Word of Mouth

Pizzeria Locale general manager Chris Donato on improving service through working the back of the house

By his own admission, Pizzeria Locale general manager Chris Donato had never worked in a kitchen before. But a few weeks ago, he was sitting at the bar with Jordan Wallace, the restaurant's head pizzaiolo, and the pair hatched a scheme to teach Donato the ropes. "I said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I could work in the back of the house?'" Donato explains. "I wanted to hang out with Jordan's guys and create a better bond with the back of the house, too. I didn't want to be just the manager that's asking for things all the time. I wanted them to be able to ask me to do things for them, too."

So he started picking up a weekly twelve-hour shift, when Wallace would put him to work in the kitchen. "I've been focusing specifically on dough," Donato explains. "I stretch dough, dress dough and make the dough for the next day. And I start on the oven hopefully this week."

And yes, he says, Napolitano-style pizza crust is as hard to get right as its reputation suggests. "In the beginning, Jordan made the dough and I watched," he says. "Then we made it together. I wondered, 'How far off could I be and it still be good?' Jordan kept telling me it's really precise. Saturday night, we had one new dough guy, and he added a little too much yeast. At the end of the night, we opened his dough box, and the dough was ruined. It is really precise."

So far, he says, stretching has been the hardest part. "It took me two full days of ruining a lot of dough to learn to stretch the pizza properly," he says. "Dough is different every single day because of temperature and what's going on in the air. The first day, the dough was firm and easy to slap around. The next day, the dough was a lot less firm. I kept making hole after hole after hole. The dough changes all the time."

The trick at Pizzeria Locale, though, lies in manning the oven correctly. "The pizzas spend 70 seconds in the oven," Donato explains. "If you're five or six seconds off, that's a big chunk of time. And you have three or four pizzas going in and coming out, and you're twirling them. That's the mystique, the guy working the oven. You can have the best ingredients and dough, but it doesn't matter if you don't have a good guy on the oven."

Donato acknowledges that the kitchen gig is "really stressful for me; I'm so much more comfortable in the front of the house." Still, he thinks it's worth it, because it will help him create a more seamless customer-service experience. "It's given me a better understanding," he notes. "I get it. I've stretched dough. People want to know how we make it, and I can go on and on about it. And now I can understand what's going on in the back of the house, too. I can read the situation better; I don't have to bother the guys that are cooking."

So, would he require kitchen duty for everyone? "It's maybe not feasible to make it required for people here," he admits. But he definitly encourages other general managers to try it in their own restaurants: "If I can do it, anyone can."

He's in it for the long haul, too: You'll be able to find find Donato in the kitchen once a week for the next five or six months.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk