PANEL DISCUSSION: What makes the perfect pizza kitchen?

The casual dining market is stuffed full of pizza operators and kitchens play the starring role in helping them stay a cut above competitors. So what are the makings of the perfect kitchen set-up for churning out consistent pizzas quickly and efficiently? The food bosses of Pizza Express, Pizza Pilgrims and the London International Pizza School revealed all in a special panel session at Commercial Kitchen and FEJ was there to listen in on the conversation.

Occupying a generous slice of the casual dining market, pizza chains of all types have spent years honing their kitchen models to maximise productivity and efficiency without compromising quality.

The likes of Pizza Express and other key players have experience in specifying the most suitable equipment for the appplication in question while more recent innovators such as Pizza Pilgrims have been experimenting with new ways of setting up back-of-house operations.

Usually serving slightly different demographics, each brand has its own idea of what the ‘perfect pizza kitchen’ looks like. For some, including Marco Fuso, founder of the London International Pizza School, the simple approach is the way to go and that means just a few key ingredients.

Addressing an audience at the recent Commercial Kitchen show, Fuso said that his vision for a ‘perfect pizza kitchen’ is an open-space format with the best equipment he can get his hands on. A wood-fired oven is important to him, with a “big dome and nice mosaic on top”, for the purpose of front-of-house theatre.

In-line with market trends, Fuso says a kitchen visible to customers is “very important”. More specifically, he insists that an efficient dough mixer is essential as it can improve dough by “at least 20%” compared to an average mixer, he claims.

Unsurprisingly, different operators favour different set-ups to suit their aims and Tom Mullin, executive chef at Pizza Pilgrims, which has several sites in London, says the idea of a ‘perfect kitchen’ is abstract as each operator has different requirements.

“What might be perfect for one guy is not the same as the other. In terms of space, some of the guys in the kitchen work in the tiniest box of a kitchen and they love it — they wouldn’t trade it for larger space. You adapt to what you have. Personally, I do like lots of space in the kitchen but some of the guys from Napoli they love to work shoulder to shoulder. In our original market stall you could set up the kitchen however you wanted and you didn’t have to walk too far, you could pivot and everything was at your fingertips. It’s a balance between having space but not so much that you waste time walking around.”

Meanwhile, Jane Treasure, who is food and beverage director at one of the casual dining sector’s largest players, Pizza Express, thinks that when it comes to space an open kitchen adds to the theatre and energy of a site. She says that there is “almost a choreography to the kitchen and if it’s done well, you don’t need a huge amount of space”.

It goes without saying that the oven is one of the most important elements of a Pizza Express kitchen and across its sites, regardless of the outfit’s space limitations or dimensions, the oven and general kitchen format does not change.

The chain’s kitchens are also set up to allow for growth, innovation and new menu items. Maintaining flexibility across a portfolio of kitchen sites can be challenging for any large chain and there are some things that have to be kept as standard.

Pizza Express’ kitchens are always visible and laid out so chefs can get to the oven quickly and pizza can be distributed to customers just as fast. Fortunately, Treasure notes, pizza is one of the original stacking items and in its purest form is relatively straightforward to prepare.

Nevertheless, even different types of pizza — a simple-enough menu item — demand separate equipment. Fuso explains that pizza types can influence kit requirements substantially and not least the oven operators choose.

He comments: “With an electric oven you can cook a lot of different bases, for example thin crust, deep pan, pizza Romana. If you’re going to choose a Neapolitan style as your product then a wood-fired oven is recommended as it reaches very high temperatures and gives the smoky flavour everyone likes. It also depends on how fast you want to be. If you create a box kitchen everything is close and it can be very quick and you can achieve very big numbers. Or if you want to work comfortably give the kitchen a bit more room.”

Really have a think when you bring in new ideas about the impact and knock-on effect on your core lines and making sure that the equipment is set up to support your growth”

Regardless of what set-up individual chefs would prefer, consistency across all sites is critical for larger chains and for Treasure at Pizza Express, this means selecting equipment that will achieve everything the brand needs and work across each outfit.

She says that when specifying kit it is especially important to consider the knock-on impact of new introductions, particularly with more expensive items like ovens. Treasure warns that choosing an inappropriate piece of equipment to roll out can lead to unintended consequences such as hitting capacities in the ovens or not having enough space.

“Really have a think when you bring in new ideas about the impact and knock-on effect on your core lines and making sure that the equipment is set up to support your growth. When your range gets bigger and bigger your customers expect to have choice, particularly with free-from, allergens, vegan and vegetarian. Make sure that the equipment can support that without overly-stressing the back-of-house and front-of-house, because it can get confusing, not least with the kit. I love putting new products on menus so I have to find the easiest route to get them to be delivered well.”

From a menu perspective, then, the product range pizza operators want to offer customers can impact equipment choices to a greater extent than one might expect given the food’s simplicity. But product development does not have to be defined by what equipment you have at your fingertips, insists Treasure.

