I am speaking to you in Maine not Los Angeles, what are you doing there?
I’m here to organise a new section of an existing kitchen with its open faced wood fired pizza oven, cooking and teaching staff how to use it. Meanwhile having fun experimenting with it between house orders and teaching. I mastered Montreal style bagels last week.
So its not just about you cheffing then, what is involved in your teaching?
It is fundamentally Neapolitan Pizza Making 101 but the basics are all about working with wood fire and heat. How to be organised before the cooking even begins, knowing your wood, firing the oven, watching and understanding the temperature. Then we get to dough making, the character of flour, yeast. It is very hands on experiential learning and then finally it is about shaping pizzas, creating sauces, choosing toppings and bread making.
I have a bit of a flour fetish too. We used Italian flour until I discovered Canadian flour in Toronto which became my favourite. Now, I have got used to Uruguayan flour and that’s my number one now.
Why Maine, what’s your connection there?
I’m with Argentinian chef, Germane Lucarelli who I meet in Miami back in 2013 when I did the first Soho House Pop-up with him at Mid Beach during Art Basle. I met him again in New York when I was passing through his kitchen on my way to Toronto for Soho House to work during the Film Festival mayhem.
He’s since left NYC and started his own restaurant in Keenybunkport in Maine and I went up and worked with him the summer of 2015 making Pasta dishes and working with lobsters as you do in Maine. In March this year, he asked me to help train locals how to cook with a wood fire to be ready for summer 2016.
As a gyspy chef, if you look back over the last year (2015), where have you been working?
I am based in LA where I do pizzas when in town at Cecconni’s.
It is part of Soho House and Co which began in London in 1995 as a private members’ club for people in the creative industries, with clubs and restaurants across Europe and North America
I worked for Soho in New York setting up the Roof Bar. Breakfast was available but by far more popular was the lunchtime point-and-pick-your-own-gourmet-rustic salad bar with outrageous extras and with the best farm to table ingredients available in NYC ’s Green Market, which is legendary.
In Chicago I helped usher in the Allis Bar where there was a big emphasis on “finger foods for night drinking,” middle eastern food with as many ways to present Hummus as imaginable, with the odd Mediterranean classic Porchetta sandwich thrown in. Every year I’m on the flight with my cooking twin Davie Vatran to Soho Toronto for the Film Festival where we work on menus and execution for after the Film Events. In reality, it is working around the chefs and staff in a kitchen already working at pressure point for regular dining and of course I am making pizzas.
I really get a kick out of the Miami Pop-ups on the beach though. It is my favourite place to work and the outdoor wild man fraternity that happens amongst us. I am a pizza oven chef and grill person there too. I don’t like line work at all. I like being master over my own grill or fire place . I get into a dream working with fire heat and food. My mates says “there’s Jake walking to the beat of his own Drum.” It is true I get obsessed with what I have to do to control the fire and heat and being surrounded by the smoke. I love working with Mesquite wood. We bring in from Mexico at vast cost but it brings a flavour to what you are grilling, that is incomparable to any other wood I use. Actually, in Los Angeles, I do a few other things with chef friends. With Matt Armistead (ex River Cafe, Head chef Soho LA, now Cassia LA), we worked to get Gjusta, Travis Lett’s Deli Cafe behind his place Gjelena in Venice Beach, off the ground and we have done a few gigs together cooking for celebrities at home. But I am always free to go where I am needed.
So where are you from originally?
Well I was born in New Zealand, but I only spent some blissful childhood years there. I have great memories but I feel very at home and more comfortable in Belgium where we lived and in the UK, where I went to boarding school in Oxfordshire. My first job ever after school was in Nairobi where I worked on tour trucks. I went back in New Zealand for a short time (aged 19) and began a Safari Tour Company. It was fun before a lot of tourist regulations came and in the end my heart wasn’t in living down there. It is a funny feeling actually to not feel you belong anywhere but you belong everywhere.
Many of today’s cooks and chefs refer to their grandmothers and mothers cooking as the reason they are cooking themselves. Do you have this kind of history?
No I can’t say it was either. If I was hungry when I was growing up, my mother would always say “make some toast”. There was always organic food in the house, fruit, vegetables from the garden, good bread, preserves, honey, jams. We had our own chickens, the refrigerator and fruit bowl were always full and there was trout. It was a rural life in New Zealand, we lived on the edge of a freshwater lake. I caught my trout in my row boat when I was five. Smoked trout was a given at home, it was constantly available and I still love it.
