6:53 am Jul. 20, 2010
Jim Lahey, the charismatic founder of the popular Sullivan Street Bakery and chef at Co. (pronounced “Company”), the upscale Chelsea pizzeria, was about to reap the rewards of his three-year obsession with corn.
He was standing in the basement of the restaurant on Ninth Avenue at 24th Street last Thursday afternoon, beyond a labyrinth of freezers and long steel tables where other, lesser vegetables were getting prepped for their final hour. He was dressed in cargo shorts, black Nike sport sandals and a loose gray shirt, with a Sullivan Street Bakery cap pulled over his bald head.
He coddled a raw corncob and rubbed a microplane zester across its nubby side, breaking its pale yellow kernels and collecting the chalky liquid that burst out into a small plastic tub.
“I have these periods of complacency where I kind of just sit around and stare and wander around like a blathering fool,” Lahey said while he worked on the cob. Corn juice splattered everywhere. “I’m trying to solve a problem. And I’m distracted. And the problem was how to take this very cheap, crappy ingredient and render it into something delightful.”
The heatwave has produced a demand for summery toppings on pizza—after all, when it’s nine thousand degrees outside, not everyone wants the “Popeye,” his classic, with spinach, Gruyere, Pecorino and caramelized onion.
“This is the first piece of decent corn I got,” he said, examining a corn carcass after he was done stripping it. “I can tell from the liquidity—the way it’s bursting, the texture, the squirtiness. If it squirts it’s goooood,” he said. “Well, it depends, because even if it squirts...,” he trailed off with a shrug.
Most of us eat supermarket corn all summer. But in late July and early August the harvest of corn from Sycamore Farms in Middletown, N.Y. comes out, a hot starch that is usually sold out not long after Sue and Henry Smith pull up to the Union Square Greenmarket. Lahey’s sous chef Brendan Corr had been dispatched to the Wednesday market to get a sample of their wares.
This corn is a “bi-color” variety, sweet but not supersweet. It’s early for the corn, and some of the ears were dried out at the ends with no big, plump kernels yet. But two ears were declared the best so far of the summer, and Lahey had decided to move on his new special pie.
The corn really ought to be eaten the day it’s bought. It was fresh now, and inspiration for a limited-run special summer menu item to put in front of his choosy clientele could run out fast, too.
So there was an urgency in Lahey's effort to test several versions of his planned pizza in the kitchen before deciding what would be put out at the dinner hour.
After he finished breaking the surface of the kernels’ skin, Lahey used a long ladle handle to scrape entire bits off the cob. You could hear the juices busting out of the corn, even from a distance.
Lahey said he had been trying out countless ways of removing the raw nibs from the corn, but different methods yielded unsatisfactory results, whether it was the corn he was working on or the method he was using: too mushy, too watery. He didn't want to use any machines.
He took a plastic spoon and slurped up a bit of the crushed corn. He had two other chefs, and a Sullivan Street Bakery assistant, taste it too. “Starchy, no?” he said.
It was starchy. And chalky with a muted sweet corn taste. But the cool liquid on the summer day was refreshing without being overwhelming. “It’s a little early for corn, but it will do,” Lahey concluded. His corn pizza topping would make the menu tonight.
Lahey has a rooftop garden at his home in Hell’s Kitchen, and he grows corn there among other vegetables. He spends a fair amount of time there in a ponderous haze, staring at leafy kale and sprigs of mint and trying to figure out how to get them onto his signature Neapolitan-style pizzas.
“I’ve been obsessed with corn because there’s just so much of it,” he said. “You have to find other ways of eating it.”
The other night, he said, he decided to combine some corn he’d processed according to his new method with fresh kale from his roof, and some basil.
“To me, really, the specialness of the ingredient is the unspecialness of it,” he said. “I want to use corn, I want to use spinach, I want to use tomato. I don’t want to use something extremely esoteric or difficult. If something can grow really beautifully in this climate, even if it’s out of fashion or the cultural trend, and it’s good for you and it tasted good—it’s kind of like the philosophy that everybody is following.”
“It’s like, what do you want to feed your people, what do people want to eat? People want to eat arepas, they want to eat hamburgers, they want to eat pizza. They want to eat simple. They want a different standard than Pizza Hut, and they expect it now. It’s like a virus,” he said, holding his fingers up and crawling his them toward me.
IN APRIL 2009, THREE MONTHS AFTER Co’s opening day, Frank Bruni gave Lahey just one star in a New York Times review. Bruni lauded Lahey as “a high-carbohydrate counterpoint to David Chang, less chef than shaman,” who “can do wonders with flour and water.” But he hadn’t quite “nailed the toppings.”