“You would always use a great piece of kit as much as you can. We’re not going to be selling microwave pizza because it’s quick because that would be crazy. You need to make sure you choose the right bit of kit but also be aware of the costs. When you’re spending £1,000 or £2,000 and you’ve got to times that by 400 or 500, you’ve got to be really mindful of the implications of what you’re spending, what it means for the staff, does the customer want it, can you afford it, what’s the payback? It’s not always as straightforward as just finding a plug.”

But even the smaller items in a kitchen can have a sizeable impact if they are being rolled out and so must be considered carefully. The importance of smaller bits of kit should not be underestimated either. Aside from a good oven and a lay-out optimised for speedy service, Fuso identifies scrapers and pizza paddles as absolutely essential and at the end of each shift he takes personal care of them to wash them and ensure they are not damaged.

Another important yet unassuming aspect of a pizza kitchen is good lighting, says Mullin, who learnt the hard way that insufficient lamination can affect the product. He explains: “At our first pizzeria we had a really cool neon sign behind the kitchen that was bright green, but the problem was that the pizzas were coming out undercooked. And I realised when I went in you couldn’t even see the thing. When it came out of the oven it was shrouded in this green glow. I bought an office lamp with a bright white lightbulb, hung it over the oven and the problem was solved. That was a simple thing that fixed a big problem.”

Don’t get pressured into cutting corners because someone has offered you a cheaper oven or a cheaper knife. Unless you’re absolutely sure it’s the right thing to do, don’t do things to cut costs”

Treasure, meanwhile, says Pizza Express could not do without chillers or provers, which are every bit as important in a pizza kitchen as an oven. She thinks that people do not talk enough about provers and without them she says, “the pizza isn’t born”. Treasure adds: “The other one for me is the coffee machine, which isn’t even in the kitchen, but you need a decent cup of Italian espresso after your pizza, in my opinion.”

When it comes to developing pizza menus, kitchen set-up and equipment ought to be a key consideration. Mullin says operators should use their busiest sites as a barometer of how much menu expansion their kitchens can cope with.

Treasure advises that operators should manage practicalities when choosing new sites. Menu development and innovation is limited by kitchens that are too small, she suggests, adding that if a site is not tenable than operators simply shouldn’t move in.

“[It’s about] not compromising on the kitchen. The conversation you’d be more likely to have is covers because we’re not going to compromise the kitchen because that’s just going to result in disappointed customers. If a site is not appropriate for a restaurant then it’s not appropriate. I wouldn’t compromise the kitchen.”

Drawing on conclusions then, it appears a perfect pizza kitchen consists of enough space, an appropriate oven and theatre for customers. These are simple-enough ingredients. But how does an established restaurant take its pizza offering to the next level? Treasure says the key to elevating the brand is in cautious and focused progression. It’s easy, she says, to get taken down rabbit holes where costs are concerned.

“Don’t get pressured into cutting corners because someone has offered you a cheaper oven or a cheaper knife. Unless you’re absolutely sure it’s the right thing to do, don’t do things to cut costs if you can help it because it’s so difficult and you can end up in a really dark place really quickly if you get talked into cheapening your offer. We spend a lot of time ensuring that we don’t do that.

“I would always look at how you can increase your sales and take the positive route, particularly if it’s a small number of outlets. How can you be better? How many channels can you use? How can you work that space harder? With all the competitive constraints on us and the costs and challenges, always take the positive route, because you’ll end up in a better place.”

The age-old question: wood or gas?

Put accurately, Tom Mullin, executive chef at Pizza Pilgrims, says the wood versus gas pizza oven debate is a “controversial one”. He says the business has been unable to install wood-fired ovens at some sites because of the need for extraction, although he would “love to have wood ovens”.

“But we get consistently gas and it’s a bit cleaner and easier to use. Personally I would love to have wood. The van we have that goes around to events uses wood, partly because of the theatre, the smoke, the flavour. It’s like comparing technology; if you have an iPhone and a Nokia 3310, you might as well use the iPhone. Gas these days is nearly on par with wood. It’s not quite as good, but it’s almost there in my opinion.”

Meanwhile, Marco Fuso, founder of the London International Pizza School, says he approves of gas over wood for Neapolitan style pizza. He comments: “In Italy there are a few electric oven manufacturers who are starting to develop types of oven that can imitate the Neapolitan style. If you have a problem with extraction you can use these electric ovens which can reach even 500°C. It can cook a pizza in just 60 seconds. You won’t get that smoky flavour but it’s a good way to avoid all the construction problems and it’s easier to get permission for.”

What are your best-selling pizzas?

Pizza Pilgrims: “Plain salami. When the guys are doing 800 to 1,000 covers a day they don’t want to be doing anything too complicated.”

Pizza Express: “American Hot and margherita — the top sellers are the ones we expect them to be. We’re seeing growth in non-meat products and I think people want flexibility to fit around their dietary choices and requirements.”

London International Pizza School: “Chicken pizza with Italian bacon and mascarpone. Margherita and pepperoni are still top sellers.”

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