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Pizzaiolo Jim Lahey on Fire, Craft, and Tactile Pleasure

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Jim Lahey is the renowned New York bread man behind Sullivan Street Bakery and, since 2009, Co., a pizzeria on 23rd Street in Chelsea. On the occasion of Pizza Week, Lahey made some time to talk specifically about how he developed his love for pizza, the beauty of being in the moment and making a pie, how bakers are the bastard stepchildren of the food industry, and the struggles of being artisanal and small in a world where mass production and convenience dominate.

How did you get in to pizza?
Pizza essentially is baking, so it's been seamless. If I were a chef that just made grilled beef and then all of a sudden started grilling fish, that would be an even more radical departure than going from baking to making pizza. I've been baking pizza for like 25 years now, just for fun.

I still do it for fun. It's just something I enjoy doing. I enjoy feeding people, and pizza and bread is a great way to feed many. I'd make bread dough and there would always be some left over. What do I do with that? Make pizza. You'll be hungry and have some ripe tomatoes and mozzarella cheese nearby and make a pizza. Initially, I just did it to feed me or other people.

And how did opening a pizzeria come about?
That is a different thing altogether. Opening up a pizzeria was something that I decided I wanted to do about twelve years ago. Before 9/11 and especially after 9/11, I used to make early versions of what my pizzas would end up being, sort of in a Roman style, for fun or community building or community support. You see a lot of the same faces at the bakery and these people become your friends, so you want to show them some love by giving them things.

Right after 9/11, I threw my first pizza party on New Year's Day in the bakery. It was sort of an open invitation, and anyone could come. There would be people from the neighborhood, chefs who would bring friends, friends who would bring chefs, hungover folks, and it was just my way of helping them start the new year on the right foot. It was a very freeform party with no plan or objective other than being a pizza feast.

Where did that take you?
Well, that turned me into a direction of playing more with all the parts that make up the flatbread or pizzas. Then, right before the publication of the no knead article in the Times, I had the opportunity to rent out an outdoor wood-fire oven to do a chef demo at Union Square Market. It was a week before that article came out. I just went around the market on this unusually warm November day and picked up some vegetables and got some tomatoes from farmers that still had it. I just threw something together along with even flour from a local vendor, and it was really gratifying to cook in fire, in wood. I love the immediacy of it. It's one of these things that I really like. It's very grounding and very centering.

What do you mean by that?
It's about controlling those elements: the way that the fire kind of creates certain spots or shapes or patterns on the surface of the oven of heat. How you manage that fire and how quickly something is cooked — I like the immediacy of making pizza in the wood-fire oven. By the time you've put three or four pizzas in one oven, it's time to take the first one out. That sort of thing. It all depends on how quickly you can build the pie. If it takes you three minutes to open up the dough and build the pie, you're pretty much a one pie at a time guy.

For me, it becomes a bit of a game where the challenge is to manage all the elements at once. One element is your relative skill — you can only open the dough so quickly, you can only dress and build a pie properly so quickly. People who are eating your food don't understand why they don't like it or why it didn't come out right, but they just won't eat it; you can't go too fast. The other element would be the oven itself — the way it's built, the fire, whether it's been primed and well heated, depending on the type of oven. Some of those things you consider long before you start making pies. You have to manage the fact that the dough is leavening and rising while you're making the pizza, so if you have a batch or set of doughs that aren't refrigerated, there are some tricks. One of them is salt, since you can use just the right amount to have dough that will linger longer. It kind of inhibits fermentation, to some degree. It gives it a longer hold time, more stability, without using refrigeration.

How would you describe your style?
I look at each ingredient and its condition as essential to the outcome. So, if the sauce is beautiful and the dough is fermented and handled properly and the temperature of the oven is ideal, depending on how you calibrate your ratios of ingredients, you'll have a great result. You just have to plot out your coordinates. That's one of the things that's fun about making the fun, meaning that at the end, you're the barista making that perfect heart or penguin shape or something in your foam. For me, it's making that smiley face on the pizza dough or that pastoral landscape: the sauce being the background, the cheese another part of the image. When you build something or make something like that — plus the fact that you can smell it and touch it and eat it and play with it — it's very real and brings you into the moment. It makes you present.