Where did you begin with pizzas then?
Probably I became interested in them when I was nine years old. My step father would take us out to eat all over Europe and I came across different foods and wood fires and bread ovens.
But I began cooking pizza seriously in Kobe, Japan, in my early 20s and shipped my oven from California to do it and opened a place with some Japanese friends. I moved to Japan and lived there 12 years but after a while, I really wanted to move back to the West so I returned to Belgium and then moved onto London and worked in Soho’s Pizza East in Shoreditch and moved out to Los Angeles with them, where I live now.
How did you get to choose Pizza cheffing rather than training to become Cook and working to become a chef?
I have always been fascinated by cooking with fire. My sister and I had a free idyllic early childhood in a natural paradise and we lit fires on the lakeshore when we felt like it. We experimented cooking with fire or just making fires for fun.
I also remember quite vividly, Hangi’s, a traditional cooking method of New Zealand used by its indigenous people and my uncles laying them down for feasting after a funeral or family gathering.
I watched them prepare the hot river stones, heating the fire pit, the food being laid in baskets then covered with sacking and being lowered into the earth oven. Then it was closed under piles of earth. Hours later, when it opened, the steam rising created an amazing excitement for everyone standing around. There was this unforgettable delicious smokey flavor all through the food when we got to eat it.
To me, there’s just some thing so primitive and fundamental about cooking with fire that resounds in me. I guess it is connected to those early happenings in my childhood. Living by a lake we often took a night boat and BBQ trips with my parents and their friends and children. They would BBQ into the night with only firelight while hordes of us children swam and played around and then ate off paper plates on our knees in the dark. All very elemental but powerful.
As someone moving in and out of other chefs’ kitchens like a gyspy what have you learnt?
I think the importance of adaptation, courtesy and curiosity. You learn so much by watching and asking questions. Feeling the atmosphere the Chef has created in his kitchen, watching the moves, checking out the personalities. It is like a kind of kitchen reconnaissance after which it’s very important to make sure the Chef you’re working with, trusts you and your cooking and secondly that you get along with his staff. Respect at all levels.
I have managed to crack these aspects without losing myself or my personality so where ever I am working I’m given an open book to do what I like doing. It is no problem for me to go in and out of a handful of kitchens manned by a handful of different chefs. I thrive on change.
What do you like about working with pizza in particular?
It is the urgency because each and every pizza is different. It is a game or race for me, one I like to watch unfolding in minutes. It is playing with fire which makes it fun. Playing with the heat coming from small or larger logs of wood, feeding the fire and managing it. The process never fails to entertain me. My pizza dough also plays a big part with the oven’s heat too, is it warm, cold, super fresh or made earlier that morning?
Understanding the speed in pizza-making is essential, that you need to make it work with what you have in the next twenty minutes. ”Don’t fuck it up Jake” is always playing on my mind. And pizza’s don’t match other plating times and arranging. They come out as they are to be served immediately when they are done. So in a sense you and your pizza are on your own.
When are you at your happiest cooking?
When my pizzas take over from the main menu orders of the restaurant, that makes me happy. It’s a funny joke with the chefs at the time. “I win.” Its great banter.
What and where are you most comfortable cooking for?
I feel safe and at home cooking for the people I work with mostly. I love making staff meals …..I am not just a pizza guy!
I get to experiment with incredible ingredients (I raid the fridges early in the morning and get over the reprimands!) to surprise them. Plus it’s always fun to cook for friends and family. Cooking al fresco is where I am most happy and the less tools I have, the happier I am.
Sometimes, moving hot food with my hands or a wig or branch from a log of wood is brilliant. I like improvising in the wild, it adds to the creativity.
Like anyone who lives and works in kitchens great and small, you spend a huge amount of the day together with your work mates. Do you hangout after work hours with your comrades too?
Sometimes I do, but often work hours is enough. You meet crazy, creative people in kitchens. There is a lot of drugs and drinking, over worked & underpaid chefs, sleep deprived, generous, humourous and fixated personalities. The miracle of it is that despite the toughness and insane demands on us somehow we all come back the next day and make it happen again as a team, even faster & better!! I like to stay with that.
