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Pizza Obsessives: August "Gus" Mueller

Slice made a Twitter connection with today's pizza obsessive back during the KettlePizza Insert testing in June. Through his blog shapeof.com, it quickly became apparent that we had a real pizza obsessive on our hands. Get to know August "Gus" Mueller a little better during today's q&a!

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Name: August "Gus" Mueller
Location: Everett, WA (just north of Seattle)
Occupation: Programmer / Founder of Flying Meat Inc (software for the Mac)
URL(s): Mueller Pizza Lab, a blog of my pizza experiments; flyingmeat.com

What type of pizza do you prefer?

I guess what I like the most would be considered "Neo-Neapolitan". I'm not a big fan of lots of toppings, and I love pizzas cooked hot and fast.

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?

I don't remember what my first taste of pizza was, though I'm willing to bet it was a Chicago style deep dish pizza (I grew up in St. Louis, and we had a handful of places that served it). I'm not a fan of deep dish pizza these days at all, so I think I just ruined the Pizza Cognition Theory.

I do remember making homemade "pizza" as a kid, and I can still taste it to this day it was so memorable. Though I will probably never make it again, I'll happily describe it: we rolled out biscuit dough (the kind you can pick up in the cold sections of the grocery store), mixed powdered spaghetti sauce mix and tomato paste for the sauce, then came slices of pepperoni, and after that whatever cheese we had around. It was horrible, but it was just sooo good at the same time. I'm sure I just made half your readers sick, but hey, I was a kid and some kids will eat any type of pizza you give them.

I can tell you what pizza ended up changing me forever though, and that was Shakespeare's Pizza in Columbia, MO. When I was going to college in Columbia I think I probably ate there about once a week, it was simply so good. I even remember the very first pizza I ever ordered (pepperoni and green pepper), and who I was with! And the restaurant was always tons of fun—you could even buy balls of dough for a dollar to take home and make your own pizzas with, which we did a number of times. What kind of restaurant owners do that? You could tell they loved pizza and if you weren't eating it at Shake's, they at least wanted you to have some good dough to use at home.

It was sometimes hit and miss though, and I eventually found out that they were making huge batches of dough and would use it as soon as 15 minutes after mixing it together. So if you got unlucky and got some dough that hadn't risen enough, things tasted odd. Of course the alternative was running out of dough for the night like some restaurants do, and that would just make for a lot of very sad college students. It was usually really great though.

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What's your favorite topping or topping combination?

I'd have to say it's The Merlin, which is a creation of my own (pictured above). Whole wheat mixed with high gluten flour, topped with olive oil + garlic + basil + jerk sauce, provolone cheese, and finally pepperoni, jalapeños, and pineapple. It has the spicy sweet thing going on, and it's really really good. I've had multiple people say it's the best pizza they've ever had.

What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?

Broccoli. I have a friend who likes that on his pies, and I just don't understand this.

Where do you go for pizza in your area?

Everywhere. I don't have a regular place, but I do like exploring around a bit. Down in Seattle we have a number of wood-fired places that make traditional neapolitan pizza. I recently went to Tutta Bella which actually has the official Neapolitan Pizza certification. It's decent pizza, but nothing to get worked up about.

What I really love is watching pizza people work. For instance, last week I went to a little pita bakery near my office. They have a gas heated pizza / bread oven in the back where things are setup a bit like a Subway restaurant. While they serve mostly gyros and such, they do have a Mediterranean pizza that is decent. The fun part was talking to the lady making my lunch, watching her putting it in the oven, constantly watching the pizza and adjusting it for an even cook, and firing up the oven a bit at the end to make sure the top cooked just right. And the tools they use look like they slapped them together themselves—but it all works!

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

Probably just a couple of hours, from St. Louis to Columbia MO for a pie from Shakespeare's. I was in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and ate at Una Pizza Napoletana—but that wasn't the primary purpose of the trip so I guess it only half counts.

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We know from the Merlin that you are a home pizza maker. So, what recipes do you use? Can you share with us a little on your methods.

