A Slice of Kenya: Building a Pizzeria in Nairobi, Part 2

Editor's Note: For 100 days, San Diego pizza maker Matt Lyons (aka Mattivore) will be living in Kenya, consulting and training staff for the opening of a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Nairobi. In this series, Matt will chronicle his journey from start to finish.

Before we jump to the meat of the post, Matt has reached out with some words about the tragic events that have unfolded this week in Nairobi.

Dear Slice Community,

This post was written just after I got to Nairobi, and in light of the recent events, I should briefly share my more recent experiences. I live less than a five minute walk from Westgate Mall. I shop at that Nakumatt, I drink coffee at that Java, I buy bread from that ArtCaffe, and I exchange currency at that Forex. And I just happened to be doing none of those things Saturday afternoon. But so many were, some very close who were among the fortunate. I share the deepest hopes and thoughts to those who were more severely affected, to those who lost loved ones.

I'm heartbroken at these events, which I have seen firsthand. The building is visible from my roof, the shots and explosions frequently audible, and the smell of fire now lingers on my clothes and in my curtains.

I believe Westgate was targeted because it represents progress, the increasing opportunity, prosperity, and greatness of Nairobi. Westgate represents a rising middle class, a vibrant economy and a diverse global city. And now, Westgate is known the world over as a place where unspeakable terror unfolded, and where a terrible few sought to destroy not just the lives of people in a mall, but the livelihood and comfort of a country. These great Kenyan people, who are so positive and resilient, will grieve, but they will move on, and continue to prosper. And I'll do what I can, even if it's as insignificant as trying to help make people happy by making pizza. —From Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya,
Matthew Lyons

In my last post, I told you about how I applied for, and landed, a position to consult on the opening of a new pizzeria in Nairobi, Kenya. This week, I'll tell you about the time between signing that contract and hopping on a jet plane to Africa.

I've done some traveling, but I've never lived abroad, never been away from home for such an extended period of time, and, shockingly, I've never consulted on the opening of a Neapolitan pizzeria in East Africa before. Suffice it to say I had my work cut out for me. There were practical things to consider, like making sure I the proper clothes, the right power converters, and the lucid-hallucinogenic-nightmare-inducing antimalarials.

And then, there was the fun stuff.

A (Not-So-Solemn) Farewell

After I signed the contract, I wanted to thank the person who referred me. Samin Nosrat lives about 500 miles away from me, in the San Francisco Bay Area; on a whim, I packed a toothbrush and a few days of dog food, grabbed the pup, filled the tank, and took off. I love driving through the Central Valley, grapevines and vast open fields on either side of the highway, speed limits merely a suggestion.

Dinner with Samin had been arranged at Boot and Shoe Service. The little gesture of a meal to thank Samin turned into a gathering of nine, old friends and new, including her good friend, owner Charlie Hallowell. Samin, intimately familiar with the menu, ordered for the table, calling for nearly everything available. Charlie, consummate host, started running the table, telling stories too funny to try to do justice to here, (and even if I could, would be much too vulgar for this site).

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Rapini-Sausage Pie from Boot and Shoe Service. [Photograph: David Kover]

Samin's brother Bahador—such a close friend that I refer to him as a brother—tried to relate to Charlie just how big of fanboy of his I am. "Matt's memorized your six goals for Boot and Shoe. Matt, tell him." Bahador was referring to a very relatable interview Charlie had given in 2010, that I had, at one point, committed to memory. "I don't know what you're talking about," I said sheepishly, shooting a look of death towards Baha. "Oh c'mon, you know," Charlie urged. The whole table knew I knew. "Tell me, I forget what I said. Did I see it through?"

"Yeah," I said, "you did. Your six goals, were to: 1. Employ some talented young cooks, 2. Hang friends' art, 3. Sell bourbon, 4. Play Otis Redding, 5. Hire hot girls with tattoos to run the food, and 6. Make damn good pies." And he had, and I was impressed. And in spite of the embarrassment, remembering those goals and simultaneously seeing them fully realized bridged a gap in my perception of Charlie's existence.

