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.
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.
“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.
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