Dominique Ansel and my pizzaiolo entrepreneurial endeavours

I love great pizza. There are two challenges in my life: I never have the willpower to completely ignore pizza on a restaurant menu, or a good book sale at Waterstones, but I’m working on realising the difference between the occasional craving and the compulsion to mindlessly consume as a feeble means of self-medication. Pizza and books.

Wood fired oven pizza is best. Crispy, don’t overdo the sauce, but a well-done, wood-fired cheese heavy pizza is my jam. The best pizza I’ve ever had was at Altalena Vinoteca at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco in 2015, a Quattro-Formaggi.

It was an event. As I was seated – with a good view to the kitchen – my pizza order went in. I watched the spectacle as the pizzaiolo spun the dough. The shaping was meticulous, the topping applied with care, placed in the wood oven lovingly. When it arrived a few minutes later, it was a beast of a Quattro-Formaggi. Mozzarella, Asiago, Gorgonzola, Pecorino Toscano refracted through the lens of San Francisco pizza sensibility. Ok, this is a term of my own invention.

Their standard for pizza hegemonised my understanding of what greatness meant in pizza, with a tremendously aerated and blistered crust that was nonetheless just barely cooked within, and toppings heated through but not subject to prolonged cooking.

Preparation of a fragile dough using the right flour and prolonged cool fermentation, delicate and swift stretching, shaping, and topping to achieve a very thin centre balanced by a rim of appropriate thickness and volume, followed by cooking in a piping hot oven for under four minutes. There. It almost sounds like I know what I’m doing.

The centre of the Quattro-Formaggi pizza is hot, wet and muggy – caldo e umido as the Italians say. But beware, if it goes wrong, it’s like soup. The success of the final cooking depends on firing the oven to the correct chamber temperatures, then loading and rotating the pizza to achieve even cooking, all within a small time window.

If these stars all align, the Quattro-Formaggi pizza is incredibly delicious after it emerges leopard-spotted from the oven, as the pressure of steam in the base momentarily holds the moisture in the topping at bay. A great pizza temporarily achieves a seemingly paradoxical state of being dry and wet, soft and crunchy, crisp and tender, all at once.

The key is a thoroughly aerated crust that is crunchy, chewy, and tender, and a centre moist and lush but retaining enough structure to remain in its phase of deliciousness for almost fifteen minutes – by which time I have usually eaten it all. A great pizza is a work of art in the moment. There is something noble about aiming for a standard that relies so much on diligent preparation and the willingness to embrace the grace of the moment to achieve transient transcendence. You see, I told you I loved great pizza!

Though I enjoy even unintentionally bad pizza, there is something fundamentally pitiable about pizza that aims high but falls far short, and either doesn’t admit it or isn’t aware of it. Thank you, but no.

So, Altalena Vinoteca pushed out the standards of quality for pizza beyond what I had thought possible: a pizza inspired by high ideals and crafted with elegance and mastery. Ok, it’s now five years since that glorious experience epitomised the expansion and heightening of my standard for pizza, but I’ve continued my crusade from Manchester to Conwy to Brooklyn to Sheffield – well everywhere, I always go for the pizza.

And so under lockdown besides a third of my discretionary time going towards breaking down Amazon boxes, my pizza fixation has bloomed into a potentially life-threatening obsession as I’ve mixed my own different flours (made from different wheats) and learning how they behave when made into doughs at different levels of hydration and with different fermentation regimes, blending the flour and mixing the dough. It’s become the latest expression of my entrepreneurial endeavours.

I’ve worked hard to source ingredients to create dough, sauces, and toppings that have fantastic flavours, experimenting how the texture and moisture content of toppings and sauces individually and in combination affect how they cook. These are all key elements so you can design pizzas that cook well and eat easily. The outcome? Instead of pizzas where every bite causes poorly attached, imperfectly cooked toppings with discordant textures to fall off the slice and onto the plate or into your lap – we’ve all been there – I’m into pizza perfection.

My most recent creation was wild garlic stems, leeks, scallions, Chinese chives, mushrooms, and a spiced tomato sauce. I brushed the rim with lemon juice after baking, preserving delicious aeration in the rim, crisp yet tender, with an appealing flavouring and chewiness. The end product represents a mini-constellation of aligned stars. There, I did say it was an obsession!

What this means is significantly above-average pizza is available to all who are willing to put some time and effort into finding decent ingredients and figuring out how to use them. For me, it also provides opportunities for culinary innovation, experimenting when a previously unknown combination and mix of ingredients combined into a new recipe.

