Interview with Chef Zachary Pollack & Stephan Samson of Pizzeria Ortica – Costa Mesa, CA
Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Steve Samson: I think it was something that I always had a passion for growing up. I would go to Italy every summer—my mom is from Bologna. I would cook with my grandmother and my mom. It was an omnipotent part of my upbringing. I didn’t get into [cooking] to explore an artistic avenue, even though that was a good byproduct. Cooking was more about family and friends and providing for people. I was living in New York and was planning on going to go to medical school. My dad and brother are doctors, but I never had a passion for it. I was cooking for a friend in New York and his girlfriend and he was like “You should really go to cooking school, that’s what you should do!” He took out a New York City phone book and turned to cooking schools. I had a huge stack of med school applications on my desk—I was taking the two last courses. But I realized I wanted to go to cooking school instead! I was fortunate enough to have supportive parents to help me. I was 28 years old. As soon as I set foot in a kitchen, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I enjoyed the fact that it was good honest work and I was really happy from day one. I feel like I made the right decision.
Zachary Pollack: I think Steve and I came from different places. He had his Italian mother preparing him home-cooked meals, whereas my mother can’t cook for the life of her. Mostly I was raised on a whole bunch of take out and prepared foods, not the most inspiring stuff. But I always loved to eat. And when we did go out I would get really excited and order the more unusual things on the menu. But what really solidified my resolve to cook for a living was my first trip to Italy. I spent a semester abroad in Florence to study Renaissance architecture. And while the art and architecture in that city is second to none, it was the food scene that really captivated me—the restaurants, the vendors, and, of course, the legendary central market.
As soon as I left Italy I felt I needed to go back, to become be fluent in both the language and the cuisine. Even though I ended up working at Grace, Italian food was my schtick from the beginning. I came back from college and worked at Grace and BLD for a few months, then went to Italy to look for cooking schools. I had looked at American programs with stints in Italy, but tuitions were prohibitively expensive. There was one program that cost $45,000 for seven months! Italian programs, even the best, were a fraction of that cost. One day after looking at a school, I went to have lunch at a nearby restaurant I’d heard great things about back home—Ristorante Ambasciata. I started talking to the chef there, who insisted I ought to work for him at his two Michelin-starred establishment, at no cost to me, rather than shell out money for formal training at a school. Back home I weighed my options, decided I had nothing to lose, and moved to Italy to work at this restaurant in a tiny town in Lombardy.
KM: How did you and Zach start working together?
SS: Zach is another Ivy League kid. He went to Brown. I met him when I was in between jobs. I had these friends in Los Angeles who have a restaurant where I was helping out—Neal Fraser at Grace, when he was opening BLD and he needed help in the kitchen, so I was practically cooking for free. There was this kid Zach who was working for free just because he loved cooking. He had just recently graduated from college and just talking to him, I realized he was incredibly passionate about Italian food. He was going to go to Italy, to this restaurant that was near Nadia Santini’s restaurant [Ristorante dal Pescatore]. I just talked to him and gave him some advice, offered to make some phone calls for other places he might want to work. We kept in touch when he was in Italy via email. I could tell the kid was super passionate, but I didn’t know if that would translate into being a good cook. When he came back I was working at Sona, and we were going to open an Ortica in LA. I took a gamble and offered him a junior sous chef position at the future restaurant and said he could come work at Sona to see if he had the chops. He worked there for a year and proved not only did he have the passion but he could handle the job as well. It was serendipity. I had a feeling about him and it ended up working out really well.
ZP: While working at Ambasciata, I became friendly with the sous chef, who put me in contact with the former sous who was opening his own restaurant in Verona. At Ambasciata, I was one of ten cooks. This new restaurant in Verona, on the other hand, had only two employees: the chef, in the kitchen, and his brother, in the dining room. No bussers, no waiters, no dishwashers, no one. No Michelin stars, but I didn’t care. I was intrigued by the novelty of working it a tiny family operation, so after a few months at Ambasciata, I moved north to Verona. I lived with the brothers and their family while I was there. It was a truly unique experience. Unlike in LA, where new restaurants automatically have buzz and the struggle is to maintain it, most restaurants in Italy open quietly. The task for them is to build buzz, if it can even be called that. In any event, the restaurant was far from busy, but the nature of the business is totally different over there—a small restaurant can survive doing zero covers now and then because there is no one to pay. No purveyors, no employees. Here, forget it. Ultimately, there was a lot of one-on-one training. The chef had been a sous at two star establishments, so he knew what he was doing.
