To Be a Sacred Baker

Recently I have been thinking about artisanship, integrity, and the pizzaiolo. I am an Englishman with no Italian heritage and, as such, do not feel well qualified to make pronouncements about what constitutes an authentic pizza, if in fact there is such a thing. But I am a professional pizza maker, and have been wondering what shortcuts can be made without sacrificing authenticity.

I perfected my pizza making skills with second and third generation pizzaiolos at London's most talked about pizzeria, Franco Manca. The owner, Giuseppe Mascoli, went to remarkable lengths to create authentic Neapolitan pizza. My father and grandfather were time-served master bakers, and I have spent forty years bread making.  So I do know my pizza and my dough.

I am sure there are as many opinions on what constitutes the perfect pizza as there are pizzaiolos. How far can one stretch the rules before one is no longer an artisan? And does it matter anyway?

I currently co-own a mobile pizza business with a wood fired oven, which we take around to festivals and community gatherings in the UK. I have been doing this for several years and the business has become very successful. For this coming season we have decided to expand again; bigger oven, more staff. What is the price of expansion?

I have always used a wood fired oven, designed and built by myself, but some competitors use gas fired ovens for that stone baked taste.  I have always mixed my dough totally by hand, it is hard to move a mixer around and there is never any electricity, and the quality is far superior to my competitors who mostly use a mixer or brought-in frozen dough balls.  I have never used a mechanical pinner on the dough, preferring hands, flour and marble. I always use 100% mozzarella, but never San Marzano tomatoes.

I would like to retain the quality of our pizzas; can this be done, I am always wondering, if we compromise on the process or the product? Does mechanization jeopardize both my personal integrity and my pizza integrity? When I was a professional artisan baker fifteen years ago my motto was No Compromise, yet somehow I ended up with a huge bakery and  twenty full time bakers, and working eighty hours per week. I managed to maintain an artisanal product but I had to sacrifice my personal integrity. I do not want to do that again this time.

My decision is now guided by my personal spirituality which is centered on upholding my integrity. Hence this summer I am mindful to retain our antiquated and artisanal process. No modernization, no mechanization; off the grid, in touch. These choices are based on my belief that by using his or her hands the dough maker has a direct personal relationship, possibly one that is divine, with the bread. Rolling and shaping the dough by hand is crucial, I believe, if one wants the complexity of texture: moist, chewy, crispy, and charred.

As for the oven, I have seen nothing that can re-create the magic of fire. Real flames; real wood. Sourcing good wood is time consuming. Then, there is the chopping, kindling, and grading; finally hand-feeding the voracious fire inside the alchemical belly of the forno, where the temperature reaches 1000 degrees F. and the pizza bakes in sixty seconds. This is, in my experience, a transformative sacred fire to be honored. How would I feel if I simply turned on the gas and pressed a button? Or electricity? I grapple with wondering if it is un-whole, or unholy.

This is why I no longer call myself an artisan baker, but a sacred baker. I‚ have come to believe that our customers can see and taste the passion with which our pizza is made. By contemplating the whole, I feel that I can transmit the holy through my hands and, with honor and respect, create a sacramental meal.

Of course, that's just me. I would love to hear what you think about pizza making integrity; what do you feel is sacrosanct and what is compromise.


Note from Peter: You can follow the progress of Michael's mobile pizzeria on Facebook, at From The Hearth. What are your thoughts on this notion of sacred baking or sacred cooking in general?



#1 maddyg 2011-02-03 18:10
I think you and I may have had similar life experience. I started a calzone business some thirty years ago out of college. I was so passionate about that product. Everything was hand made and every ingredient top notch. The business exploded. People loved my calzone. With that success came many customers and compromises. The bigger we got the bigger the compromises. We were kicking out a ton of product but it was crap. I could no longer eat my own calzone. After 20 years the business failed. After a lot of soul searching we decided to go back to our original passion. We are opening up a restaurant where we vow to never, ever compromise again. I learned a lesson. Keep it sacred.
#2 Peter Reinhart 2011-02-03 21:45
Wow--what great story! Where is your new restaurant going to be, Madeline, and when will it open?
#3 Kimberly Moorhouse 2011-02-04 03:53
Beautiful thoughts, great story. And truth is, whatever we do should come from our soul.... Thats how we feed our selves. Be it bread, pizza or other.

Thanks, and stay with your heart and hands!
#4 maddyg 2011-02-04 04:46
We are opening Coals Artisan Pizza in Louisville, Kentucky this March. You have seen me lurking all over your site trying to pick up every last bit of knowledge before the opening. This article really hit home and expressed what we are feeling.
#5 John Gonzales 2011-02-04 14:28
Thanks for the insight Michael. I plan on going on the road with my Mobile WFO in 2012. I have been making my own dough for 8 years by hand and plan on making my own sausage and mozzarella. As once quoted by Ansel Adams "Don't eat from cans"
#6 michaelthebaker 2011-02-04 14:44
Hi madeline. That rings true and i totally emphasise with you. Wishing you all the best in your new venture. What compromises are you prepared to make at the start?
#7 maddyg 2011-02-04 18:29
What compromises am I prepared to make at the start? I think you need to ask me what compromises will I be tempted to take. Sacred, temptation, compromise. If the restaurant is slammed and we run out of dough will I be tempted to serve dough that had not been properly prepared so that I can make a buck? I have been down that path and I know how easy it is to fall into temptation. Unfortunately it will always come back to bite you.

You are following a true and uncompromising approach to pizza making. I may not follow your extreme methods but nonetheless I will have my own "sacred" standards of which I will be responsible for. So, no, I am not going to compromise.
#8 Julian Snare 2011-02-05 09:32
Great article Michael love your passion
#9 michaelthebaker 2011-02-06 06:59
well said. best wishes
#10 Harry 2011-02-11 19:19
I think there is a fine line between "sacred" and "fundamentalist".

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