Pizza may be no more than snack food (or, worse, junk food) to you. But to the six extraordinary craftpersons featured in the Netflix series Chef's Table: Pizza, making pizza has become a life-altering ritual at the intersection of Life, Art and Identity.
The long-running Master Chef series profiles renowned chefs from around the world in tasty one-hour docu-bites. In its current (seventh) season, the focus is on maestros of the pizza arts, not only in Italy, but from such unexpected regions as Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Kyoto, Japan. The notion of what pizza is, can, or should be (along with an amazing diversity of ingredients, from flower petals to Korean kimchee), varies wildly from one pair of flour-encrusted hands to the next. But all agree that pizza is the ultimate soul food, expressing not only the soul of the pizza chefs themselves, but of the people and community that inspire them.
|Bonci: Revolution on a plate|
That may seem like a lot of symbolism to heap on top of a humble pie, but every pizza tells a story — of drama, displacement, family, culture — and the stories are fascinating.
Native New Yorker Chris Bianco left the city trying to find his place in the world. From his first boyhood job hauling flour sacks up out of the basement in a pizza joint in the Bronx, he landed in Phoenix, selling home-made mozzarella out of his apartment to Italian restaurants and finally graduating to pizza chef. At his own restaurant, he concocts a signature pizza, the Rosa, made with hardy wheat grown in the sandy soil outside Phoenix, red onions sliced as thin and curly as potato chips, pungent rosemary, and crushed pistachios, that "tastes like the desert."
Hailed as "The Michelangelo of pizza," Gabriele Bonci became a celebrity TV chef in Rome (with his own irritatingly bouncy theme song), until he realized the TV persona was devouring him. Painstakingly weaning himself off of fame, like any other addiction, he shed a great deal of physical weight while also streamlining his purpose in the pizza kitchen, promoting the ethics of sustainable agriculture and thoughtful food consumption. He buys all natural ingredients from small farmers, raises his own sheep for cheese, and only buys the meat of animals that have "lived well." He says, "I decided that pizza would be my weapon. On top, I could put a revolution."
|Kim: Trusting herself|
At a bleak crossroads in life, she thought, "Either you can live in the unhappiness, or you can change it. You just have to trust yourself." Impressed with the melting pot vibe in New York City, from her student days at Columbia (summed up in her first slice of sidewalk pizza), and realizing the one constant joy in her life had always been cooking with her mother and grandmother, she decided on a new direction. "I said, fuck it," she laughs, "I'm going to put kimchee on a pizza!"
Franco Pepe and his brothers grew up in their father's pizzaria in Naples. All three sons had different career paths lined up until their father's death brought them all back to run the family business. Conflict arose when Franco left to open his own shop featuring his own innovative ideas. His Margharita Spagliata (Margharita Mistake), literally turns the classic pizza upside down, with the layer of mozzarella cheese on the bottom, and infusions of crushed (not cooked) fresh tomatoes and basil striped across the top.
Yoshihiro Imai came from a family of dentists in Kyoto, Japan, but a chance encounter with a library book on breadmaking prompted a passion for dough and pointed him onto a new path. He was in training to become a master chef in Europe until news that his girlfriend was pregnant brought him home. Miserable working in a fast-food cafeteria to support his new family, he opened his own pizza restaurant, foraging for wild mushrooms at dawn and fishing for a lowly species of river trout to invoke the flavor and serenity of his beloved forest. "The path itself," he says, with Zen-like aplomb, "is the meaning and the goal."
|Pepe: Vats of bubbling alchemy|
All of them share a common passion for locally sourced ingredients, and each has forged close relationships with the small farmers, ranchers, foragers, herbalists and millers who provide them. All of them craft their own dough from scratch, by hand, growing the living dough from regional, stone-ground wheat every morning for the day's pies. Their immersive relationship to the dough is irresistible, gleefully plunging in elbow-deep to massage, roll, tweak and shape their humble ingredients into great vats of breathing, bubbling, alchemy.
|Stepping up my pizza game|
Encouraged by my Spirit Guide, I'm stepping up my own pizza game. Yes, I'm still buying one-pound dough balls from Trader Joe's, but I'm trying to approach it less like a fearful supplicant, afraid of messing up, and more like a confident explorer, establishing a partnership with the dough, not a contest.
My efforts may not yet be vat-worthy, but the journey of a thousand pizzas begins with a single slice.
PS: Do NOT watch this show hungry!