Santa Monica Man Goes from Home-Pizza Joe to Pizza Pro

You may know Noel Brohner 'round these parts as SkyHighGluten. In a My Pie Monday compilation in late December he mentioned making a batch of dough in a 30-quart Hobart mixer. Why would a home pizzamaker have that kind of artillery on hand? I smelled a story. Sure enough, Noel had made the move from pizza-at-home to pizza-as-pro. We had to get him in the hot seat to get the tale. —AK

Name: Noel Brohner (aka SkyHighGluten)
Location: Los Angeles
Occupation: Serial entrepreneur and part-time pizza guy
URL: 31tenlounge.com

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Noel Brohner in his "Caputo Man" costume. [Photograph: Erik Neldner]

So in the comments of that My Pie Monday, you explain this all, but let me just ask again so it's here for anyone who missed that ... You started out making pizza at home, right?

Right. I've been a "serious" home-pizza-baker for about a year and a half and have aspirations of opening my own pizzeria in LA sometime soon. It all started when I bought Peter Reinhart's American Pie and figured, how hard could it be? Hard, I found out. My first pizzas were terrible. The second ones weren't much better. Progress was slow. I was impatient.

I spoke with a friend who happened to have attended a week-long artisanal bread-baking class at the French Culinary Institute in NYC, and he suggested I give it a whirl. He swore up and down that it had changed everything for him. The spring class didn't work with my schedule, but, not long thereafter, I found myself moving to NYC for the summer and attending the two-month-long program, and it was truly life-changing.

During that time, I also discovered Kesté on Bleecker Street and became friendly with Roberto Caporuscio [Kesté partner and pizza instructor]. After a few months experimenting with different styles of pizza dough back at my apartment in Santa Monica, I went back to NYC in early 2010 and spent some quality time with Roberto, learning to make his dough and bake in his beautiful oven.

And then in, what, November of last year? Remind us what you went and did ...

I answered an ad on Craigslist for a pizza man with wood-fired-oven experience but never received a response. Then, weeks later, I got a call at 10:30 p.m. asking if I was available to come in and work the next night — opening f***ing night. Are you kidding, I asked the chef. No, he clearly was not. Apparently, I got the job because I'm the only guy in LA who responded with WFO experience. Big shout out to Roberto at Kesté!

And this was, what, mid December 2010?

Yeah, I showed up the next night and jumped right in. The guy who was supposed to train me was nowhere to be found and I had about two hours to set up my station, fire up the oven, learn the menu and test the dough. They were doing a soft opening for friends and investors at 6 p.m. and it wasn't until 4:30 that I discovered that the dough that was supposed to be waiting for me was MIA — just like the guy who was supposed to train me. Organized chaos was quickly turning into just plain old pizza chaos. Not the way I like to start any new job, but my choices were limited.

But he eventually showed up and passed on the recipe, right? But you mentioned having to tweak that recipe for mass consumption?

Oh yeah. It wasn't easy though. The original recipe came from an Italian food runner at the owners' other restaurant down the street called Ado. He brought the recipe over from Italy — Sardinia, I think. But, to me, it wasn't so much of a recipe as a series of seemingly unrelated instructions all brought together by a flurry of Italian hand gestures and diagrams drawn in semolina flour on the table next to the mixer. There were some weights and measures involved but not enough to create what most people would call an actual recipe. For instance, the amount of flour was not actually part of the original recipe, even though it's technically the main component. He added the flour as he mixed and judged whether to add more by eyeballing the dough. (Very zen!) Even better, he didn't just add the salt. He tossed it side-arm — very important technique, apparently — in very small increments into the mixing bowl during the later part of the mix. The fact that some of the salt landed on the floor and some in the bowl seemed irrelevant to my new Italian friend. It was all about tradition to him — and style. My instructors at the French Culinary Institute would definitely not have approved.

