaurant kitchens years earlier inspired a road trip to pizza mecca New York City. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we found South Brooklyn Pizza — an outpost of a celebrated pizza maker from, you guessed it, Brooklyn. It was here that Chef Rob discovered the wood-fired nirvana he pursued, and what a treat it was to watch him! Each bite, poker-faced concentration while chewing purposefully. With large hands, he tore the crust gently, pulling side to side, turning it in his hand. He raised the crust to his nose, inhaling the smoky-sweet essence of fire, sugar, yeast — next inspecting the crumb (air bubble) ratio of the bitten dough, pinching the crust between doughy fingers. The standing-room-only counter was his laboratory, a paper plate his worktable.
After that weekend, we returned to work and ultimately he moved on. He would eventually open PigTale and, as expected, the restaurant was incredible while it lasted — the pizza as good as what we had sampled together.
Ask 10 people what makes pizza great and you are likely to get 10 different answers, often inspired by regional nostalgia. There is a funny saying that “Pizza is like sex. Even when it’s bad its good.” I get it. I have been high in my life devouring pizza bagels with dorm mates in closed-eyes paradise. But I have sayings of my own. As much as it deserves love, “English muffin pizza is not pizza.” Also, “Frozen pizza is not pizza.” Then there’s, “Cracker-crispy-crust pizza is not pizza,” and my Bart Simpsonish go-to, “That pizza sucks.” To my way of thinking, chicken parmigiana is a lot more like sex. When it comes to bad pizza, this snob is prone to abstinence.
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell, moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass., and Stones Social in Nashua, New Hampshire. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which are available here. >>>