Last week I had pizza at the home of my friends Bridget and Carl. It tasted divine. The crust was puffy, chewy and the right amount. The thin-crust bottom was slightly crunchy. The tomato sauce had depth. The toppings (two kinds of mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, zucchini, onions, goat cheese) were tasty, creamy and a little crunchy. It was pretty and three-dimensional. It was easily the best pizza I’d ever had, the best home cooking I’d ever had, and much better than the lamb I’d had at Chez Panisse the night before, although the lamb was excellent. The pizza hadn’t been hard to make nor were the ingredients expensive. Do other people wonder why this is so good? I asked my friends.
At some level I knew why it was so good — why the sauce was so good, for example (see below). The puzzle — let me call it the Pizza Paradox — was that commercial pizza, even at fancy restaurants (such as Chez Panisse), is so much worse. In restaurants, pizza-makers make dozens of pizzas per day. Business success is on the line. That should push them to do better. Professional cooks study cooking, have vast experience. They use a pizza oven. My friends have never studied cooking, never cooked professionally. They might make pizza once/month. Nothing is on the line. My friends don’t have a pizza oven. High-end restaurant pizza should be much better, but the opposite was true.
In my experience, high-end restaurant food usually is much better than home-cooked versions. Why is high-end pizza a big exception — at least, compared to Bridget and Carl’s version?
My explanation has two parts. First, the concept of pizza is brilliant. It taps more sources of pleasure than any other food I can think of. Chewiness from crust. Fat from cheese. Umami, sweet, and sour from tomato sauce. Protein from cheese and meat. Complexity of flavor from sauce and toppings. Variety of texture from toppings and crust. Variety of flavor from toppings. Attractive appearance from toppings and bright red tomato sauce. Most foods fail to tap most of these sources. For example, a soft drink isn’t chewy, doesn’t have protein, doesn’t have fat, doesn’t have variety of texture or variety of flavor, and isn’t attractive.
My friends had one goal: to make the best possible pizza. It couldn’t take too long or cost too much but they weren’t trying to save time or cut costs. Over the years, they tweaked the recipe various ways and their pizza got better and better. Experimentation was safe. If a variation made things worse, it didn’t matter. It would still taste plenty good. (Due to the brilliance of pizza.) Variation was fun. After making pizza in a new way, they’d eat the pizza themselves (with guests) and find out if the new twist made a difference.
Professional pizza makers don’t do this. After a restaurant opens, they make pizza roughly the same way forever. The pizza at Chez Panisse, for example, looks the same now as many years ago. The owner might want to make the best possible pizza but is unlikely to experiment month after month year after year. The actual cooks just want to make satisfactory pizza. Making the best possible pizza is not part of the job. The owner might benefit from better pizza but the cooks would not. They’re cranking it out under time pressure (watch Hell’s Kitchen). They do what they’re told. Owners fear experimentation: It might be worse. It won’t be what’s expected. Don’t mess with success.
This illustrates what I’ve said many times: job and science don’t mix well. To do the best possible science or make the best possible pizza, you need freedom to experiment. People with jobs get stuck. All jobs — including professor at research university, rice grower, and pizza maker — depend on steady output of the same thing again and again. Trying to maximize short-term output interferes with long-term improvement. To do the best possible science or make the best possible pizza, you also need the right motivation: You care about nothing else. People with jobs have many goals. This is why we need personal science: To overcome the (serious) limitations of professional science.
All this should be obvious, but curiously isn’t. Long ago, philosophers such as John Stuart Mill claimed that people “maximized utility”, apparently not realizing that maximizing output (which happens when people work “hard”) slows down or prevents innovation. Later thinkers, such as Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman, glorified markets. They too failed to grasp, or at least say anywhere, that market demands get in the way of innovation.
The recipe for my friends’s pizza had several non-obvious features:
1. Pizza dough from Trader Joe’s. At Chez Panisse and other high-end restaurants, this would be taboo. It might produce better results — you still couldn’t do it.
2. Pizza stones above and below the pizza. My friends use an ordinary oven. Maybe an ordinary oven with two pizza stones produces better results than a pizza oven.
3. Balsamic vinegar in the tomato sauce. They got the idea from a friend. American cooks, including professional ones, routinely fail to understand how much fermented foods (such as balsamic vinegar) can improve taste. My friends also use more traditional flavorings (marjoram, basil, and garlic) in the tomato sauce.
4. Plenty of goat cheese. They scatter goat cheese slices over the top of the sauce.
There you have the secret of Bridget and Carl’s Pizza.