As goblets of wine became Collins' of gin, it became apparent that I would not be treating the table, or Samin, to dinner in Charlie's restaurant. Luckily, I did have had a note and a small gift for her, and I think she knew that I was truly appreciative for her sticking her neck out for me. Laughter became more riotous, and desserts came and were gobbled up, and too soon, an excellent evening drew to a close.

Research and Development

I had been trying to find the time for more than a month to head to Arizona for a few nights, to do some special research. With less than two weeks to Africa, I booked a last-minute flight to Phoenix, jumped in a rental car, and drove straight to Pane Bianco, arriving a few minutes before they opened at noon. I went to the cafĂ© next door for a latte, and found Marco Bianco—master baker and brother to Chris—reading on his tablet and sipping an espresso.

Me and the elder Bianco brother. [Photograph: Matthew Lyons]

I introduced myself, but he remembered me from the last time I was in town. He even remembered that I had applied for a crazy-sounding pizza gig in Kenya. Our conversation turned to the question of baking at high elevations; when he learned that Nairobi sits at 5,450 feet, something clicked. He said that before Heritage Square, before the pizzeria in the grocery store, his brother had baked in Albuquerque, at an elevation of 5,300 ft.

Marco also mentioned that Chris had recently returned from London, and I might find him, and the advice I was looking for, at Trattoria a few hours later. When I walked in that afternoon, I saw Chris immediately, talking to Chef John Hall, laughing, tasting something right off a cutting board, and seeming satisfied with it. When Chris left the kitchen, I nervously approached him, introduced myself, and said, "In ten days, I'm flying to Nairobi, Kenya to help open a pizzeria. Do you have a second?"

20130925-kenya-chris.jpgAs it turned out, he had nearly an hour, but only because he dropped everything, even ignoring several phone calls. He listened as I described my concept of this Kenyan pizzeria. He immediately challenged me, "Is that what you want it to be?" "Not exactly," I told him. I'm from his school-of-thought, the one that dictates that the most important steps to a great product happen outside the walls of the restaurant, in the community and in the local fields; not in the import shipyard. Like him, partially (mostly) because of him and his passionate philosophy, I'm devout in sourcing locally, from people who I know, and who build communities around their products that I purchase for my product. And importing shipping containers of Caputo, Gustorosso tomatoes, and boatloads of other Italian oils, meats and cheeses, as good as they are and as impressive as that all is, are clearly counter to ideals that I hold so dearly. And those purchases are already made, already in transit, manifests signed.

I guess I wasn't looking for solutions, or practical advice, or for him to help me reconcile my cognitive dissonance with some of those details. I guess I just wanted to get it off my chest. And so, in spite of the certain challenges and inevitable imperfections, he again challenged me, this time to be the pizzaiolo and human that I want to be. "Because there is no difference," he said "This business is only a relationship with no separation from life itself." He continued "I can tell you know how to make pizza, so you'll figure it out over there. Everything else, you know more than you think, so just follow your heart."

A Chris Bianco Margherita. [Photograph: Matthew Lyons]

I got up from the table, thanked him for his time, and walked towards the door, a little stunned at the breadth and intensity of the conversation. I paused, considered my very recent, very large meal, and, against better judgement, sat down. The waitress brought a menu, but I didn't need one: I ordered the gold standard and an Oak Creek Nut Brown. A minute later, Chris walked over. "What're you having?" he asked. "A Margherita." "Cool, come on over, I'll make it for you."

Altitude Training

Myself and Caleb Schiff at Pizzicletta [Photograph: Matthew Lyons]

Hours later, the blistering Phoenix sun had set, and I was finally cool enough to commit to the drive north. I settled into the rental car, turned up the Stones' Beggars Banquet, and headed to Flagstaff.

When I arrived, Pizzicletta was sound asleep, a lone spotlight illuminating the dome of the oven in the otherwise pitch black space, just as quaint as I'd imagined. Not quite ready to call it a night, I rambled to a friendly stool in a Route 66 old-tyme saloon in downtown Flag, a place trying hard to recall its days long past. I ordered a Negroni, and nursed it while looking for a place to stay. After failing to choose one over-priced roach motel over another, I solicited advice from the bartenders, who almost reluctantly suggested the hotel in which the bar was located.