Absolutely. I started making pizza at home about 7 years ago when I moved away from St. Louis. I really really missed Shakespeare's, and after mail ordering a couple of pizzas out here (yes, they do that!). I decided to see if I could make something as good myself. (BTW—don't ever get mail ordered pizzas. It's all kinds of wrong and I knew it at the time, but I just had to try it.). After a couple of years and interrogating a former Shake's employee, I finally managed to make some pizzas that I was happy with. But then I didn't stop, and eventually I started making better pizzas.

And from there it was like falling down the rabbit hole. I learned how to crank my home oven up to 800f with the broiler (you can read about it and watch a video here), I discovered good flours, mixing flours, different techniques like raising the dough in the fridge vs. using a little seedling heat mat to speed up the raising time. I've made some great pizzas using no-knead techniques as well, had internal
debates on provolone vs. mozzarella, and become very angry at a local grocery store because they can't seem to keep a certain brand of amazing pepperoni in stock. It's kind of a disease.

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For years I've been wanting to build a wood fired oven as well, I just don't know where I'd put the thing. But recently I discovered the KettlePizza and had to get one- the idea of being able to have charcoal or wood fired pizza in my back yard without a huge warmup time seemed perfect. However my first experiences with it were a little disappointing, as I think it is with most people. I wasn't about to give up though, and I started hacking the crap out of my weber to see if I could make the kind of pies I loved. You can read about my various experiments with it on my pizza blog, but in the end I think having a super big stone on top made of cordierite, modifying the lid so it sits a little lower, and adding a door to the underside of the weber is the way to go.

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And of course I didn't stop there. This past summer I put a Forno Bravo Casa 2G90 WFO in my back yard, and cooking in this guy (which I've named Dante) is like a dream come true. It's a bit slower to heat up than the KettlePizza, but making pies in it is such a joy.

Awesome! Did you build it yourself or have some help?  When did you finish it?

I built it mostly myself.  My wife helped me lift the dome pieces into place— and wow those things are supper heavy (we really should have had a 3rd person help us lift it).  But laying the foundation, pouring the heart, building the enclosure- was all done by me.

It took about a month to build, and to be honest—it's not quite done yet.  I still need to finish the front (I want to put some tile around it the opening), and then finally put some sort of real siding on it.  But it has a solid roof on it, which is good because the rainy season just started up here.

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You said prefer that your preferred pizza type is "Neo-Neapolitan". Is that mostly what you are making? And how frequently are you firing up that oven?

Yea, it's pretty much all I'll make anymore.  I still love other types of pizza, but if I'm going to spend time to put everything together, its got to be a neapolity style pizza.  There's nothing better than a pizza with basil and pepperoni cooked in 60 seconds or less.

I use it about twice a week, though I wish I could use it more.  I've discovered that the trick to making a WFO sing is to keep it warm all the time.  Even though the manufacturer will say that it only takes 1-2 hours to bring it up to cooking temp, I find that's not enough.  The difference between having a fire going for just a couple of hours vs. 8-10 hours is pretty stark.

And do you cook anything besides pizza in it?

Yep!  I've been making bread in it, and I've cooked salmon in it a couple of times.  If I've made pizza for lunch, by the late evening it's the perfect temperature for reheating your leftovers.

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What do your family and/or friends think of your pizza madness?

My wife is pretty amused most of the time, but when I go through periods where I make a pizza every other night for a couple of weeks- I think she gets exasperated.

My friends love it—I've had a couple of pizza parties where I'll just come up with crazy topping ideas, or maybe make a pie without cheese because someone can't eat dairy.

Now that you have the WFO, has your house become a more popular with friends and neighbors as a dinner spot?

Yea, a little bit.  When I first got the oven up and running I was constantly making more pizzas than I could eat.  So I started randomly delivering pizzas to my neighbors, who were more than happy to take the extra pies off my hands.

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Hungry eyes!

What's the most unusual pizza you've ever eaten, or maybe even come up with in your home experiments?

I had a dessert pizza a couple of years ago. It was... interesting.

I've made a number of vegan pizzas for friends and family as well- those can be pretty unusual. Surprisingly a pizza with red curry sauce, squash, cauliflower, and a couple of other traditional Indian ingredients is pretty good.
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?

I spent almost twice as much on my new WFO as I was planning. It's worth it though.

I'd say it is! Congrats on living the WFO dream, man. Thank you very much for taking the time to give us some insight into your obsession and we hope to see more of you around these parts!

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