Interview with Phil Korshak of Home Slice Pizza
As noted in my post of January 19th, I got to spend some time with Phillip Korshak in Austin, Texas at his pizzeria Home Slice, where they make about three thousand pizzas and slices a day to an unending line of both sit-down and take-out customers. The place was hopping and I imagine it always is. It was our first time meeting face to face and I had no idea what to expect other than that I had heard from our mutual friend, John Arena, that Phil is a great guy. No kidding! I felt from the first minute that it was if we had known each other forever, kindred spirits, brothers from different mothers. As he described to me the choices he made in his recipes, the philosophy behind his approach to food and cooking, the thoughtfulness behind every aspect of his menu, his relationships with his business partners and Home Slice founders, with the staff, and the waterfall of free association ideas and images as articulated his inner fire– I felt like I was in a jazz ensemble, trading licks and riffs, almost like we were in each other’s head anticipating where we were coming from and where we were going. I loved it and felt totally energized! So, when I got home I sent him a few questions and just let him riff. Here’s our exchange — I hope you enjoy it, and think you will….
PQ (Peter): What you’re doing here in Austin is nothing short of amazing – the volume and quality of pizzas you produce, the amount of people you’re serving, and the creativity and thoughtfulness in your menu items – it’s very impressive. Tell us how this all happened; what well of creative energy are you drawing from?
Phil: Thank you, Peter! I am, and always have been, a lucky man. I am lucky enough to have studied for the sake of study. I am lucky enough to have lived the life of a barman in New York City at the end of the 20th century and into this millennium. I am lucky enough to have learned to cook around the same time that I learned to read. I am lucky to have become a pizza maker before I knew what that really meant. I am lucky to have been loved by my wife for a score of years, to have grown with her and changed with her in that time. I am lucky to have met pilgrim after pilgrim on this road and to have seen that my burden is theirs and their burden mine.
When my wife and I moved to Austin, TX in 2003, we left Brooklyn looking for a kind of balance (and a balance that is kind) that we simply were unable to find in New York City. We wanted some tranquility and space, some sky and, most importantly, time to ourselves, for ourselves. This was two years before Home Slice Pizza opened its doors. This may be the exact time, however, that co-owners Jen, Joseph, and Terri had their serious conversation about opening a scrappy Mom & Pop pizza shop. I was hired as one of the original line cooks. I fell in love the moment I heard Jen talk about how food can make you feel better. I fell in love the moment Terri tasted something delicious and, delighted, was driven to insist that I be delighted too. I fell in love when Joseph said, “We want to be awesome. Not great. Awesome!”
I had zero knowledge of pizza at that point. Jen Strickland, our “Queen of Pies,” was working the line in the beginning. She and I found that we moved well together in the tight kitchen that shared space with the bartender. Jen and I worked night after night and developed a kind of short hand, mixed with a kind of telepathy, that is the sort of magic that occurs when two people work next to each other for any amount of time and are truly open to the other. In this way I found that my decade and a half of bartending informed my way of moving in a kitchen.
“Everything is relative, Philip,” I could hear my father’s voice in my ears. And, of course, he’s right. Each thing relates to every other thing. There is nothing that is solitary. There is nothing that is not informed by the other. As Carl Jung has said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” Over the last 11 years of working with dough, of working with makers of dough, I have found this to be inarguably true. Of this lifetime of working with musicians, working it out live in front of an audience, I have found this to be inarguably true. In this blessed and very fortunate score of years and more with my beloved wife, Kendra Korshak, I have found this to be inarguably true. The key is respect for each ingredient as being holy and whole. I am reminded of a quote from J.D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey: “This is God’s universe, buddy, not yours, and he has the final say about what’s ego and what isn’t.” It is not a coincidence, it is not chance, that my beloved Kendra’s pet name for me is “Buddy”.
All of this is to say that each human being I encounter is a necessary and welcome ingredient in my life. This is to say each experience changes and alters and irrevocably moves me forward when the human drive is antithetical to change. This is to say that who I am is a pastiche of a 1,000 or more people, each marking me sublimely and eternally. And I am better for it. I am always, and I mean always, better for it. In the end I come back to the thing my father explained to me when I was very young, maybe five, while standing in front of Van Gogh’s “Still Life w/ Irises.” My father was a painter who became an advertising executive. He was a tremendous role model for me in this way, as he never really stopped being a painter. He never stopped looking at the world that way. As we stood in front of the painting, he told me this:
“There’s maybe another 15 painting beneath that one, Philip. 15 at least. That doesn’t count the 100 or more that are sketched and held bound in his journals and sketchbooks. That doesn’t count the 1,000 or more that he threw away, destroyed, because they weren’t what he meant. But all we see, all we see my sweet son, is this one painting. And, yes, it is beautiful. It is maybe even perfect. But each part that got him there is equally important. And we forget that, looking at this one beautiful painting. Sure, only Van Gogh can be Van Gogh. But each of us is a painting with 15 paintings at least below, with 100 or more sketches, with a 1,000 or more discarded pieces. And, my sweet son, without any one of those parts, without any one of those pieces, there can be no still life equal to this. Isn’t that beautiful?”
