Interview with Los Angeles Rising Star Restaurateur Jeff Mahin of Stella Barra Pizzeria

by Antoinette Bruno
May 2014

Antoinette: So, why pizza? What was the journey from Fat Duck to pizza?
Jeff Mahin: At Fat Duck, I worked as a laboratory assistant in 2006, right when they got the best- restaurant-in-the-world award. That was the best time for me because it felt like there were a bunch of people with a bunch of ideas, but we didn't know what to do with them. I was 22 or 23 at the time and naïve. It was really cool because, especially in the laboratory, we would sit around and talk about things and try them. I spent four months making caramels. The apple pie caramel with the edible wrapper came from me testing the caramels. I tried all these generic rice papers, then thought about edible underwear. I went down to London to all of these sex shops and bought a bunch of edible underwear and that's how we came up with the wrapper for the caramels.

After that, I went back to the States, then went to Spain for a bit and surfed in San Sebastian, and staged there.

Back to the States again, I was broke, and did private catering and consulting. Then Laurent opened up L2O. I called, got the job to run it, went out there about five years ago with two suitcases and $900 to my name and slept on the floor of an apartment I couldn't afford and never seen before, that I rented over the phone. I felt [L20] was an amazing summation of what I was really into. I loved Japanese food and was well versed, more than a lot of people at the time with gels and things like that. I met Francis Brennan, who's now my business partner and one of my best friends. He was CDC there.

Then I woke up one morning and wanted to get out of the fine-dining world—the smoke and mirrors, the best water, etc. I was less attached to the guests than I wanted to be. One thing Heston and Rich ingrained in me is that food is very nostalgic. It’s one thing to create all of these textures, gels, and things. Rich said simple food is harder to create than these complex dishes. I started to think about it and had an epiphany; Rich asked to make a cherry pie and it was one of the most humbling moments in my career. I thought, “Great!” and I pushed these limits of fat into the dough and had a whole game plan of how to make the perfect cherry pie. I did so much work on it over a three day period to make this perfect pie and it ended up so bad, just so bad. As a chef you screw up a lot and learn from your mistakes and move on. He said, let me show you something. We went to this diner to try the cherry pie. We went to Joe’s Stone Crab in Chicago and tried their pie—it was fantastic! So good! He said, let me show you how to make it. We went into the back and there was a very uneducated pastry cook, he throws it all together and puts it into the oven and out comes a great cherry pie! He showed me the recipe. It was cherry, sugar, corn starch, vanilla, and that was it. I was so baffled. I was over complicating things. Rich is a really good teacher. He always wants you to find the answer and not tell you. Reminds me of my father, who’s a teacher. 

Through nostalgia from Heston and simple food learned from Rich, I wanted to challenge myself and always had an affinity for making bread. It's very scientific and only has four or five ingredients, and it wasn't about the recipe, but how you treated it—the entire time and method. I thought back to my childhood. My dad is an engineer and I grew up eating Japanese, Chinese, and the occasional bad pizza from the place next to my house. I knew I probably wouldn't be opening a Chinese or Japanese restaurant any time soon, so I thought about pizza being the most approachable food for the masses. If you did it well and really well, it would stand out. I worked on a dough recipe for about six months, through trial and tribulation, to get what I wanted in a pizza. I’ve broken any Neapolitan-style pizza rule you can break. I wanted to have more bread quality. Neapolitan-style pizza doesn't have the same flavors that you would have with a baguette or country boule—notes of cinnamon or nutmeg. So I looked at 30 different types of flour—our flour now is grown all in California and milled in California from a farm 150 miles away.

AB: Thought about milling your own flour?
JM: A lot, but the problem is: to get some of the flavors in the flour, you need to age it, up to a few months. It would require me to do things I don't know much about. I fundamentally know how to do it, but I’ve never had my hands on it. Our's is a mix of red winter wheat and white winter wheat with a surprisingly high ash content and lower protein content. As much as the recipe is important, the method is more important. We do a very long fermentation. After mixing, we let it sit for about 24 hours, going in and out of the refrigerator, letting it sit for about an hour, then in the fridge to slow proof for 12 hours, then push it down and fold it. Folding it helps structure the dough. When you mix it, it’s a free radical and it’s growing in every different direction. Fold it like a letter to accomplish two tasks: one is teaching it how to grow upwards and, most importantly, two, is to continue the mixing process. As you would shape a boule or baguette, it’s pulling on itself. Let it sit for another 12 hours, remove it from the cooler, portion by weight into balls, and put them into their own individual containers.

When I researched making pizza and running a pizzeria, people put dough in proofing boxes—10 or 12 in there. When they used them, they pulled chilled dough out, stretched it and put it into a hot oven. It baffled me because I would never do that with a baguette...

AB: What kind of oven are you using?
JM: We don't use a wood-fire oven. Through my phase of getting away from the bells and whistles of fine dining, I wanted to be honest. A wood-fired oven is 850ºF to 900ºF for a traditional pizza. I tried our pizza in wood, gas, and electrical ovens. We cook our pizza at 525ºF—a much lower temperature. That's our style of pizza, more like cooking at bread temperatures than Neapolitan. We use a Bakers Pride and for my other bars we use ABS—an electric bread oven.

AB: How long have you been open now?
JM: We’ve been open three years. About a year ago we started talking about doing another one in Hollywood. I’d already planned to do the two in Chicago and they were about a year out, so we snuck this one in. Three restaurants in one year made me the most antisocial person in the world! I opened up two Stellas this year and a new concept called Summer House.

AB: Why go to a new concept? 
JM: I have severe ADD, it correlates to my cooking and creativity. Also, I have a donut place called Do-Rite Donuts. It took me a long time to get over the idea of making a chain of something. Hence every Stella looks different and the menu is a little different. The only real consistency is the three pizzas and the dough. Each has a chef. We all talk once a week on a conference call. We talk about what they want to cook and then I write and test the recipe and send them around. Each has a chef that has free-range over specials and seasonal menu items. One of my big things is I always like to collaborate and not just do it myself. 

AB: And Francis is your business partner in all this?
JM: Francis is the co-collaborator on Summer House and Do- Rite Donuts. We’re such good friends.
Good friends make good business partners. We both have our strengths. Where I fail, he succeeds and vice versa.

AB: How do you motivate your staff?
JM: I always tell them when they do something good. The biggest motivation for me is being a good leader and taking care of them and when they feel they can come to you with a problem—work related or personal—and you're there for them and actually care. Then people will follow you into any battle. They have to be as important to you as you are to them.

AB: What’s your rentention rate?
JM: I have a 90% retention rate over the past three years. I’m backed by Rich Melman of Let Us Entertain You. He personally supported the Do-Rite place and Let Us is the backing company for HR and payroll. The deal is, I'm really good at cooking and being creative as my strength. I'm really good at knowing what I'm good at. I used to be a huge asshole in fine dining, screaming, yelling things. Rich is the person who got me into therapy and helped me to be a better leader. He and I hit it off. I was supposed to work at Alinea, but I blew it off to work with Rich. He'll call me and beat me up some days or he'll call and congratulate me.