But I had a dearth of experience in southern Italian cooking, so after another few months, I contacted Steve who put me in contact with Il Duomo in Sicily, where I finagled my way into a stage. I worked there for a couple months, and then at the end of 2007 I came back to the States and started working at Sona with Steve. Before I left for Italy, Steve had told me he was working on this Italian restaurant with David Myers that was supposed to open on La Cienaga—not a pizzeria but regional Italian fine dining. That got me really excited. At that point, I was really green, so when Steve said, “Maybe you could be my sous chef,” I was nervous, but also enticed. I came back from Italy in August of 2007 to work a few months at Sona before the new place opened, but restaurants’ being always in delay, I ended up working there for a year. It turned out to be an awesome experience worlds apart from those I’d had in Italy, but every bit as influential. Then I injured myself and was out on disability. A fateful slip in the kitchen that turned out to be a blessing in that I was able to return briefly to Italy.
KM: Did you go to culinary school?
SS: I went to what was Peter Kump and now is ICE. I was there in 1997.
KM: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
SS: I have really mixed feelings about cooking school. For me it served its purpose because spending the money made me commit to it totally and I was at a point in my life when I needed to commit to something like that. If the amount of money it costs to go gets you out to a job that pays minimum wage, you’re better off going into a restaurant where you admire the chef and work for free for six months and you still come out ahead. It definitely depends on the person. I would never say don’t go to cooking school, but it seems like a lot of money and you won’t leave with a degree that will get a high paying job—it will be an entry-level position. I’m glad I did it because I had a lot of fun. I met people I’ve remained friends with and worked with so it depends on the person. If I had to do it again I would have used the time to go stage at different restaurants in New York, but that’s also an intimidating thing to do. It’s definitely a good way to get the ball rolling.
KM: What advice would you give a young chef just starting out?
ZP: I think the most important thing for any cook young or old is to have focus. I think until you find a niche where you belong, you aren’t ever going to reach your full potential. When you find that niche, it’s a lot more fulfilling. I was fortunate to have found it before I even found the love of cooking. It was the niche that drew me to cooking in the first place. I’m not saying that one should cook just Italian or just Japanese or just Spanish. One’s focus can be a style, a medium, even a venue. Molecular gastronomy or sustainability can be niches. There’s a restaurant in Japan that puts mayonnaise in everything. I suppose that’s the chef’s focus. It’s kind of gross, but I bet he or she is fulfilled.
KM: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
SS: Other than my mom and grandparents and parents? I still call and ask my mom questions about food. Piero Selvaggio of Valentino Restaurant. Nadia Santini. I did a stage at her three Michelin star restaurant in Italy, Restaurante dal Pescatore. She’s got an amazing philosophy on food. Her work ethic and philosophy are unparalleled. She was a big influence even though I only spent a few months in her kitchen. She might not even remember me. Luciano Pellegrini. I worked for him in Vegas and learned a lot about the business side of being a chef. Those were the main ones, but there have been so many.
ZP: Steve would definitely be my most significant mentor. Actually, I think the most important thing I’ve learned from him is that you can be well-liked and well-respected at the same time, that you don’t have to make people fear you to get them to do what you want them to do. I think you reach people by working with them and not hounding on their mistakes, but acknowledging them, showing them how to improve, and teaching by experience. You can get a lot of disgruntled people in a kitchen, and in some kitchens such an excess of brutality.
KM: What is your culinary philosophy?
SS: For me food is very much a representation of who I am and my upbringing. When people come to the restaurant I would hope they experience that on the plate and can taste that there’s a lot of love in my cooking. It’s important to me—it’s an extension of my life. Growing up and eating in Italy, and having a connection to that part of my upbringing—I think I was fortunate to have that experience in my life. My mom was born in this house in the mountains that has been in my family for 400 years. It’s not a palace, but when I go there, I sleep in the bed my mom and grandpa were born in and I have a real connection to that place, [to] all the meals there with my grandparents. Food is a connection to family and friends; it’s ingrained in me, and I hope when I cook for somebody that kind of passion and love can come through in my cooking. Or hopefully it is, on a perfect night. That’s why I love cooking and why I got into it—it connects me to my past, my upbringing, and my family and hopefully I can keep that tradition going. We’re not trying to do anything that is a reinvention. That’s why I love working with Zach. He doesn’t have the same family experiences as me but he has such a passionate connection to food, it keeps me motivated and passionate. I’m fortunate we ended up cooking together.