What do you like eating most of all, what satisfies and sustains you?
UDON! I know the best place in Downtown Los Angeles outside of Japan to do it. And I love eating with my hands, scooping up food with bread, slurping from bowls. I go to places where I can do that, its seems more real and free, holding a taco in Mexico where certain street food is made on the spot. Dining rooms, white table cloths, more than one glass and silver service freaks me out.
Where is the most interesting eating experience you have had so far?
Japan stands out the brightest and best. It was always mind blowing eating tofu in the back of Muntos in Kyoto. Kyushu was always another go to place to eat.
Japan has a lot of hidden Mom & Pop places that I loved the best. To find them, you need to be part of a family or village foodies network and need a small car or motorbike’s to get to them. They are along backroads and in rural and fishing villages and completely off the beaten track and in each prefecture there is different food and ways that food is cooked.
It took me two years to truly understand Ramen.
I could fill a book on how I learnt to eat in Japan, their approach to food, their respect for rice.
Where are you heading to next?
After Maine work wise, I’m still in limbo waiting for the opening in Miami of a very special Uruguayan restaurant.
Mexico and the Baja is always a place to run down into when I get home to Los Angeles to enjoy my down time. Friends I worked with in Uruguay are coming up from Argentina in August to Los Angeles and I have a good feeling I will be heading to Mexico to eat there.
How do you deal with stress and continual adrenaline rushes and obscene hours you work. What else excites you?
I ride motorbikes. Fixing and customising motorbikes is close to my heart. I own Harleys and a sparky LA city Kawasaki. I have made two HD’s myself and love going to swap meets to pick up parts with Eric Shwartzkof, my Californian Bike Mentor (and also for Hollywood A listers who ride ). I love to cook at these meets … just for fun, it is never organised, it just happens.
I start building a fire and by word of mouth our biker mates show up with bag of vegtables and meat and I start using what is available to make it tasty and ….BOOM we are all spending more time talking about food we are eating have eaten or going to eat, than the beer we are drinking.
Most if not all my chef jobs involves bikes.
If there’s isn’t a motorbike around the kitchen door to ride I don’t go there to work.
I ride wherever I find myself, on my bikes or ones I borrow.
One of my good stuff memories was when I was working in Toronto. On rare but free days off, I went fishing then the next morning rode down to New York City with my salmon & trout wrapped in ice and tied onto the back of my bike. I did it in 7 hours and dropped the catch off with German at Soho House NYC where he was Head chef. Everyone was crazed about it.
Right now I’m in Maine and rebuilding a 1978 BMW R 1000 into a fun summer off roadster. As soon as I’m done with this bike then it’s time for me to move on to the next cooking job.
Bikes and fire go hand in hand for me.
How does family fit into your life?
I have a very powerful mother and sister and two nieces who hold me up. I guess that’s why I am free to travel. I don’t have a family (wife or kids nor sadly a dog) to keep me anchored in one place.
Who inspires you and why?
Frances Mallman is a kind of icon. A legend of the land. I owe a lot to my former Japanese mother in law who taught me to really taste Japanese food and appreciate its disciplined and seasonal nature. At Pizza East in Shoreditch, London, John Paulsen was the best ever mentor.
My Argentinian chef friends Germaine Lucarelli and Italian Andrea Cavaliere, my mate Matt from UK and Dave Vatran son of a Rumanian sausage maker all whom I work with as a gypsy chef on call, have spiced up my life and skills. My time in Uruguay this past summer opened the doors to another world of food and preparation.
What are your plans for the future?
To open a wood fired pizza oven in the back of an 67 airstream which is my current hands-on project in LA. I am doing the rebuild with a group of great friends who are welders, engineers, architects who are all working to make it happen.
We are about third of the way into the project . So working making pizza’s in my Airstream at special gigs, I am not going to be another food truck on the street in LA. I have very set ideas where I want too park and work!
Traveling from one’s friend place/kitchen to another, discovering more about food and people who make it that interests me, and always riding and rebuilding motorbikes. I want to spend more time in Uruguay and this summer open a small pizza place. Last summer, I set up a pop-up, this summer with the same friends we will do something more substantial And I guess I will try to fit what else I can manage.