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Top: Brohner's tools of the trade. "One of the best baking habits I learned at FCI was to keep a log book and take copious notes," he says. "Good or bad, you always want to keep a record of what you did so you can go back and correct it or duplicate it." Above: Brohner's current dough incarnation at the restaurant. "After I retard the dough balls, I pull them out and let them return to room temp. I have always heard that two hours was enough time but, after reading 'Tartine Bread,' I began to experiment a bit more and really watch the dough. Six or seven hours minimum (in a warm corner of the kitchen) is the range I'm now using at 31Ten. I prefer to give the dough as little yeast as possible and as much time as it needs. And I'm finding it needs *a lot* more time than I ever imagined." [Photographs: Noel Brohner]

Long story short, the dough came out of the mixer that night at a whopping 93 degrees after an intensive 20-plus-minute mix. There was no time for bulk fermentation. He just balled the hot mass up in to tight, muscular, little balls of varying shapes and sizes and then disappeared for the third (and final) time without explanation. "Sorry but I gotta go," was all he said as he got off of his cell phone. (I was told on the phone the night before he was going to "train me" but he just left me with a luke-warm oven and a lot of unanswered questions.) I began baking pizzas almost immediately after he left. I didn't have a choice. The executive chef showed up on the line and started yelling things like "Diavola" and "San Danielle" at me. The guests were beginning to arrive. Needless to say, those little dough balls were impossible to stretch but what could I do? Who am I to just walk in there and question their methods or change their recipe? First I had to gain the respect of the chef and owners by doing the best I could with the recipe I inherited. Once I accomplished that, I figured, I could begin to tweak the recipe little by little until I was satisfied.

How many nights a week are you working there now? Are you the only pizzaiolo? Do you have assistants now or plan on bringing any on?

Originally, the pizza kitchen was just open Thursday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m., but we've gotten busier and busier each week. These days, I'm there Wednesday through Saturday making pizzas until well after midnight, plus a half day on Tuesday to make dough. And, get this: We started doing a happy hour last week from 5 to 7 p.m. (even on Saturdays) featuring $6 Margheritas, $7 Diavolas (pepperoni and roasted peppers), and $8 Prosciutto e Funghis (ham and roasted mushrooms). IS THAT A DEAL OR WHAT?

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"See those lovely bubbles in the cornicione? I don't generally get those unless I let the dough balls sit out for a long, long time before baking." [Photograph: Noel Brohner]

As for job titles, I don't call myself a "pizzaiolo" yet. That's a term I reserve for guys like Roberto Caporuscio or Antonio Starita. I'm the "pizza guy" for now. At least, that's what the Italian owners call me. "Hey, pizza guy. How about a Margherita with anchovies?"

As for assistants, I've gone through three so far. The problem with finding the right assistant is that a lot of these guys have more professional experience in pizzerias than I do — ten years or more, some of them. And with that experience comes a lot of bad habits and bravado. It's hard to break them of their habits and teach them to "feel the dough," as Roberto tried to teach me. Roberto also told me it's easier to find people who've never stretched dough before and train them from scratch. I'm just beginning to understand the wisdom of his words.

So are you still working your day job? You say "part-time pizza maker" above...

Are you kidding? Do you know what the starting hourly rate is for line cooks in LA? (Not much.) By my calculations, a month's worth of pizza-making covers about half my rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica and not much else. I can't afford to give up my day job! That said, I couldn't say no to making wood-fired pizzas two blocks from my house. (Not only is it a two-minute walk, but did I mention it's downhill?) What else could I ask for, literally? I'm telling you, I'm in WFO heaven.

Ah, but it's uphill back home ;) ...

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[Photograph: Noel Brohner]

What kind of oven is it? You know Slice'rs are going to want to know.

The tag on the oven says Bravo Systems. I called the company during my first week there to see what I could find out, but the woman on the other end of the phone didn't know too much. It's made in Italy, but she wasn't sure where. I admit, I'm spoiled though; I learned to make wood-fired pizzas on the Acunto oven at Kesté, and the one I'm using now seems like a distant cousin to that one. The Acunto was bigger and was more efficient and cooked the pizzas more evenly. This one does the job — I can' really complain — but I can definitely see the difference the more time I spend baking on this one.

Now that you're making pizza professionally, have you stopped making it at home?

I'm not proud to say this but, yeah...temporarily. There just isn't the time.

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Brohner during his home-pizza-making days. [Photograph: Noel Brohner]

But when you were making them at home, what recipes and such did you use?

My first favorite recipe at home was Peter Reinhart's New York–Style Pizza recipe. The sugar and the oil, though controversial to some, lead to a nicely browned, crisp crust. About five minutes at 550°F with a pizza stone (or even better, the hearth insert he recommends in American Pie) you get a pretty darn satisfying pizza. An excellent beginner's recipe, for sure.

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[Photograph: Noel Brohner]

But my current favorite is a high-hydration sourdough with a long, natural rise. I've adapted a recipe I picked up at the French Culinary Institute's Artisanal Bread Baking Program. Add in some of the fermentation and dough-stretching techniques I learned while working at Kesté and you've got some seriously delicious pizza.

