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Malody: Approach wood-fired ovens with realistic expectations

Malody: Approach wood-fired ovens with realistic expectations

Operators considering the addition of wood-fired pizza to their menus should have a realistic grasp of the commitment the item requires, said Karen Malody, a Seattle-based foodservice consultant. “When it’s done right, it’s a beautiful thing,” Malody said. “But operators cannot be naïve about what it takes to get it right.”

Aformer director of food and beverage and menu development for Starbucks Coffee Co., the 30-year industry veteran founded her own company, Culinary Options, in 1997. Her services include concept, product and menu evaluation, new product development, training, and leadership coaching. She has helped numerous clients define their concepts and menus.

Authentic wood-fired pizza can require a great commitment of labor, capital and training. What is the mind-set of the operator who succeeds at this?

Any operator who chooses this path does so, or needs to do so, from an essential passion for the authenticity of this method. Without this core passion and belief, the financial, operational, spatial, environmental and training requirements are not justified.

What are the initial steps that an operator should take?

First, ask if the integrity of the concept really warrants a wood-burning approach. Will it make the defining difference? Great pizza can be produced in gas and electric hearthstone ovens. Wood is not essential to making great pizza. Great ingredients, consistency of execution, good recipes and proper cooking—no matter the fuel source—are the keys.

What are the specific issues and challenges that must be faced?

One is workspace. Do you have space for the proper-size oven to execute the volume projections? You must know the menu to project the volume capacity of the oven floor accurately. Another issue is venting, which for a wood-burning oven is not inexpensive, especially if it involves several floors of a building. Often the venting costs more than the oven—by far. Wood, too, is a factor. You need a consistent, reliable source. It must be stored and dried properly. And it’s costly, too. That cost must be factored into food costs or else profitability can erode. Also figure in the cost of cleaning hoods and ducts, which is critical for fire prevention. Another skill set to consider is managing the fire. Feeding the wood properly is critical for a consistent oven temperature. Employees must be trained to turn, rotate, lift and monitor each pizza so that it cooks correctly. Finally, there’s environmental impact. Operators must be absolutely sure of the wood-burning codes in their area. It’s banned in some places. Even if it’s not, how will the vented smoke affect the neighbors?

Is it advisable to use a gas-assisted wood-burning oven, even though purists like the Verace Pizza Napoletana, or VPN, frown on it?

I’m a great believer in gas-assisted ovens. You can heat the hearth floor without using up wood. And you get the wood flavor without having to burn it exclusively. It also offers you flexibility if you decide that wood is not worth it. Although VPN, to date, will not approve gas-assisted technology, that may change in the future, given environmental codes.

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