What I was getting at is that you mentioned "Roman style" before. Is that how you'd describe it?
I make Jim Lahey style. I always like to take something as a point of departure or inspiration and then riff on it. If I ever go out to eat, which is a rare occurrence these days, and have a great experience with someone else's dish, I will keep it in the back of my mind and try to riff on it as a sign of respect.

What are some examples of that?
A classic example of riffing was back in the day when Mario Batali was working at Po. He made a very simple risotto with cremini mushrooms, thyme, and vin santo. So, I took that combination as the base of my mushroom pizza. It's something I ate, something I enjoyed, and something that ended up being something else.

Someone made me a Turkish pastry years ago, and that became the basis of my Popeye pizza. If I taste something that I really, really like, I do something with it later.

Another thing I've realized about why I love doing it is that the 20th century came and went, and now we are in the teens and about to enter the new 20s. We're kind of experiencing New York City and the global empire still stinging from the smack in the face at the beginning of the century. There is so much digital, so much live, the simulcast, the media, the live feed, all that stuff, and it's nice to go back to making fire and cooking things in fire and finding tactile pleasure in something that isn't glaring in your face and supported by wifi. It's this different experience that we're into right now, and all of us in a way are a manifestation of a symptom. I'd love to find out what that illness we have is, though.

So there is something artisanal and perhaps romantic about it?
I don't look at the romance at all. It's maybe romance in the sense that I think about real experience: this morning we're talking and I change your life, you change my life, our lives change. I'd say that if I could make any contribution at all, I hope that it's to help change the culture of the pizza and bread industry. They're the bastard stepchildren of the food industry, but at the same time, baking is the mother of all culinary ritual — fermentation, alcohol, grains, agrarian society, cooking in a fire, keeping something alive, being repetitive. This is before science, before people knew what was going on, when the learning was passed on by tradition and experience. Having a coagulated milk on a bread isn't new, or a purée of a fruit. What may be new, relatively speaking, is having an exotic tropical fruit like a tomato on it.

What do you mean by "bastard stepchildren"?
One of the things that I would like to see go away is people who make bread and make pizza suffering from an inferiority complex in relationship to the rest of the food industry. I think that the bread community doesn't participate in the pride and occasion that you see in so many parts of restaurants, where they talk about the sourcing of the ingredients and the chef goes in the garden and picks the herbs and the people come in and order nice wines from the sommelier. I hate to say it.

But going back to pizza culture, I think that right now it's a completely 20th Century concept. It's the ultimate global food, probably. It's ubiquitous, accessible, dumbed down.

Do you say "dumbed down" in a pejorative way?
It's highly refined and extremely processed. Its success was its undoing. It's not pizza, but the other day I walked into a McDonald's and saw all the people plugged in on their computers and all the modern chairs and the signs reading 'Fresh" and "Healthy" and "Tasty," but you go up to the counter and what you get is this apathetic, disgusting, utter fucking evil dog shit food that is basically underwritten and subsidized by decades of amoral food culture. People have been poisoned. I grew up eating it every Sunday, and no one ever informed me that it was bad. I wish someone had explained pink slime to me back then. Ours is a culture where convenient and cheap are the best ways to go.

Look at pizza as a genre. It's a bunch of guys — Sbarro's in Times Square — that cook the inventory off and then reheat it for you. It's about reheating it, not making it. It should be about being live and in the moment, but instead you have a guy scratching his gonads and staring out the window because he's bored out of his fucking mind. There's so much profit to make from that highly processed, mass produced method as opposed to what I like to work with, which is perishable. There isn't a culture of self respect in the industry. There are doughs with lots of added ingredients, most of the cheese has been highly processed and stabilized, and most of the sauce is just bad. It's so big that those that are trying to do it at a smaller level, even though we may garner some press, are really a minor part of it.

I think about Di Fara's, one of the last great slice spots. It's about being in the moment — well, the moment is like an hour and a half there. But you're on Dom DeMarco time. You're experiencing his moment with him, as he shuffles across the kitchen floor. If he handed that over to experienced pizza cooks, they would probably bring in their baggage.

You think you can make a change?
I'd like to try. I'd like it to become part of culture, which is lacking in America.

How do you go about it?
I hate the word "artisanal," but we have to try to keep getting smaller. Every neighborhood should have more little boutiques and things like that. You're starting to see it come back in some places, and that little by little can change the culture. It can't be about the supervisor telling you to just turn the cog faster.

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[Photo: Squire Fox]