My pizza creations are like all entrepreneurial endeavours, requiring a vision, passion and a clear mind-space for contrarian ideas, possibilities on the edge of time, yielding something that has not yet been. Innovation comes out of human ingenuity and personal passions. The great thing about entrepreneurship is that there are few limitations when you are equipped with the right mind-set.

A kitchen is a cauldron for a creative experience as much as any tech incubator, where inspiration can lead to great success and personal fulfilment. In front of you a blank canvas of ingredients sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life. It’s a simple set up, but I create a vision that existed nowhere else but in my own mind, and make it happen. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.

With my pizza adventure. I’m reliving memories of all the TV cooking shows I watched, from Fanny Craddock and Johnny, to the Galloping Gourmet to Delia, Rick Stein. I’m also an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

My most admired chef-entrepreneur is Dominique Ansel, who back in 2013, started selling a croissant-doughnut hybrid, which he called the Cronut, from his bakery in New York’s Soho neighbourhood. The pastry resembles a doughnut and is made from croissant-like dough, which is filled with flavoured cream and fried in grape seed oil.

The first day Ansel made 30, the next, 45. By the third day he had 100 people queuing. Nine days later, he’d registered the pastry’s name as crowds of people were queuing around the block to try the new innovative delicacy. It took him three months to perfect the recipe he’s used ever since.

With its flaky croissant and custard interior and fried, sugar-dipped exterior, it was bound to be popular, but no one could have predicted the ensuing, pastry-flecked frenzy. The creator of Cronuts isn’t just a baker. Dominique opened his little bakery with just four employees. Flash-forward to 2020, hundreds of creations later, a sister shop in the West Village and now across the world in Tokyo and London. He’s as much an entrepreneur as a baker:

The not-so-secret Cronut recipe is now plastered all over the world, but Ansel takes things to the next level, and would-be imitators will need their piping bags and patience at the ready, as each batch of Cronuts takes three days to prepare. With his unstoppable creativity, the New York Post proclaimed him the Willy Wonka of NYC, Food & Wine called him the culinary Van Gogh of our times, the most feted pastry chef in the world. He must be doing something right. a croissant-doughnut hybrid that became the most popular pastry of its time.

So standing on the shoulders of giants like Ansel, I’m seeking to combine craft, ingenuity and my own self-starter ambitions into my pizza innovation, which I think provides some entrepreneurial lessons for more serious startup ambitions:

Time is an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, it’s vital each pizza is served at the optimal moment of peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. Time is an ingredient in cooking. Timing is everything for all entrepreneurs.

Put emotion into your product One of the criteria for me choosing a pizza to create is that it must evoke excitement, or often nostalgic emotions tied to memories, like the warm madeleines that Proust wrote about. When I’m preparing and subsequently cooking my pizza, I’m anticipating a tasty meal ahead, or a great memory associated with the pizza Emotion engages customers is a key lesson.

Continuous product iteration I try to adopt Ansel’s ingenuity, always searching for ways to make my pizza even better, including occasions where the pizzas evolve on the fly. Entrepreneurship is about living outside of your comfort zone and following your instinct Keep an on open mind to serendipity.

Strategise before filling the pans I try to think through each and every small detail and activity from the ingredients required, to the time allocated and how the finished pizza will look. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. You only learn by doing, but having a clear strategy is key.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the pizza doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but you have to stay calm and complete to the best of your ability from where you stand in the moment. In a startup, go with what you have, then go again.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product I visualise the process and the finished pizza product. The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve. We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process. Hold your vision and ensure you work towards it at all times.

Leave yourself enough time for testing During the preparation of each pizza, I frequently taste and test the current status of the cooking. You need to check in as your product is being developed, so leave yourself enough time to put the final product together – and plate up! Never forget, getting your product into the hands of your customer is what it’s all about.

Trust yourself Dominique Ansel is always thinking about the different ways he can innovate to make the experience of eating his products different and memorable. In an interview, he was asked: ‘How do you know that what you’re doing is right?’. There was an awkward silence. Dominique put his hand on his heart and replied, in a serene, untroubled tone: I just know.

Startup life will throw eggs at you, so be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and hey, the world is your omelette. My pizza passion is trivial and insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but maybe the dreamed of kitchen extension and wood fired oven will take me to the next stage…. Aiming to be the new Dominique Ansel, pizza dough is an ideal tool for having a go with my low-level not-knowing into everyday life, a tool for creating ambient uncertainty, in which my entrepreneurial dreams can flourish.

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