At my former workplace as a pizza maker at Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, we had a beautiful set of Stefano Ferrara ovens for firing off pies. For anyone who’s never had the pleasure of being in the presence of one, these ovens are absolutely beautiful pieces of craftsmanship. One of my favorite parts of the job, aside from cooking, was dealing with the fire in the oven, whether that meant adding logs, brushing out the ash, or spreading the coals at the end of the night. But that’s not all I did with that glorious flame.
You see, part of the joy of working in a restaurant is the time you spend fucking around. Everyone goofs off a little at every job, but when your version of work involves powerful, high-end cooking equipment, shit can get silly real quick. And if any of the tools in your restaurant kitchen center around live fire, expect all sorts of “experiments” to happen. The ovens we used regularly reached 900 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is exactly as hot as it sounds.
Whenever I was in the mood to fool around at work, my inner pyromaniac took over. I found myself throwing all sorts of shit into the oven just for fun, because isn’t that what you would do?
One of our signature cocktails when I was working at the restaurant involved popping boba, little juice-filled spheres sometimes served in bubble tea. I asked one of the bartenders for a small amount of popping boba in a cup, then I ran gleefully over to the oven and threw them right into the flames.
Because the little spheres are filled with liquid, I assumed they would burst in the oven with a big, steamy pop!, which would, in turn, entertain us. But I was sad to find out that a popping boba just tears open when exposed to heat, and all the liquid inside slowly steams its way out until the casing ends up empty and wilted on the oven floor.
We didn’t always have eggs in the walk-in cooler, but when we did, we’d usually have an exorbitant amount of them (restaurant bulk purchases are no joke!). One day I thought it would be a “good” idea to place an egg directly into the coals of the fire within the pizza oven, hoping for a violent explosion as the heat built up inside the shell. Instead, the egg cracked open a little, the egg white dribbled out, and it ended up cooking unevenly within. Should have gone with one of these instead.
One year I thought it would be funny to put leftover Easter candy on pizza and fire it off in the oven to see what would happen. As you all know, Easter candy has a very high sugar content, and guess what happens to all that sugar at 1,000 degrees?
Yup, it burns. To a crisp. While this pie didn’t get to the point where it caught on fire (which does happen sometimes), the result was a pile of blackened, unrecognizable candy on top of an otherwise perfectly cooked pizza. My coworkers got mad at me because the pizza line smelled like burnt smoky sugar, which was pretty gross.
As a menu special one weekend, we made fire-roasted oysters with herb butter, which were absolutely delicious. One of the employees, who may or may not have been me, thought it would be funny to nestle a whole unshucked oyster right into the middle of the fire. A coworker and I stood in front of the oven, thinking nothing would happen, and as we chatted, suddenly there was a loud pop. The oven was filled with swirling embers and we realized that the moisture within the oyster—which turned to steam from the heat—popped the bivalve open with extreme violence. I don’t remember whether or not I screamed.
We used sesame seeds to garnish one of our pizzas after it came out of the oven. On one slow night I took a palmful of sesame seeds and tossed them in, and to my delight, they started jumping around and popping. Once they stopped popping, they landed on the floor of the oven and the oil stored within each seed created brief miniature flames all over. It was beautiful. And a colossal waste of sesame seeds. But so much fun I kept doing it.
For some reason someone left a bean burrito from Taco Bell in the walk-in and never claimed it. A week later, I finally grabbed it and threw it into the fire. While it didn’t do anything except for eventually turn into ash, I thought it was important for you all to know that I incinerated a whole burrito.