|Rick Nixon checks his pizza over before serving it to the judges of the International Pizza Competition at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.
Nixon recently made a name for himself as the runner-up in our Chef of the Year contest, sponsored by Saputo Foodservice and Moretti Forni (distributed by Euro-Milan). In between competing in the traditional finals at the International Pizza Competition and circling the show floor at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in March, Nixon sat down to chat with Canadian Pizza about how his pizza, sources of inspiration and menu development strategies set him apart.
Rick, your pizza crust is American style. Why did you choose to stick with this?
I have always wanted to try to cook wood-fired pizza, but we don’t have the space for it right now in our kitchen. But for me, the crust is definitely the best part of the pizza. That’s where the texture begins and ends. When you take a bite of a pizza, the first thing that touches your tongue is the crust. If you don’t have that flavour or texture right away, you’ll already have a sour impression. The feel of it is important too. We eat with our eyes, nose and mouth, but with a piece of pizza, you’re eating it out of your hands first. What’s the feel of it? Is it sloppy and greasy on my hands? Can I hold it all together, or do I have to fold it? The crust is the most important part.
You competed in the traditional category of the International Pizza Challenge, and only two toppings could be used. What did you choose to top your pizza with?
I used our traditional crust and sauce, and I went with a sausage and pepper pizza. The cheese blend is a garlic-infused Italian mascarpone, partly skim mozzarella, full-fat edam, and I shaved Grana Padano on top. I did sausage two ways: a buffalo apple and rosemary sausage and a veal and red wine sausage. The peppers were done four ways: fresh green bells, roasted reds, roasted poblanos and pickled bananas. I made a little mélange out of the peppers and poured it over top.
Do you prefer working this way, with only a few toppings on a pizza, or do you usually load your pizzas up with several toppings?
For the most part, the simple, two- or three-topping pizzas are what everybody loves at the restaurant. Personally, I’m a cheese pizza fan – I love just plain cheese pizza! I rarely ever eat a loaded pizza. Too many toppings can be too much – it almost turns into a stir-fry when there are too many things going on! But the Harvest Pizza is the exception to that rule as it has lots of toppings.
The Harvest Pizza is the pie that won you second place in our Chef of the Year contest, and is topped with basil and walnut pesto, sundried tomatoes, baby spinach, royal gala apples, smoked gruyere cheese, slow roasted red peppers and pickled capers. Where did you come up with that combination?
We make our own pastas by hand, and one of our prep cooks had all of the fillings of a spinach tortellini left. Instead of making a whole new batch of dough, we decided to put it on a pizza and it tasted really good! I took that and went with it. I added spinach and capers and tried a couple different combinations. We all tried it and we knew it was the one.
Is it a regular item on your menu, or something you created for the contest?
It’s a feature on our menu because we redo our menus every fall, and this happened just after we changed the menu. We have everything prepped for it all the time because everybody in town knows about it now, and lately it’s been the most popular pizza on our menu. Without any advertising, we still get a few orders for it daily. The locals love it. They’re surprised to have apples and capers on pizza!
Revamping your menu every fall must be quite an undertaking! What’s involved in the process?
We try to keep things as simple as possible. Half our menu is pizza and calzones, and the other half is pasta, soups and salads, starters and a select few secondos. We also add features all the time. Each fall, after the busy summer season, I look through our sales and pick out what menu item isn’t selling, or selling the way I wanted it to. I also look for items where the costs are too high for the amount that we’re selling. I go through the lunch menu, the dinner menu, the dessert menu and the drink menu and remove the bottom sellers from each section. Things that we’re having technical difficulties with – something that logistically doesn’t make sense or is too timely – are also removed. We try features all through the year, and our best-selling feature in each section gets added to take the place of what we’ve removed. It’s a lot of work in the kitchen. There’s always a dish that, for some reason, just doesn’t work. I get constant feedback from my servers and lots of customer feedback too. Something might be selling, but if its popularity isn’t consistent I take that into consideration. Any criticism is good criticism. Sometimes it’s tough to take, but it makes us better because you can’t take a bite out of every single dish every time it’s served.
So it was a lucky experiment! Where do you draw inspiration from for other pizzas and dishes?
It’s all experimentation and taste testing. I can look at four or five different items and know exactly how they taste just by looking at them. That takes a lot of work out of it – I’m already half-done by the time I am plating things. From there, we just adjust the flavours where necessary.
When you aren’t eating pizza, what do you nosh on?
Everything else that goes on pizza! Just kidding. I love salads and sandwiches. I’ve been cooking for about 20 years and I’ve cooked all types of cuisines, and honestly a good ham and cheese sandwich and a nice, fresh salad, is great. But pizza’s the ultimate food. It’s something you can hold in your hands to enjoy. It’s so versatile: it can have all the food groups, it can be healthy, it can be greasy, and it can be indulgent. You can have it any way you want it.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.