Dough’s The Boss: An Interview With Phil Korshak
Dough. It’s the basis of pizza. Flatbreads are the building block of nearly every food culture. In any of its forms – roti, tortilla, naan, pita, pizza – it is an essential part of the international dinner table. What today we think of as fundamental components of pizza – cheese and sauce – were not there in the early days of pizza. And indeed are absent from some really incredible white pizzas today. What makes pizza pizza is the dough.
I sat down with Phil, kitchen manager and sometimes contributor to this blog, to talk about dough. The process, the science, the art, and the truly finicky nature of the production of pizza dough. He’s a long time baker and dessert man and has been running the kitchen of Home Slice Pizza, and now More Home Slice, for over 4 years. On any given day, you can be sure he’s covered head-to-toe with flour, with a least one kitchen towel hanging out of each of his pockets. That he believes in the art of dough, no one could argue.
If you’ve ever met Phil, you will not be surprised that in just asking Phil to say a couple sentences for levels, my soundcheck turned out to be pearls of wisdom:
Phil: …the thing that occurred to me when I was talking to him, was that it really is like wen you’re getting up woken up in the morning. You know, if you wake somebody up and you poke them and you’re bitchy to them, then they’ll get up. They’ll do the stuff that you tell them to do. But it’s not going to be awesome. You’ll get what you’re talking about, but you’ll get it the wrong way. It’ll just be bad. Whereas, if you take some time with it and have a little understanding and plan a little and give yourself enough time for your dough to wake up and be cool and be relaxed and not be jostled into it’s day, then it’s going to be better.
So dough, so we had our version of a cold snap in Austin over the last couple of weeks and so what we had to do was take the temperature of our water and increase it so that the way we handle our dough could remain the same. We’ve been using a thermometer on the water since May. We got a huge heat snap and started putting dough into the ice and we started realizing that the dough was becoming too springy because it had been shocked. To go from that point to where we are now: to where it’s digital thermometers everywhere. Being really close and careful about how we make things and when we make them, how they get moved, where they get stored, what the timing is.
Tara: Right. You want to be romantic about it because, especially with NY style pizza dough, it is a romantic notion. But when it really comes down to it, there’s a lot of science behind it.
Phil: That’s exactly right. The difference is what are you doing and who are you doing it for? When I’m making dough for me and my wife, I measure nothing and I make it by the seat of my pants because I really enjoy the process of making the dough and finding out what it’s going to become. But you can’t do that here because our promise to people is that we’re going to give them exactly what they want, every time. And there is something awesome about making something by the seat of your pants because it’s going to become a tart rye bread or a bitter pumpernickel or whatever. But for pizza dough, like you said, especially when you think about just the quality of throwing dough around and why you do it. When I was lucky enough to talk to Dom Demarco, he was real flat out about how useless he thought throwing dough is
T: It’s a pretty steep learning curve, throwing dough?
P: Unless you have talent. If you don’t, it’s a pretty steep learning curve. There are some people who simply have it in their hands. Jose [the current 2-year champ of fastest dough tosser from the Carnival O’ Pizza] is a perfect example of it.
T: I remember him practicing in the prep room for a year before he had his hands on dough. When did you start getting in to making dough?
P: When I got hired on the line as a salad maker who was going to learn how to throw dough. At the time, we were making dough in the prep kitchen which was directly left of the salad table. Whenever I was slow, I would go into the kitchen to help and to fell what this dough felt like. I had been making dough as a person since I was 12 or 13 and so I had some kind of idea of what bread did, but i’d never worked with that kind of dough before. It wasn’t until about a year in when I became a manager and responsible for how the dough was going to be worked with was when I really began to pay attention to how the dough was being made. So we had to learn fast.
T: So you guys were just learning on your feet?
P: Yeah. completely.
T: What surprised you about the process of making dough when you were learning?
P: I think that the mix between being really a real hardcore Nazi about your process and then having to still put your hand in it every time to make sure it’s reacting properly. You can do everything right and exactly the same way every time, but the pressure of air can be different, a hurricane could be coming, or something, and your dough is simply not acting the right way. At which point you have to figure out what your dough wants. And realizing that it’s this living, sentient being. That was the thing for me.