Yes. Yes, Dad. Always yes. It is beautiful. We are beautiful. Always yes.
PQ: You seem to think and create in much the same way as a musician – lots of associations, analogies, linkages. Can you tell me more about your personal creative process?
I love music. It is language much like food. It says so much and says it so beautifully.
There is nothing like a live band. There is nothing like what happens when people actually listen to each other. There is that thing that the old jazz cats talk about when they talk about the space between the notes being music. There is the thing my father taught me about negative space when looking at anything. All of this comes together when I think about cooking and when I think about cooking with a team. And, to be clear, these two things couldn’t be more different.
Cooking alone, playing solo, each requires me to be present in a different way than cooking in a team, or playing with a band. These days I spend more time being a conductor than a player, more time being a manager than a cook. Don’t get me wrong: I still cook every day. I still practice every day. At the pizza shop (good old Home Slice Pizza), I will still walk the line each day and get good and dirty when I can; but my job is really to get out of their way. These cats, these cooks, they’re battle tested and salty. They are far from green and their chops are practiced and earned. Each cook has a different relationship with the dough, or with the ovens. It would be arrogant and egotistical of me to think that my way is the way. As a matter of fact, unless I am open to seeing and experiencing something new, something different, I am dooming the kitchen to stagnation and failure. Failure? What does failure mean? Failure means that work is only work, that food is only product, that people are only customers, and that what has been is only what can be. Poppycock. The future is limitless. Possibility is open. And the opportunity to learn is always, and I mean always, present as long as I am present.
This is true when I am working on a dough recipe.
This is true when I am working on staffing.
This is true when I am working an oven.
This is true when I am thinking about how each ingredient comes into the restaurant, and thinking about where it came from, and how it got here.
While this might seem off subject, bear with me: Ella Fitzgerald toured with a young Dizzy Gillespie when big band was a thing. Ella was young (and, down deep, she really wanted to be a dancer and not a singer) as was Dizzy. Dizzy was laying down the foundation of BeBop in the clearing opened for him by Coltrane, by Ellington. And there’s Ella. Surrounded by all these cats who knew the rules well enough to break them. And so she starts working her voice to meet with Gillespie’s horn. She starts working her scat so that her phrasing glides in and out of that horn, turning a conversation into a chorus.
And, really, isn’t that what it’s all about?
PQ: So many of your menu items are drawn from childhood memories. Why do you think it is important to connect to these, both for yourself and for your customers?
Someone very smart once said something along the lines of, “The human brain thinks in the form of the narrative.” This is to say we are all storytellers. We tell stories to each other. We tell stories to ourselves. My beloved wife and I used to sit at each anniversary dinner and peel back each year, each memory, and tell ourselves the story of us. The funny thing about memory, about story telling, is that it really tells you more about now than about then. When Kendra and I would come back to the story about the trattoria on the other side of the Arno we would tell it differently each time. Each time we would remember things that were specific to how each of us felt right then, right there. It is hard, I think, being present. I think it’s harder than anyone gives it any kind of credit. It’s hard to think about, and hard to talk about. I think human beings engage in a kind of pantomime to talk about now by talking about the past. It’s easier, maybe. More safe, possibly. Good old T.S.Eliot opened up Four Quartets with:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
Tell me, go ahead and tell me, that Eliot isn’t talking about being a baker.
Tell me this isn’t about how vanilla can be the catalyst for time travel.
Tell me this isn’t about how the bubbling sourdough starter carries eternal yeast.
Tell me this isn’t about how it is never, and I mean never, too late to have a happy childhood.
PQ: Looking back at your life and how it unfolded, where do you think the fire in your belly comes from; what drives you to work so hard to do what you do? And who are some of your heroes and inspirations, whether in the pizza world or in life?
This is a strange question because I wouldn’t know how else to be. It is like the thing I would tell Kendra, “I love you. It is not a decision. It is not a choice. It is. And it is everything.”
I owe a great deal to my parents who stressed individuality and responsibility and self-reliance. I owe a great deal to each teacher who was generous with knowledge and more generous with the burden of self-governance. I owe a great deal to the great Tony Gemignani who knows more about dough and ovens than anyone I’ve ever met. I owe a great deal to John Arena who exemplifies the fact that integrity is ACTION. I owe a great deal to Scott Wiener, who leads with his heart, and his heart is huge. I owe a huge amount to the folks here at Home Slice Pizza who make the world a better place – one pizza at a time. I owe a huge amount to each cook with whom I have walked the floor.