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[Photograph: Noel Brohner]

This recipe is also kind of a personal nod to one of my favorite local spots here in SoCal, which happens not to be a pizzeria at all. Anyone out there ever heard of Bay Cities Italian Deli? Their sandwich bread is something of a local obsession to many: soft, cool crumb with a golden-brown, uber-chewy crust and lots and lots of little blisters. (Don't get me started on those blisters. Trying to figure out how they got those little things there has literally kept me up at night for years.) I can't give out the exact recipe because I plan to use some version of it when I open my own pizzeria in the future, but please don't let that discourage you — next time you're in Santa Monica, go to Bay Cities on Lincoln Boulevard and order a Godmother with the Works and tell me if you think their bread dough wouldn't make some seriously killer sourdough pizza crust.

Wow. Thanks for the tip! And those crust blisters do look amazing. ... So, they say that a good way to ruin something you love is to try to make a living at it. It's probably too early to tell, but has working in a pizzeria changed your love for the stuff?

Not yet, but I know what you're talking about. I owned and ran a restaurant and nightclub called LunaPark in West Hollywood for years, and before that I wrote music and worked in production for a living. LA music industry people are mostly evil and tried to destroy my lifelong love of music for years. It was an epic conspiracy, I tell you, but I eventually prevailed.

I can't remember ... remind me, are you married? If so, I'm just wondering what the spouse thinks of all this. My wife would probably kill me if I were just like, "OK. I'm now working at a pizzeria during my spare time, too."

I'm blessed with a very supportive and understanding wife. She's actually the one who found the job on Craigslist and suggested I apply. It's a win-win for her, really. She's the uncrowned queen of 31Ten. She walks in and everyone greets her like pizza royalty. She brings friends and family over while I'm working and they sit at the counter near the oven and I bring them delicious off-the-menu pizzas to sample. When she's full, she just pays the check and says her goodbyes. It's an uphill walk back to our apartment but I think she prefers that to doing the dishes, you know?

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"Here's one I made with spinach, mushrooms, and red onion. And the crust? Perfectly imperfect." [Photograph: Noel Brohner]

You have five pizzas on the menu? Quattro Stagioni, Diavola, Margherita, Proscuitto e Funghi, and Alla Paulino? Any plans for any more?

Yeah, big plans. I've got a list as long as my pizza peel of killer pies but the owners have their eyes on the bottom line so, to keep waste and food cost down, they're keeping the menu somewhat limited for now. I run "under the counter" specials all the time but they're mostly for friends and family and the occasional regular. I did one with spicy lamb sausage and black kale on Friday that people seemed to really like, and on Saturday I did one with grilled tiger shrimp and a pesto recipe I'm working on with wild arugula, toasted pistachios, and roasted garlic oil. I'm also a big fan of what I call green pizzas — pizzas with salad on top. I'm trying to get the chef to let me go aboveboard with the specials, but the owners really have their eyes on the bottom line these days so I guess I'll have to kind of play the game and be patient.

You're basically living the dream for a lot of us sending in photos to My Pie Monday. But I'm sure there's been a steep learning curve and a lot of adjustment. What's the been the biggest challenge going from home pizza maker to pro?

Good question. I could answer this in many ways but I think the biggest issue for me right now is time management. You know, when I make pizza at home for friends and family, it's a very organic and mind-expanding process for me. I make the dough as far in advance as I want. I dream about topping combinations at night and then shop for the raw ingredients at the local farmers' market in my waking hours. Friends and family come over with beautiful bottles of beer and wine, and good times ensue in my little kitchen until all hours of the night. My biggest concern as a home-baker is whether my sourdough is too sour. But baking professionally is totally different: It's less about making great pizza and more about scheduling and dough management and training staff and, of course, the bottom line. And, of course, there's never enough time to do it all they way you would like.

Conversely is there anything that's been surprisingly easy?

You know, just before I got this job I bought a cookbook called Tartine Bread. For me, that book is all about going off the grid and getting back to the basics of baking. I found it very inspiring. I've been able to incorporate a lot more artisanal techniques into my own process at 31Ten and the transition has been surprisingly seamless. The original recipe I inherited was overmixed and under-hydrated, according to me. (As I may have implied earlier, fermentation was optional.) What I'm doing now is a lot more ... organic. There's a lot of baker's math and temperature-taking involved, of course, but the resulting recipe and process has taken less time than I ever imagined to tweak into a final product that I'm becoming more and more satisfied with.