Lahey’s been trying to nail them ever since, with some results: in December, Bruni successor Sam Sifton wrote in one of his first columns that he considered Lahey’s meatball pie one of the best new dishes of 2009. Sifton mentioned Bruni’s two-star review, but dismissed the toppings critique. Lahey is “now putting out pies that are good enough to do justice to his dough and to rival the city's best pizzas,” Sifton wrote. “The veal meatball version, with buffalo mozzarella, tomato, caramelized onions, gaeta olives, aged pecorino and oregano, is my favorite.”
Of course, Lahey has been known to play with an exotic, or very peculiarly prepared, ingredient or two. He opened Sullivan Street Bakery in 1994 with a wild yeast he cultivated by hand in Italy. His Stracciatella pie is made with a derivative of buffalo mozzarella that is only available fresh in some regions of Southern Italy. He’s sourced peppercorn from Morocco and goat meat from eastern Queens.
“We all have thoughts in passing of what we think, in a microsecond, of what might work,” Lahey said, upstairs now in his kitchen. His sous chef Brendan was sliding pies into a 900-degree oven with a giant wooden pizza peel. Another prep chef was working over a charred baby octopus salad, topped with purslane, celery, mint, basil, orange and drizzled with peppercorn-citrus dressing.
“But they are mostly just ideas,” Lahey said. “We never ever get to try them out. Or we try to overthink it and get too creative.”
Lahey made a soup of the crushed corn, pouring it into a small white bowl and topping it with grape-sized pools of olive oil, halved Sun Gold tomatoes and basil snipped with a knife. He was testing the evening's strutting new ingredient on his own, and he watched it being tasted as he kneaded his famous dough with his fists circulating in a gentle, now-instinctive rolling motion.
He dolloped some spoonfuls of corn on first, then crumbled hunks of mozzarella on top, spaced in no particular order. A “Parmesan bridge,” as he puts it, went on the edge of the pizza—where the mouth first hits the crust. Then whole basil leaves and kale “ripped from the rooftop.” He hurried it into the oven.
“Forgot to oil and salt it,” he said to himself suddenly, leaning against his prep table, where the ingredients are organized in white plastic containers. “So when the pie comes up, I’m going to give it a little bit of oil and salt,” he said. The three other chefs in the kitchen, with sun-weathered skin, tattoos on their calves and handkerchiefs strapped to their heads, were bustling around us. We were in the way. Lahey went on: “I was nervous because when it takes that long to dress the pie, there’s a risk of its demise. Because the liquid will begin to permeate the actual dough. Any tears or thin spots, it will bleed right through. There might be a hole,” he said, looking back into the oven at his pie. He went over and shuffled the pie with the pizza peel.
After a few minutes, he pulled out the hot pie. The kale and basil were in perfect shape, charred but not burnt. The edges of the pie steamed with sweet vapor from the corn and bitterness from the leaves.
Lahey whipped out his iPhone holding it with one hand while he balanced the pizza on the wooden peel with his other hand.
“I have to take a picture because I always forget to do it.” When he laid the pizza down, he took a video of it with his iPhone. “Here it is, a new one,” he said.
He cut the pie and brought pieces to each of his chefs, cradled in his hands. Yes, more salt, but also much more kale and basil, everyone agreed.
“With this, it’s about how you construct the ingredients,” he said, returning to the prep table. For Lahey, the way the ingredients are sequenced on the pizza means everything. Whether or not to layer the kale over the cheese or sprinkle the herbs on before or after it bakes in the oven can make or break this experiment.
He started again, this time blanketing the entire pizza with kale and basil before adding the corn.
The kale was harvested from his roof at 8 a.m.; it’s important to get it before the sun hits the leaves, Lahey said.
“Using new and fresh ingredients with this is—you can’t not,” Lahey went on. “You know, I think that’s what makes our pizzas special too, we use all locally grown stuff. I think most, if not 100 percent, of our tomato sauce is local. You would not be able to say that as a chef 30 years ago.”
The second pie was ready to come out of the oven. He tasted it. "This is sexy," he said. "There's some sex in this."
It was almost there: Some adjustments to the mozzarella were needed. By the third pie he had it down. He called over sous chef Brendan, who scribbled notes on the measurements and construction of the now-perfect pie: how much of each ingredient and in which order and where they should be placed on the dough.
Lahey now seemed exhausted, like he was ready for a post-coital cigarette. He gave his manager instructions for where to buy the ingredients for the next day’s menu.
As he ate his final slice, with the winning raw corn, Sun Gold tomatoes, kale and basil on top, Lahey started pumping his fist as he chewed.
“Yeah! Plentitude!” He pounded his fist into the air, emphasizing each word. “Sweet. Ass. Fucking. Ingredients. Fucking-a, fucking, yeah, like a fucking arepa. Right?”
He was right.
More by this author:
- At the Tribeca Film Festival: Filmmaker Mira Nair on our 'world of misunderstanding'
- The Brooklyn Islanders: what's left to lose?