So much can go wrong in the belly of a restaurant – the dishwasher goes AWOL midshift, the fridge goes kaput, the wait staff plots an insurrection against the line cooks. Customers rarely sense the dark dramas within.
But if the oven checks out, there’s no faking it. Bakers and cooks so rely on their ovens that over time, they develop a symbiotic relationship that’s somewhere between marriage and business partner. Here are three tales of owners and their relationships with the hardest – and most essential – workers in the house.
“The ovens, they dictate,” says Jonathan Highfield, lead baker at The Bakehouse at Chelsea, in Norfolk’s Lamberts Point. “The ovens are definitely the bosses.”
A mighty, chest-high mixer hunkers into the very spot that it’s claimed since World War II. A century-old copper bowl the size of a bistro table gleams like a harvest moon. A run of cool marble countertop, its corners worn round by three generations of Habib bakers, stands bolted to the checkerboard floor.
Dominating it all is the essential ingredient of most every croissant, éclair, fruitcake and baguette that’s been baked by the Habib family: a hulking gas oven, circa 1925.
Elias Habib, a Lebanese immigrant, purchased the Universal “Revelation” Oven for the original French Bakery in downtown Norfolk. Today, a third generation bakes in that gas oven every single day, including half days on Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter.
“You won’t find another one like this anywhere,” says George Habib Jr., Elias’ grandson, who today runs the bakery with his brother, Eli, and mother, Haifa. “It makes its own steam; I have no idea how. It’s the reason our bread is so good.”
Elias Habib so relied on his Revelation that in 1942, when the family moved the shop from downtown to the Riverview section of Granby Street, he hired engineers from New York to disassemble the oven and install it at the new location.
It hasn’t budged in 72 years.
These days, the Revelation gets fired up at 7:30 a.m., and turned off three hours later. By then, the stones have absorbed enough heat to last the rest of the day. A peek inside the slender door, located head-high on the face of the oven, reveals a low, 15-foot-by-25-foot expanse of white stone floor.
When the oven is at its hottest, around 425 degrees, the Habibs might slide in eggy, buttery brioche rolls using wooden peels far longer than oars, or a few dozen baba au rhum, small yeast cakes that will be soaked in rum and filled with pastry cream and custard. Later, when the temperature drops, French baguettes might be loaded onto wooden peels and baked in the Revelation’s steamy darkness until they acquire a crunchy, split crust, the foundation for the bakery’s signature pastrami sandwich, which is, well, a revelation. Or in might go the bakery’s award-winning fruitcake.
Still later, the oven is used to heat made-to-order sandwiches, or to cook pastrami or pork.
“What don’t we cook in there?” George Habib says between greeting regulars, building sandwiches, wrapping almond crescents and orange juice donuts to go, and parsing out samples of his mother’s Middle Eastern-style fresh fig jam.
He figures a similar oven would cost him more than $50,000 today, yet it would never match the ability and reliability of his Revelation.
“It’s priceless,” he says.
At the Pizza Box in Portsmouth, the owner and the oven both hail from New York. He’s a Diotallevi, son of a soldier who fled fascist Italy. His oven is built by Bakers Pride, which was founded about 70 years ago in New York and claims its designs for mass-produced, movable gas ovens helped give more people access to pizza.
So six years ago, when Tony Diotallevi decided to open the 800-square-foot Pizza Box in historic Port Norfolk, he never considered any other for a sidekick.
Diotallevi, who then lived in Virginia Beach, sought something seasoned (read: reasonably priced). His pizza logic went like this: Southeastern Virginia has dozens of pizza parlors; New York City has thousands, meaning more used Bakers Prides to choose from.
He called his buddy Carlo, a dealer of used restaurant equipment in the Bowery. Carlo showed him a couple of ceramic deck numbers, built in the 1970s, that had already seen service, one at a pizza place in Long Island and another in Queens. A new model might have cost $20,000. As Diotallevi tells it, in an accent as classically New York as his signature thin-crust Brooklyn-style pizza, he forked over three G’s, loaded the double-decker oven into a U-Haul and steered it toward a new home in the South.
Now, at 2:30 each afternoon, he lights the ovens with a flip of a switch and a mighty whoosh of power and gas. By “4 o’ clock on the dot,” when the front door’s unlocked, the temperature hits 550 degrees and a chess game of sorts ensues.