Plan on quitting your day job anytime soon and going fully pizzaiolo?

ASAP.

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"A few slices of homemade pizza — this one with a mushroom-walnut sauce and Grande whole-milk mozzarella." [Photograph: Noel Brohner]

So, given all your pizza experience thus far, what type of pizza do you prefer?

What could be better than a bubbling-hot, thin-crust pizza emerging from the depths of the dinky, little gas oven in your very own kitchen? Nothing from any chef or restaurant could ever compare.

Hah. But surely your 31Ten pizza must be better, right?

Not necessarily. I've got my home oven pimped out just right: pizza stone on bottom, stone hearth on the sides, fire bricks on top, two thermometers to measure ambient and stone temps. It's not a bad set-up. In fact, a few of my more discriminating foodie-friends have come into 31Ten and said the same thing: "You know, Noel, this pizza is awesome but — no offense — I kind of like those pizzas you make at home better."

At first I was totally offended by this notion, but I think I've begin to come around. For instance, those pizzas I make at home have a wonderfully crisp crust that always passes the no-sag test. The wood-fired pizza I do at 31Ten, like the pizza at Kesté, tends to produce a crust that is a bit more chewy and naanlike. The Neapolitan style (which is not what I'm aiming for at 31Ten but is definitely a strong influence) is more — dare I say — soggy than crisp and so I think it just comes down to pizza styles and personal taste. The pizza cooked for 4 minutes at 600°F in my home oven has a thinner, crisper crust than the pizza cooked for a minute and a half at 950°F in my WFO. It's apples and oranges really — or pepperonis and soppressatas, if you prefer.

The challenge for me is to try to marry my favorite pizza styles into something that is both personally satisfying and also manageable on a large scale. Roger Gural, my baking instructor at the FCI, sent me an email a few months ago in which he had some sagely advice, which is ringing truer and truer with each day I spend at 31Ten: "...My two cents is that you don't need to make the greatest pizza that ever existed in the universe. I would focus on a process that is efficient, consistent, and merely really, really good...."

Wow. This has all been fascinating, Noel. I almost feel like the "standard questions" would be superfluous, but, what the heck ... let's go for it. ... The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?

The Famous Ray's Pizza

[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

I'm a little fuzzy about this because I was very young and sleepy at the time but my earliest and most vivid memory of pizza comes from visiting my grandparents in Brooklyn as a child for the holidays. As was the tradition in my family, all guests arriving from out-of-town were picked up at the airport and whisked off to one of two places: Nathan's in Coney Island or Ray's Pizza in NYC — your choice. It didn't matter if it was the dead of night and there was two feet of snow on the ground. They'd strap you into the car seat and you'd usually pass out during the long, dark ride from JFK to the West Village. But, as soon as you arrived, you'd be carried half asleep down Sixth Avenue into a loud and too-bright pizzeria, and within minutes you'd be confronted with the biggest slice of pizza you'd ever seen, always handed to you prefolded by a random adult hand from above. The slice seemed impossibly large, but there was something very energizing about being out and about way past your bedtime and standing on the sidewalk with a can of Coke in one hand and a slice of New York pizza in the other, and that has always motivated me to gobble down my slice as quickly as possible and ask for a second.

I've been back to Ray's as an adult, of course, and the pizza slices have never been as big or as hot or as delicious. But I have a feeling that this is less about my taste in pizza evolving and more about being too darn big and fat to fit into a car seat, you know?

What's your favorite topping or topping combination?

When I'm cooking pizza at home, the first and favorite pie is always the same: raw onions sliced paper thin on a mandoline, a healthy drizzle of very good EVOO, a dusting of pecorino-Romano and some coarse sea salt. If your dough is having a good day, there's nothing better — not even a Margherita. If your dough is not quite living up to its potential, well then there's usually some sweet Italian sausage and roasted asparagus from the farmers' market on hand to remedy the matter.

Where do you go for pizza in your area?

