“I really learned to love the peppery taste, the tang, the bitterness of weird weed,” says Sarah Minnick at the start of her new Chef’s table episode. The audience watches as she plods through her family’s garden, cutting flowers for her next pizza. “It’s very magical when you can just go into your backyard and see stuff popping up everywhere, and you’re like, ‘Guess what? We’re going to eat this for dinner.
Minnick, one of six chefs to appear in the new Chef’s table pizza season on Netflix, is – in the view of many – one of the originators of what we think of as Portland pizza: sourdough pies topped with seasonal ingredients, using grain-based flours grown in Oregon. His restaurant, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, has become a destination for his pizzas, all made with five Camas Country Mill flours, topped exclusively with produce sourced from Pacific Northwest farmers. This is no place for a slice of pepperoni; instead, the pies are garnished with summer chanterelles or fresh fenugreek, edible flowers or sprigs of purslane.
Before becoming a famous pizza maker, however, she was a fine arts student and worked in her college cafe. When she opened Lovely Hula Hands in 2003, her boyfriend was the chef and she focused on the front of house. In her Chef’s table episode, viewers see how she learned to make pizza and developed her passion for Oregon’s wild, distinctive, and hyper-seasonal produce. Eater sat down with Minnick to talk about her career, the show, and what it’s like to build a restaurant from scratch.
Eater: My first question, because I really can’t stop thinking about it: Is this really your garden? It is enormous.
Sarah Minnick: So there was a Polish woman who lived in our block, and she had a huge garden. And then when she died, her nephew came knocking on my door to see if I would buy the house right away because he was coming from Poland for the weekend. So we bought it with all the content. Anyway, she had this huge garden with a chicken, and all she grew was potatoes. So the garden is untouched, but that was many years ago now – it’s really fertile because that’s all she’s ever done there. It’s basically my mother’s garden, but we grow things there for the restaurant and for ourselves.
Watching this was really a nice dive into a side of your life that many Portlanders might not know about unless they’ve been following you for years – you originally wanted to be a painter and went there. university for the arts. How does this side of you emerge in your approach to food?
I’ve always been a very visual person, so I went to school for painting. I’ve seen food this way since I started cooking: the opportunities to make it look good. I think it’s important that the food is delicious too; sometimes people sacrifice flavor and say, “Let’s make it pretty.” Often you can see ripe, delicious foods, foods that are going to make sense together, and you have the option to do both. It was easy for me to make sure they worked together on the pizza. It’s just another outlet. It doesn’t have to be painting, drawing, sewing. It turns out that the best way for me to do this is to cook. It took me a while to figure that out.
Something that also came to mind while watching this episode is that your story is a bit the reverse of many chef-owners: you were the owner first, and you had to teach yourself to be a leader. Tell me about this process. What do we not see in the series that was part of this story?
I’ve always liked working in restaurants, but I thought, Oh, I better go get a real job, I need all the perks. But I wanted to have a creative career and I knew I loved working in restaurants. We had this opportunity to open this restaurant, and it became clear that my sister and I were good at it, but the cooks kept leaving. It kind of fell on me, after being open for years, running heads through the door. I was like, “I better learn at least some of this because I want to influence the menu,” and when I was working with the chef, sometimes they were like, “You know what you want, but like, you want me to execute it. And, you know, I don’t really want to fulfill your vision.
So we opened Lovely’s, and I had someone making pizza for the first two years, who was like a friend of the family. I did the salad menu and executed that, and also did the ice cream, and also waited tables. But then the pizza guy moved on and I was like, “Oh shit.” I had no idea how to make pizza at all. I had the Toasts book, and he gave me two weeks notice, so I had to step in, make it work. But it turns out that I really loved it, and I was good at it. So I walked away with that and was like, “Okay, I’m the boss.” It was a nice surprise, and relieved the idea that you’re always going to have chefs coming and going, which caused a lot of stress.
The show exemplifies the time you spent trying to refine your crust recipe. What are you looking for in a good crust?
somewhere in there Toasts book, they say, “Pizza dough is just bread dough; you just make pizza out of it. I went from 100% white flour dough to whole wheat sourdough, and just had to struggle with it. The hydration always changes, simply because we use a lot of fresh flour and non-standardized flour. Camas Country Mill flours change, so you have to roll with that. But usually there are five flours in our dough. So what I look for in pizza dough is that it looks like a good loaf of bread. Sometimes when we get the press, or people hear that we’re the “best pizza in the country,” people ask “extra crispy,” and I’m like, “What the hell is that? » I just let them know it was bread dough. It’s not just crisp; it’s a lot of different things. I’m looking for a little acidity, a lot of flavor. It should be crispy on the outside, as long as there’s an actual crust to penetrate, and then there’s an inside that looks a bit more like bread dough.
In previous conversations, we’ve talked about how you want to deepen our understanding of what seasonal cuisine has become. How has your relationship with seasonal cuisine evolved since you started making pizzas?
When we opened Lovely Hula Hands 18 years ago, we weren’t working with any farmers. My boyfriend was the chef and we had a pretty fancy menu of all sorts of things like Thai food, Southern food – whatever he wanted to cook. But when we moved down the street and Troy Maclarty was the chef, he was from Chez Panisse and he started working with farmers. It was like 14 years ago; there were not many farmers who had relationships with restaurants. But they quit farming in the winter and there was no year-round farmers’ market, so there was just no produce from November through March. So we brought in a production company to fill in the gaps.
Eventually, we started having a year-round farmer’s market, and a lot more farmers started delivering directly to restaurants. At that point, I just cut the production company, we just went with the farmers and the farmers market. That means things are limited. In the winter, you have to make sure you put enough stuff in, you have to guess how many thousand pounds of tomatoes you’ll need to spend. But pizza is a great way to do this because it’s quite simple. If we run out of parsley, we won’t have any; we have to be creative with something else.
Something I found particularly interesting about the episode was how you brought the influence of the Culinary Livestock Network — how has your relationship with these farmers and seed breeders changed the way you cook or develop your pies?
which way [Selman] Culinary Breeding Network is that it brings chefs and farmers together so farmers can understand what chefs want. It’s more about building direct relationships between the chefs and the seed breeders and the farmers, making those connections so that when you’re serving something or cooking something, you feel more invested and connected to that . I like going to the market, I like seeing what people are growing and I don’t want to be in the position of telling people what to grow. For me, it’s a challenge to make things work that way. It’s something we keep in mind in Lovely’s kitchen.
In the episode, the focus was on this DIY-style restaurant that I think a lot of people associate with younger Portland – this restaurant furnished by Goodwill, in your words, who has no money starting. As it becomes more expensive and harder to staff restaurants, do you think that’s something people can still do here?
I’d like to think so, because the alternative is pretty dark. But there is a certain misery in doing it this way. We all worked for pennies back then – restaurants weren’t good paying jobs. I wouldn’t go back for that, neither for me nor for my employees. I’ve been through enough to not want to start over, but I also hate to think it’s gone. You have to be young enough and strong enough to get started. But now people have taken notice of Portland, and people are willing to invest in people’s ideas. It’s just different. This is not good to have debt and investors trying to get some kind of profit; that would be sad too. We pay people more, we charge more, and that’s a lot better, I think.
The full season of Chef’s Table: Pizza is now available on Netflix. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.