There’s this great line from the old song “Paper Moon”:
And it wouldn’t be make believe, if you believed in me
Jen, Joseph, and Terri, the co-owners of Home Slice Pizza, are amazing when it comes to dreaming out loud, which is to say believing full force and in real time. They have inspired me to believe more than I can know. I have been honored and remarkably fortunate to have worked with Nano Whitman, Director of Operations of Home Slice Pizza, for the last eleven years. Eleven years ago we were in the parking lot of the not-yet-open-pizza-shop putting wood stain on to what would be hung above the bar that was not quite yet installed. I know few cooks in this world who get the distinct pleasure and education of working so closely, so honestly, for such a long period of time.
And I owe everything to Kendra, my wife. I owe everything to her because it was she, after all, who loved me for me, even though I did not know what that meant or who I was. Kendra reminds me, every day, that compassion is the rudder, the keel, and the sails. It is love that keeps us afloat.
PQ: Getting back to pizza, can you talk about your views regarding ingredients and, also, about fermentation and how you choose what products to use and then how to evoke the most flavor from them?
It is a big world. There’s lots and lots and lots of different types of pizza out there. And that’s great! The style we do here at Home Slice Pizza is New York Style. To me that means a very specific thing: quality ingredients balanced sparingly and made with the love of an Italian grandmother on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A distinctly American food with its root being the immigrant experience, and the immigrant dream of hope, hope for the future. And hope, it turns out, isn’t complicated.
The most perfect slice, for me, is a cheese slice. This is because it most perfectly exemplifies the delicate balance between three points that, when done properly, form an amazingly subtle and perfectly supportive equilateral triangle. Cheese/Sauce/Dough. Three points. If any one point is weighted more than the other the triangle quickly becomes Pythagorean and weighted with a right angle. The equilateral triangle balances perfectly, each 60 degree angle feeding into the next. Three part harmony. Beautiful.
Once I start thinking about ingredients I always keep thinking about what I want each person to experience while eating: joy. Joy! The food should facilitate joy: joy of life; joy of living; joy of experience. If the ingredient in question gets in the way of that, if I am interrupted from enjoying the pizza or the dessert because I am consumed by the ingredient itself, then I have done something wrong. I mean, I love truffles. They’re amazing. But EVERYTIME I’ve EVER eaten a pizza with truffles on it I’ve thought to myself first, “Hey! Truffles!” and, yes, I’m pretty excited. But what I’m not is lost in the overall pie. Me, I want to get lost in the pie.
When considering New York Style Pizza I often quip that it comes down to what I want out of Punk Rock Music: Play Loud. Play from the Heart. Play on the same level as the crowd. And if you want to take a solo, get off the stage. That’s prog rock. And prog rock can be cool; it’s just not what I’m interested in.
When it comes to fermentation I maintain that underdeveloped gluten is a bawling child throwing a tantrum in the middle of a supermarket check out line. When it comes to fermentation all I’m talking about is being kind to the dough in the way you might even be kind to yourself, on a good day. Get rest. Allow your muscles to develop. Allow time to be time and know that all things are in a state of becoming. All of this sounds very fancy, but really it comes down to this: an underdeveloped gluten will get developed. And it will take energy to get there. It can either develop in time through fermentation or it can get deconstructed inside of the belly of someone you love (which is to say everyone) with no inconsequential expense of energy.
A Norwegian Baker in Brooklyn once put it to me like this:
“Imagine you eat an egg. Like a hard boiled egg. Like a whole egg. Imagine you eat this whole egg. Then imagine that about an hour later a chicken hatches in your belly. That’s a rotten thing to do to someone, isn’t it?”
Of course she’s right. And that’s the great thing about being a cook. Every day you make the decision to be kind. To be healing. To be comfort. To care.
Dough is really a great kind of small lesson in care.
PQ: In light of all the things we’ve discussed, what would you like your legacy to be when all is said and done?
It isn’t really a legacy that I’m after. I would much rather people talk about a thing they’ve learned than talk about the weird guy who taught them the thing. I’d rather someone remember fondly the moment in their life when they were in the pizza shop, and the light was just right, and that one slice of pizza made the difference for them on that day. I know it can happen. It happened to me.
PQ: Phil, thanks so much for sharing so much of yourself and for all you’re doing for Austin and the larger pizza world. Before we leave, would you mind telling our readers how to find you and Home Slice in Austin, and any other parting words?
I am so fortunate to stand on the shoulders of giants. I am so fortunate to have the brilliance and grace and skill and camaraderie of the pizza community. I have been fortunate to see people fall in love, right in front of my eyes, both at the tables and on the line. In the end it always comes back to that: Love. And falling in love.
Every pizza shop is a love story.
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