This is part one of my interview with Patxi Azpiroz, exec chef/owner of Patxi's Pizza; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Denver lays claim to an infinite number of pizza joints, but deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas, the kind that the Windy City goes crazy for at pie palaces like Lou Malnati's, Giodarno's and Gino's, are few and far between in the Mile High City.
But Patxi Azpiroz, executive chef and co-owner of Patxi's, which has locations in Cherry Creek and Englewood, is setting out to change that. "My first job was as a dishwasher at a pizza place called Zachary's in San Francisco," recalls Azpiroz, who opened his first eponymous pizza parlor in Palo Alto, California, in 2004. "I worked my way up from dishwasher all the way through to a senior manager and learned just about everything there was to know about pizza" -- including, he says, deep-dish. But he wanted to learn more, so after a dozen years with Zachary's -- and making, he admits, "a ton of money" -- he took the money and ran...to Chicago, where deep-dish pizza is sacred.
He had met his current business partner, Bill Freeman, right after high school, and the two stayed in touch. Both, admits Azpiroz, were enraptured by deep-dish pizza. "Bill and I wanted to evolve the concept at Zachary's, but the owners weren't interested, and we eventually figured out that we could do it ourselves -- and do it better," he remembers. The two twenty-somethings took off for Chicago to investigate the real deal, flying back and forth from San Francisco to check out what real Chicago-style pizza was all about. "I wanted to see how it was done firsthand, and while we were doing research, I realized that I could do the same pizzas in a new, elevated way," says Azpiroz.
He and Freeman began ironing out a business plan -- one that was environmentally sound, focused on fresh, high-quality ingredients and advocated hospitality. And then Azpiroz got to work. "I started baking pizzas at home in my small San Francisco apartment, and I did that nonstop for almost two years," he says, sheepishly admitting that he was baking six pizzas a day, six days a week. "I'd get up super-early, make dough and sauce, head over to Berkeley Bowl -- their produce section is like a football field -- to get my ingredients, come home and play with the doughs and make different sauces, and then we'd invite everyone I knew to come over and try the pizzas."
And he continued to do that until clear winners emerged. "That's how we came up with our recipes -- by doing things over and over again until everyone agreed on what their favorite sauce, dough and pizzas were," he says. In the meantime, he and Freeman were scouting spaces in the Bay Area, and by the time they opened their most recent location in California, they had seven Patxi's under their belt; two more California outposts are in the pipeline. "We've been successful because I really do think we have the best pizza on the West Coast," professes Azpiroz. "The passion we have for people and our product is unparalleled, and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen teaching everyone how to make pizza, and people in Denver tell me that they're amazed -- that they don't just want our pizza, but they need our pizza. I like spreading the love."
In the following interview, Azpiroz shares the story of a man who proposed over pesto pizza, blames a children's book for enticing him to eat worms, and insists that Jacques Pépin's apple-slicing skills are worth a YouTube view.
How do you describe your food? In truth, our food is very simple. We source the best and freshest ingredients we can find and make our food with pride and love. That's the foundation on which our entire menu is built. Despite the fact that I eat pizza almost every single day, I still look forward to coming in and making -- and eating -- pizza over and over again.
Ten words to describe you: Curious, picky, stubborn, tenacious, compassionate, trusting, eager, friendly, kind and enthusiastic.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I have three, and not necessarily in this order: cheese, pork and bread. All three of these ingredients have almost infinite flavors, textures and forms, and in that sense, they're a lot like pizza, which is why so many of our pizzas incorporate them. What could possibly be bad about a pizza that has high-quality cheese, nitrate-free, naturally raised pork and a great dough?
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I'm a huge fan of cast-iron and heavy steel cookware, mostly because I love that they hold heat and cook consistently. I guess they're not really gadgetry, though, but my microplane is, and I'm enamored with it. There's something delicious and cool about super-finely grated cheese that just melts into -- and onto -- whatever you're making.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I'm still new to Denver, but I love the beer culture here. It's been really fun exploring all of the local brews and finding which ones pair well with our pizza. At the moment, I'm really into Odell's IPA. When we first got here to open in Cherry Hills, it was prime Hatch chile season. The ones we're getting through our produce supplier have been amazing, and a definite Denver delicacy.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd love it if someone could actually execute a true Basque-style tapas bar, since that's my heritage. San Sebastian is a long way to travel for fantastic tapas, great wine and a warm social environment, and it'd be great to see something like that come to fruition in Denver.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The slider has become way too ubiquitous.
One food you detest: I can't stand the taste of cucumbers, although oddly enough, I think pickles are great. It's been a lifelong battle, though: Every now and then I'll try cucumbers again just to make sure I still can't stand them, and inevitably, I still can't seem to get over the taste.
One food you can't live without: I hope it doesn't sound cliché, but it's pizza. It's a combination of all of my favorite foods. I can eat it for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner -- and because I'm a pizza chef, I sometimes do.
Favorite dish on your menu: That's not an easy question to answer. We have a pretty small, well-thought-out menu, but our pizza combinations are endless. I have so much fun being surprised when guests order a combination I haven't tried yet, so it definitely doesn't get old. I guess my all-time go-to on our menu is the classic Chicago-style stuffed pizza with chicken, spinach and pesto. There's something about fresh spinach stuffed inside a Chicago-style pizza that I can't get enough of.
Biggest menu bomb: We tried a baked broccoli, Swiss and turkey sandwich once, and it was really awesome, but at the end of the day, I think we marketed it wrong, and our guests wanted pizza, not sandwiches. You live and learn; I'm happy with that.
What's never in your kitchen? A freezer.
What's always in your kitchen? An oven. At home I have a pretty cool range, but I never get tired of playing with our huge revolving pan oven at Patxi's. It's so cool: We can fit sixty pizzas in there at any one time, and they all cook so evenly.
Craziest night in the kitchen: The opening night of our first Patxi's restaurant in Palo Alto, California, in 2002. I had no idea so many people were going to come through the door, not to mention the fact that our kitchen had only a small percentage of the training that they actually needed. It turned out well, though, and the customers were happy, but I don't think I've ever worked that hard in my life.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Losing your calmness and focus.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: Cook from the soul, and cook with passion.
Weirdest customer request: I once had a customer ask me to write, "Will you marry me?" in pesto on the top of his pizza. I thought it was kind of a strange way to go about proposing, but since I love pizza, I can totally understand the impulse. I put the pesto in a pastry bag and piped it onto the top of the pie. It all worked out for him -- she said yes!
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I am 100 percent certain this was influenced by the children's book How to Eat Fried Worms, but as kids, a couple of friends and I tried to see who could actually eat a fried worm. I tried, but I didn't actually swallow the thing. The answer is probably just don't eat fried worms.
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What's in the pipeline? We're really excited to be working on a proprietary predictive pizza ordering system. We've been developing it over the last two years and are in the process of testing it out in San Francisco. It should be ready to launch a bit later this year, and it's really exciting. It's going to be a great way for our customers to enjoy our Chicago-style pizza without waiting the 35 to 40 minutes it takes to bake. We're also excited about continuing to expand in the Denver market. We're in the process of scouting new locations right now, and that's always fun. We're also thinking of expanding into Texas in the near future.