When Diotallevi installed his oven, placing the ceramic stones that line the floor raised his blood pressure considerably. Each weighed more than 100 pounds. Easing them to the back of the oven took brawn. The front ones required patience; he had to tap, tap, tap each with a wooden mallet until it dropped into place two hours later.
A couple cracked, a serendipitous misstep. The crevices – which give the bottom of the pizzas a rustic look – are now part of the game.
A customer orders. A pizza is tossed. It’s placed on the deck near the door. That spot drops 100 degrees, maybe more. The cook slides a metal screen under the pie. He slides it to a new spot in the back corner where heat radiating from two walls and the top will cook the surface of the pie. If it browns on one side, he gives it a spin.
On busy nights, when the ovens are crowded with pies, stromboli and such, the pizza logic becomes more complex. But Diotallevi and his staff know the quirks of their oven as well as they know one another.
Prepping it for service doesn’t take much. Each afternoon, he uses a metal brush to clean the stones and shift the ash.
“That’s how you season them,” he says. Occasionally he’ll sprinkle a bit of salt on the stones to absorb any oil.
“We clean and protect them,” he says, “like a chef protects their knives.”
Over the years, Diotallevi and the pizzas that emerge from his ovens have earned rave reviews. His grandmother Concetta’s recipes are key, he says, but the pies wouldn’t be perfect without his Bakers Pride oven.
Amid the ancient ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists have unearthed naughty frescoes, public baths and, of particular interest to epicures, a few dozen bread ovens. One, belonging to a baker named Modestus, had 81 loaves still inside.
Nearly two millennia since that fateful day in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii in volcanic ash, Jonathan Highfield slides a batch of olive levain loaves into a dome-roofed oven that is strikingly similar to those in the ruined Roman city.
The wood-fired bread oven at the Bakehouse, in Chelsea – that hip new zip at the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel – is the size of a small bedroom. A lower chamber holds the fire, which heats the baking surface above, an 8-foot-deep by 4-foot-wide expanse of stone that can accommodate 30 loaves at once.
The stone bread oven, and the pizza oven beside it, were custom-built by a pair of artisan oven builders from Vermont. The cost: around $50,000, much more than the bakery’s $2,000 fridge or $2,500 mixer. But that’s because the ovens are the hearth and soul of the Bakehouse and the most reliable of partners, however mulish and bossy they can be.
For Highfield – a certified executive pastry chef and former lead baking and pastry instructor at the Culinary Institute of Virginia – baking in a wood-fired brick oven is living the dream. His naturally leavened and organic loaves of rustic Vollkornbrot and seeded rye emerge from the oven with thick, crunchy, russet crusts that crackle as they cool.
Those dark crusts presented a learning curve to customers. Highfield tells them that “color equals flavor.” The circular air flow in the oven, the stone cooking surface and the water-saturated cloths he slides in with the pans to create steam bring out the flavor of the grains as no electric oven can.
Forging a partnership with the oven to produce the perfect loaf took time and patience. “I’ve learned that you have to plan; you can’t wing it,” Highfield says.
Consider the first firing, which he recalls was a “nightmare.” Before lighting his oven, he had traveled to the Farm & Sparrow Bakery near Asheville, North Carolina, for a short apprenticeship.
He remembers how the baker casually tore up a paper bag, tossed the pieces onto the wood stacked in the lower chamber of his oven, touched a match to it and achieved a glowing inferno within 20 minutes. Back home, lighting the fire in the Bakehouse oven took hours. Highfield later learned that it hadn’t yet cured – completely dried out and become saturated with heat.
Today, the oven is desert dry and so saturated with heat that he figures even if he went a week without lighting it, the baking chamber would still be warm when he returned.
These days, when lunch service gives way to dinner in midafternoon, customers can find Highfield rolling in a wheelbarrow stacked with hickory and oak – he stores the wood in a neighbor’s yard in return for a few fresh-baked loaves. He carefully arranges the wood in the oven, fires it with a single match, and before sunrise, if all goes well, the baking surface registers around 550 degrees and is ready for the first loaves of the day.
Of course, that’s if everything goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. Like the night he left the flue open, and found a not-so-hot oven in the morning and couldn’t begin baking. Or when he arrived one morning to find the oven charging along at 800 degrees, the result of his loading too much wood the night before.
There are hot spots and cool spots, not unlike the relationship between the baker and his oven.
“We still have our moments,” Highfield says, “but at the end of the day this is just one heck of an oven.”