Being a food blogger is really starting to have its perks. The only thing better than making money off of my writing is getting free wine and pizza, which is precisely what I did last week at a chef-run pizza making class at Stella Barra. The public relations rep who emailed me called it a media event. Ego boost? Maybe a little. I even decided to bring my fancy camera instead of my iPhone to look extra official.
Lettuce Entertain You and Chef Jeff Mahin opened Stella Barra in November, just weeks after its shared space restaurant, Summer House Santa Monica. Like Summer, Stella Barra is originally from Los Angeles and Chicagoans are allegedly coining the pizza “California Style”. Although the vibe in Summer House screams California with its bleached wood and wicker, Stella Barra clearly kept Chicago in mind with its dark tables, black leather booths and exposed pipes. A back patio is also awaiting temperatures above 50 degrees. You can bet I will be reserving a spot there come July.
You know when you meet someone and you can just tell that they are genuinely kind and humble? I instantly felt that way about Chef Jeff Mahin. Over red wine and perfectly risen glass jars of pizza dough, Mahin told eight food bloggers (six with unrelated day jobs) about his journey to create the perfect pizza.
It all started at L20, where Chef Mahin and his business partner, Frances Brennan became friends over freshly baked bread. Fast forward a few years and their pizza idea was piloted. With a butcher paper list of “pizza pros and cons”, the two came together to create what they envisioned as the perfect pizza. Mahin wanted his pizza to have that same warmth and heartiness that was in the bread he baked at L20.
Their recipe seems simple enough; flour, salt and water. The secret is in the flour that they use. Mahin sources it from an independent farmer that combines red and white wheat. The name of the farmer? Therein lies the secret, as Mahin remains sweetly tight lipped about revealing a name.
This conversation transitioned smoothly into the beginning of rolling out our dough and our chef teacher made us all feel like real chefs as he showed us the art of pulling it to the perfect consistency.
With perfect-ish pizza circles intact, Chef handed us wooden pizza peels that we sprinkled with cornmeal before placing our floured dough on top. A base of red or white sauce awaited us at the pizza bar with luxurious toppings like purple kale, house-made sausage and butternut squash.
“Any toppings you guys don’t see, we can get you. Just ask!” Mahin busied himself with our pies, making sure we were thoroughly pleased with our options. See what I mean about the kindness?
Our pizzas were placed in 515 degree ovens for 12 minutes. No pizza stone, bricks or wood fire in this place.
“Everyone should have a one inch piece of steel at the bottom of their oven,” Chef Mahin proclaims. “It’s a genius cooking secret that helps everything cook evenly.”
Mahin even admitted that the pizza oven at the original Stella Barra in Los Angeles was purchased at a junkyard for $5,000.
“We are at a point where we have broken knobs from Home Depot stapled on the doors, but we love its integrity.”
The pizza was incredible. A perfect texture with phenomenal flavor. You could feel in the crust the warmth and density of a loaf of fresh baked bread, but in a pizza form. Aside from our own pies, Chef Mahin made us some of Stella Barra’s signature pizzas. My personal favorite was the prosciutto and farm egg. We also tried some of the kitchen’s smoked grapes and burrata, which were both rich, decadent and fresh.
And after we had gorged ourselves with pizza, we were brought homemade cookies from the Jack and Jill bakery that separates (or joins) the two sister restaurants, along with Chef’s favorite dessert, a butterscotch and salted caramel pudding which gave me a new affection for butterscotch, caramel and pudding. Salt and I have been in love for years.
At the end of the event, I thanked the chef for a fantastic meal and handed him my homemade business card.
“Sarcastic?” Chef chuckled. “How are you going to fit sarcasm into your post about us?”
It took me a minute to answer him appropriately, given my sarcastic temperament.
“I promise. There will be no sarcasm about the caliber of this pizza. I loved everything about it.”
I hope I held true to my word. And three hours later, an empty pizza box rented out space in my garbage can, not a crumb to be seen.