Wood Oven

Me with my lovely friend and multifaceted author, Andrew X. Pham. Photo by Carol Levy

Wood oven

by Niki Ford

 I first came to the wood oven cold and afraid.  On one level I knew that I was experiencing some of the very normal fears associated with undertaking an utterly foreign task, but I suspect, on a deeper level, I also sensed that some piping hot humility was waiting for me just around the corner.  In fact, even after I learned how to charm the hell out of that round belly of an oven, I still had nightmares about somehow having to live inside it and cook in it at the same time.  For me, those dreams spoke to the internal and external pressures I felt to become an instant expert.  Two days of training and, POW, I’d be the new wood oven cook in the Chez Panisse Café.

   When I was still pretty green on the oven,  Alice Waters ordered two pizzas and I was positively terrified, but I made the pizzas and sent them down to her meeting anyway.  Then I promptly exhaled, got on with the rest of my day and hoped  for the best.

Photo by Carol Levy

  Back then, it was painful, but doing my best meant that I had to serve up my “learning.” I didn’t know that my pizzas weren’t good enough.  I wasn’t the one eating them.  I only knew that I felt more fear than excitement most of the time.

  “No news really is good news when you make food for Alice,” the Café cooks would say.  Of course, a large portion of the day had gone by since I made those pizzas and I was practically skipping as I focused my sights on the home stretch of not being spoken to at all.  In the midst of that fantasy, my chef asked me sit with her and, even then, I imagined she was about to tell me that the pizzas I made for Alice were quite good.

  “Not good enough,” she said, echoing Alice’s words to me.

  “Not good enough,” I said, echoing them to myself.

  I spent the next few days leaning into my colleagues, one by one, to softly ask, “Hey, have you ever heard of anyone being re-trained on a station?”  No one had.

  Luckily, they brought in my former chef, Russ, to train me.  Not only did he very publicly credit himself for hiring me, albeit in a humorous context most of the time, he had also spent the last twenty-odd years at the restaurant and had some serious mojo when it came to cooking with fire.  Russ didn’t boggle my mind with the science or rules; he encouraged me to pay attention.

Photo by Adrienne Pao (altered with blur)

  “Niki, you were made to cook in the wood oven,” he said.  Looking back now, I can see that he knew something that I didn’t know at all then; that if I brought who I really was to that oven, there would be sparks.

  Throughout the day, we discussed the changing shades of light inside the oven as we built and stoked the fire.  “When the inside of the oven is this color, you are ready to make a good pizza,” said Russ.  In that moment, using the oven seemed a lot making a drawing.  If I stepped back to take a look, most of my day involved a lot of reflection, even if it only took place in split-seconds of knowing.  Whether I was seeking balance, contrast or intensity, it suddenly became apparent that action and response to that action would be required of me on an ongoing basis.  That occasion marked a new style of culinary practice for me, one that included a much more intact vision of my creative self.

  I began to eke out the dream where I, the clumsy artist, could flourish as a wood oven cook.    I burned myself all the time and anointed those healing burns with fresh pain each time I stuck my arms in and out of that oven for new, intense kisses of heat.  But I was willing to pay a price for some mastery.  As I spun back and forth from the counter to the oven in the months that followed, I  became a kind of flour-cloaked whirling Dervish set on my progress.

Photo by Artist in Residence, Adrienne Pao

  A year or two later I overheard that, in a managers’ meeting, Alice proclaimed, “Niki makes made the best pizzas in the Café.”

25 April 2012

Eden’s escarole and curly endive

the all-anchovy pizzas:

chard and wild nettle pizzas with feta, fresh mozzarella and anchovy

tomato sauce pizzas with ricotta, anchovy, savory, marjoram and one of Del’s eggs

good ol’ Chez classic of sorrel, anchovy and egg

end of the night pizzas to use up all the toppings

Clever artists bring their own dessert to share.


8 thoughts on “Wood Oven

  1. Intense kisses of heat, flour-cloaked whirling Dervish set on my progress. Terrific writing. One day I’d like to know when the colour is right inside a wood oven.

  2. Nikki, a pure delight to meet you. I feel fortunate to be able to say that you are, thank god interesting and entertaining personally as well as to say that my fortune in meeting a chef of your ability (apparent and presumed from your background) was secondary.

    Hearing how putting together menus and the creative bend that requires was interesting, for my own interest in cooking is largely based on a strong interest in new culinary challenges (make a souffle, make a tart, put together a convincing Kim chee, build a believable, tasty duck tourrine, etc). For me, rediscovering an interest in cooking is manifested primarily in a desire to make something different and well (tasty and in the end, looking good). Probably all got started right out of college when my best friend’s mother told me, with great condescension that at my tender age, my casually expressed desire to one day cook an entire Thanksgiving meal on my own ‘couldn’t happen without years of experience and tutelage’ to which I replied, much too casually and incorrectly: if a person knows how to read a cookbook, they should be able to do it…DUUH!’

    Of course, I was half right and half wrong, because while I ultimately succeeded in making my own, complete thanksgiving meal only a few years later, being a great cook simply doesn’t come from an ability to read a cookbook and have desire to do it.

    I’m not sure that I’m any sort of master chef–certainly not when I could compare myself to you and your own experience or anyone who has actually had culinary training. And this doesn’t really bother me–my only advantages as a homecook are that I truly enjoy cooking and…for what it’s worth–I’m fearless. In simpler terms, I’m not afraid to make mistakes and look bad if a meal I out together is not perfect or is flawed (the omelet that becomes scrambled eggs…the four layer cake that is cut unevenly…the ice cream that never ‘sets’…)

    So I’ll keep banging my head on the wall and push my envelope…because its fun…and I’m really too old to pursue a career in the culinary world because I don’t have youth or desire to aspire to 12 hour days in fabulous kitchens for $8 an hour…hearing your past success (working for Chez Panisse!!) and your desire to continue in the field, well…it got my juices flowing–and thank you so much for that.

    Currently I’m getting interested in French cooking…probably the most challenging of European cuisines I suppose, mainly because I havent done it much…and I want to try. And I’ll try out my standard concoctions on Stephanie and Mike and friends (mostly bistro style I think) so putting together a duck terrine that might take five days of brining the bird, etc. well, woo! What the hell!

    A delight to talk to you–wish we had had more time!

    PS. My blog is on blogger.com so if you google

    Do not call me chef it ought to come up!


    1. Chris,

      It was a pleasure for me to meet you, too, and I look forward to following your adventures via the blog. Thank you for sharing some of your back story. Cooking for pleasure (and WITH passion, for that matter) is an exquisite use of one’s time.

      If you haven’t read it yet, check out Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones and Butter”. I think you will love it. You can get more of the vicarious restaurant vibe through her.


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