KM: What is your philosophy on fine dining?
ZP: I really respect the fine restaurants of the world. They serve their place and without them gastronomy in general would have a very monochromatic landscape. And I like frequenting those restaurants. But what really excite me are those traditions in cooking that originated as a way to sustain us and have become a way to please us. The fundamental objective of cooking is nourishment. Period. Different people have different approaches to tackling this goal, but it always boils down to that. Personally, I am most fulfilled when there’s a logical connection between where I am and what’s on my plate—or in my glass. If I’m in Piemonte, I’m drinking Dolcetto, Barbera or, God willing, Barolo, but if I’m in Naples, it’s Aglianico—or beer if I’m eating pizza. Moving into the position the world is in now, with carbon footprints and sustainability, it not only makes sense from an idealistic point of view, it makes sense practically.
KM: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
SS: Flavor combinations always vary when I go out to eat at restaurants that are more modern and very aggressive and pushing the envelope. I’m always impressed by the flavor combinations, but for my philosophy the traditional ones are the ones I go back to. Like when you’re in southern Italy and you taste the fennel and orange combinations, fennel orange and pepper, or lemon and garlic. When I worked in southern Italy for the first time and saw those anchovy [with their] saltiness combined with the sweetness from the orange and the herbaceousness from fennel and the bitterness from arugula—those are the combos I really like, traditional ones that go together so simply. We’re using things like that here. When we went out and found wild fennel growing around the coast here it was like it was in Sicily. It’s cool—we get to use something we don’t even have to pay for.
KM: How traditional are you when creating a menu?
ZP: Very. But tradition for the sake of tradition can be a dangerous thing. I try to break down traditions, hone in on why they exist, and use those reasons to motivate a menu. Though I admit that with pizza, I’ve gone through something of an identity crisis. On the one hand, I’m a traditionalist. To have pizza on a menu and not have a margherita would be like having a donut shop and not offering glazed. On the other hand, pizza is a glorious medium with enormous potential. So I’ll take some steps out of bounds, as with our guanciale and ricotta pizza, but for whatever reason—maybe it’s arbitrary—I won’t put a protein that’s not pig on a pizza. We make lamb sausage, but I won’t put it on a pizza . We make our own bresaola, but likewise. I’ll put on pork sausage or prosciutto though. I’m stubborn. I once put radicchio and persimmon on a pizza. It tasted good, but it felt wrong. I felt guilty afterwards. I’m still ambivalent about that decision.
KM: What is your proudest accomplishment as a chef?
ZP: It was probably when I took my duffel bag and walked up to the door of a two star Michelin restaurant in a foreign country and pressed the doorbell. I walked inside to a room full of unfamiliar faces and tall white toques. It was the scariest moment in my life and the one that has benefited me the most.
KM: What do you think you’ll be doing in 5 years?
ZP: We’ll see where this restaurant goes. I’m fortunate to be in a position now to have such freedom and to be able to express myself on the menu, so for the time being, I’m content with that. I’d like to work in Italy again. Down the road, I’d love to open up something off the beaten path, maybe not in LA, where I can cook as much as possible from scratch, maybe not milling the wheat, but at least buying it locally, and making bread, and growing vegetables. It’s something of a pipe dream that I’m sure a lot of cooks out there have, but that sort of thing would really thrill me. It’s more of a dream than the next step. I think I would always like to keep it regional.
SS: Hopefully we’re talking about doing another Ortica in LA. Since I grew up in LA my family is there and that’s where I want to end up. I have a hard time thinking ahead right now. Basically [I’d like to be] cooking with the same kind of love and passion for it that I have now. It took me a long time to find what I love to do and I feel fortunate because a lot of people don’t have that.
Chef Stephan SamsonPizzeria Ortica
650 Anton Boulevard
Costa Mesa, CA 92626