T: When you started at Home Slice, You weren’t a pizza man. What did you come in for?
P: When I started at home Slice I was an ex-barman and I came in to learn how to throw pizza dough.
T: So you walked in the door and said “I want to learn how to get into this pizza thing?”
P: That’s exactly right. I walked in the door and said “I want to work in your kitchen.”
T: Okay, the lore is I thought it had something to do with desserts. Did that come later?
P: It did. Well, I got the job and I wasn’t good at throwing dough. But I was lucky enough to get hired before it opened. I knew that they didn’t have anyone doing desserts, I’d been making desserts since I was a kid, and so I started bringing in cheesecake.
T: Okay so, how many factors – this may be a difficult question to answer – do you think go into making dough? Because there’s the recipe, I’m just guessing, and there’s got to be a ton of environmental factors.
P: Yeah, there’s the basic ingredients and the temperature that they’re at. We ran into a batch of bad dough and we couldn’t figure out what it was, but then we figured out that the extra virgin olive oil was sitting next to the straight virgin olive oil. If they ball the dough really tight, especially the mediums, for the timing process that we have, if it’s tightly rolled you’re throwing these beautiful spirals and you throw it down on the board and it shrinks up. If your prep guy is having a frustrated day? There. You’ll see it there. But weather’s the big one, cold snaps, humidity.
T: What type of flour do you use?
P: We use a high gluten flour. There are different blends of flour that can be used as well. Look at the current phase of beautiful pizza, Neapolitan. Places like Keste. Which is amazing pizza. But the dough that they are making is out of a Caputo flour. It makes a completely different type of pizza. The way I tend to think about it is that the Neapolitans make Belle and Sebastian pizza. It’s really lovely and great. But the NY style pizza is like Lou Reed or the Ramones. It’s right straight ahead, and it’s from the heart, and you can play it loud.
T: Home Slice is NY style pizza and everybody says that NY style pizza is all about the dough. So, what is NY style pizza dough? What makes it different?
P: The thing that makes NY style pizza different than anywhere else is not really the water that’s from New York, but how the dough is treated, what kind of rise that the dough goes through, what type of flour your using.
A good NY pie is not going to use raw sugar. You’re looking at flour and yeast and olive oil and water and that’s it. The thing that I think is romantic about it is when you think about where that kind of pie comes from and what that sort of pizza’s supposed to do, that’s bare bones ingredients. And then how you make something out of ONLY that. That’s really amazing. One of the other things that’s important in this equation is how are you cooking it. What kind of oven is it going into? and what’s the temperature at? The beauty of the coal oven of Lombardi’s – is their pie so great because their dough’s that incredible or because of what that oven can do to that dough? And it’s a little bit of both, honestly.
T: So right, there’s wood-fired ovens, which Neapolitan pizzerias use a lot, that I’ve seen. And then there’s coal ovens like at Grimaldi’s and Lombardi’s and then there’s deck ovens which you use at Home Slice.
T: And that’s not quite as hot?
P: Right. Although, Dom Demarco’s oven at Di Fara, He has it close to 800 degrees.
T: In a deck oven?
P: Yeah, in a straight-ahead gas Baker’s Pride.
T: Did you see the documentary about Di Fara?
P: Yeah. It’s beautiful.
T: He talks a little bit about dough.
P: Their dough. It’s amazing. It goes through a very, very short rise. But, he’s the master.
T: Is it pretty warm in there?
P: It is. In that part of the kitchen. But his dough recipe is fantastic.
T: Did you get your hand in it?
P: I did. It was incredibly sticky an beautiful. It made me want even more to try to work and make the Sicilian pie happen [at Home Slice].
T: Yeah I think you’d be doing Austin a favor that did know that they wanted in having Sicilian pie.
P: That’s really the exciting thing in food and what we get to do with it. To be able to pull this thing out of nowhere that needs to exist that doesn’t exist, that’s good magic, right?