  • 31Ten for convenience
  • Pizzeria Mozza for Nancy Silverton's excellent version of pizza (which all of my Italian friends claim is "not pizza.")
  • Gjelena for wood-fired thin crust pizza topped with razor-thin toppings and a healthy amount of Abbot Kinney attitude
  • Village Pizzeria for a cheap, greasy slice after a night out in Hollywood
  • Vito's Pizza for an above-average New Jersey slice (totally different from a New York slice but I'm not sure why — maybe the water?) and a wink from Vito
  • Joe's Pizza for the memories (Joe's in Santa Monica is barely a shell of my old go-to corner pizzeria on Bleecker Street, when a slice off the first pie out of the oven on any given morning was a personal victory for me and because it was all I could really afford for breakfast anyway

Ah, yeah. Well, there's that whole thing with Joe vs. Joe, isn't there? ... Hmm... Let's see, what's next ... What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?

Matzo ball soup.

Most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?

Against my better judgment, I went to a local pizzeria on Melrose to check out the hype. The crust looked sub-par so I wasn't going to order anything but then I saw a kid eating a slice of hot wing pizza with a side of Syracuse-style ranch dressing. It couldn't have looked more disgusting, but I decided to test myself and try not to be a such a pizza snob. What if (for once) I was wrong, I wondered? Well, as it turns out, I was right. That was the single most "unusual" slice of pizza I've ever eaten — and the crust was nasty, too.

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What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

Too close to call. It's a toss-up between Naples, Italy, and Mendoza, Argentina. Lots of people have made the pilgrimage to Napoli, and I'm not sure I have anything new or noteworthy to add. But how many people have been stopped and interrogated by airport security in Argentina for carrying six kilos of flour and a baking scale in their checked luggage? Most of you can probably imagine some of the questions security had for me, but how many of you have ever noticed how much tapioca flour resembles high quality, un-cut, pure-grade COCAINE? (I didn't think so.) More on that international pizza adventure another time.

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A slice from Sal & Carmine's. [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

Anything I've missed? Freestyle for us, would you?

You know, one Saturday morning a while back, I was hanging out at Sal & Carmine's on the Upper West Side watching and learning and I was quizzing Sal about his upbringing. He wasn't exactly forthcoming usually but, on that one rainy day, he opened up to me and he told me that he grew up on a farm in the South of Italy, around Salerno, I think, and that his mother used to make pizza in their oven at home. In fact, he credited her with teaching him how to make it. That got me thinking about pizza and tradition and family and how important it is to remember and honor it.

When I finally went to Naples on my own pizza pilgrimage, I was able to taste the unbelievably FRESH buffalo mozzarella from Caserta and the JUST-PICKED San Marzano tomatoes that I've been buying in cans for years and the rustic pizza crust that had been baked in ovens that were made of bricks from the earth at the base of Mount Vesuvius, and I thought of Sal and his family and how lucky I was to be there at that moment and how pizza may have started in Italy but that it had been propelled to the four corners of the earth by guys like Sal and carried on by future generations, like his grandson, Luciano, and maybe someday his great-grandson, Sal Jr.

Yeah. Sadly Sal has passed on. It's nice to see his family carrying on the tradition. ... Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?

Yeah, LA water has next to nothing to do with the fact that our pizza here usually blows. If that were true, then you probably wouldn't be able to get a proper baguette outside of France or decent focaccia outside of Italy, right? My own conspiracy theory on the matter has more to do with the cheap and lazy practices of most pizzeria operators (and chains!) and less to do with LA's notorious drinking water.

  • Cheap: As most of us already know, when your pizza contains only four ingredients (flour, water, salt, yeast), you better use the best ingredients you can find if you want to make good pizza
  • Lazy: Good dough takes time and effort, so if you're in a rush to make pizza or are feeling particularly lazy, do yourself a favor and make a quesadilla for yourself instead and get your ass out of the kitchen and back to the couch where it belongs

Now: Who would you like to see interviewed next?

I think you should speak with Josh Ozersky about his views on pizza. He's not actually a pizza-maker or a pizza aficionado for that matter and he has certainly been accused of having a burned-out palate after years of partying like a rock star, but he does have a lot of strong and (if not well-founded then at least) well-worded ideas about pizza. Also, he's very knowledgeable and entertaining and is a balls-to-the-wall foodie-at-large who also happens to be my fourth cousin three times removed or something like that — so don't hold it against me, but I feel like pizza is a family thing and I like to keep mine ... in the family.

Hah. Yeah. It would be fun to put Josh in the hot seat. I'll get on that. Thanks again for the insight here. Truly entertaining and informative, Noel.

31Ten

3110 Main Street, Santa Monica CA (map)
Wednesday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; happy hour, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
310-450 5522; 31tenlounge.com

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