It's been a while since we've had a My Pizza Oven, so I'm happy to welcome Neil Gunning, a chef from Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia, who has built a wood-fired earth oven in his back yard. Special thanks to his wife, Cath (Chunky Chooky), for the photos! Let's get Neil in the hot seat. —AK
Name: Neil Gunning
Location: Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia
How often do you use it?
Initially we fired the oven about fortnightly, now we use it about once a month in summer, and maybe three times during winter. We use it often around Christmas and birthdays.
What style of pizza do you normally do?
True Italian style, less is best, thin crisp bases with only 2 or 3 toppings.
When did you put it in? Did you build it yourself or have someone build it?
I built the oven in August 2008 after dreaming of having one for about three years. I read any information I could get my hands on. Eventually I purchased Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and Back Yard Ovens, an Earth Garden publication. A friend of mine helped me build the base, which is 2 meters by 1.5 meters (6.5 by 5 feet), backfilled with old rubble, bricks, bottles, etc., to about three-quarters, then a mixture of crusher dust sand and vermiculite (for insulation purposes). The base was built about six months prior to the oven being built (it took me this long to collect rubble, stones, materials, etc.). Then once oven construction started, we finished it within one week or so.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination to make?
Crisp, thin-sliced potato, rosemary, and pancetta.
Do you cook for friends/neighbors?
Always friends, and party guests.
What does your family think of your pizza madness?
My wife definitely thought I was a little obsessed initially, before the oven was built because I would lay in bed at night reading oven literature back to front over and over, but now that it's done, she loves it as much as I do.
Do you cook anything besides pizza in it?
Have cooked loads in it, everything from whole salmon, cakes, bread, roast vegs, oven-dried tomatoes, pork shoulder roasts, lamb.
I bet. Especially since she gets to eat whatever comes out of it. ... OK, on to the more standard questions ... 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?
This is not the case for me, I grew up in New Zealand and my first slice of pizza was from Pizza Hut. I haven't eaten pizza from one of the large commercial pizza companies in over 20 years and never will again. Since moving to Sydney and eating amazing pizzas from Leichardt and Haberfield (little Italian communities) I could never turn to the dark side again.
Where do you go for pizza in your area (when you're not making your own)?
In Bellingen we occasionally get pizza from our friend Andrew who runs The Little Red Kitchen — great pizzas when ordered carefully. Although nothing beats our own wood-fired ones.
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
Hands down, pineapple. [See Pineapple on Pizza: Way or No Way? —AK]
Most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?
One drunken night at my last birthday someone got some leftover butter chicken and spread it over a base that had been prepared earlier. We ate it but wouldn't go there again.
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
Probably 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), these days less than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
My advice to anyone wanting to build an oven is just do it. After all the reading and procrastinating I did, I don't feel I was any more prepared than if I had just got into it with the book at my fingertips. Also, put a roof over it as soon as possible.
Who would you like to see interviewed next?
Someone who has built some sort of tandoor pit?
Only if they're cooking pizza in it! ... Seriously, though, Neil, your oven looks great. And I love that picture at top. That party looks really pleasant. Thanks for keeping the hot seat warm until the next guest. Cheers!