After a little eavesdropping, I heard that one of the bartenders was also a server at Pizzicletta. "I'm actually in Flagstaff just for Pizzicletta," I said, "Or rather, to stage there, because I'm hoping learn about elevation's effects on fermentation and woodfired pizza." The bartenders were intrigued, or at least pretended to be moderately interested, and having become new acquaintances, we shared a round of Fernet. I quickly learned my first lesson at altitude—the exponential alcohol-hypoxia intoxication factor. I got the cheapest room in the hotel above the bar, immediately realized why they had hesitated to suggest the run-down rooms, and promptly fell asleep.

The next morning, I woke up, and texted Caleb Schiff. We had been discussing the possibility of me staging via email for a few months. I understand it's a bit of an imposition in his small space, so it's not something he entertains regularly, but I happened to be fortunate enough to earn his welcome. "Come to shop at 2pm," he said. When I arrived, he was finishing a batch of dough for a few days later, one of his signature hashtags, "#3dayferment" in action. We chatted as he finished the dough tray, and he gave me a tour, which lasted all of a minute. The shop is petite, a lesson in space optimization: Cans of Bianco DiNapoli tucked exactly where they belong behind the wine glasses, the so-sexy Berkel flywheel slicer tucked in a nook adjacent to the oven, the even sexier black-tiled Stefano Ferrara, itself tucked in a corner.

Pizzicletta layout. [Photograph: Matt Lyons]

I threw on an apron and started to try to earn my keep (as if I could ever slice the prosciutto-equivalent of Caleb's generosity). As we worked, we talked about how we found ourselves in our respective situations. As it turns out, Caleb's years of pizza experience were all at elevation, so he never had to "adjust"—that's just the way he learned to make pizza. I know I wasn't expecting a magic bullet, a formula reading, "For every 1000 ft of altitude, add 2.65% hydration, decrease levain by .4%, and add 25% more wood, by volume, per hour to compensate for oxygen." And I didn't need one; Caleb was incredibly patient with my occasional (more than occasional) remedial questions, and gave me complete access to his entire operation.

A stunning Margherita, from Caleb's hands. [Photograph: Matthew Lyons]

I met Scott, one of Caleb's two sous chefs and the resident naturally-leavened-loaf master-baker, who showed me how he bakes using the oven's residual heat in the morning, and how he steams the loaves with the same sort of sprayer that one might use on a lawn. I got to see the ins and outs, from Caleb's process of selecting what new wine to feature and which draught beer to pour, to the brisk walk over to the local CSA for his weekly delivery of the freshly baked loaves.

I hung around for three days and made what modest contributions I could, working at the pizza station for a healthy portion of two dinner services. And I made pizza, a little extra-crispy since working a wood-fired oven isn't quite like riding a bike. Most importantly, I learned how and why he makes his pizza dough the way he does. "It's not so much about the process, if your result is the same." Caleb's process and recipe isn't the da Michele process and recipe, it's a system specifically tailored to the Flagstaff environment and constraints of Pizzicletta, and the results speak for themselves.

One of my "extra crispy" pies. [Photograph: Matthew Lyons]

I think I learned what needed to, and again, I got so much more than I could have ever expected, needed, or deserved. But what made me proudest was being invited to join Caleb and his staff for family meal, the truest iteration of such a thing I've ever seen. Caleb, Scott, Brianna, Adam, Sam, Alyssa, and Dana reminded me what a dinner service could be, and what workplace friendships should be. I doubt I'll be able to forge bonds as strong as those in my few months in Kenya, but it was something to aspire to, there and beyond.

A week of last minute details happened all too quickly, and, if I overlooked something catastrophic, it hasn't occurred to me yet. We threw a little shindig in the park, had a night of packing, and cleared out my rented room for a subletter. Before I knew it, I was having a last run in the park with my pup, a goodbye kiss from my girlfriend, a last latte at my favorite coffeeshop, and a hug from Mom and Dad. Geez, I make it sound like I'm going away forever, dying or a long stint in the joint. No, just across the ocean to help open a pizzeria. "Please stow tray tables in the upright and locked position," and I'll see you in Nairobi.

About the author: In addition to my posts here every two weeks or so, you can also follow my daily activity on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. And if any of you happen to be in or travelling to Nairobi, I hope you'll stop by and say hello!

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