Travel & Food

Bradford Kent Kneads Art & Science Together on 3rd Street

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Bradford Kent’s much-anticipated Olio Pizzeria opens its doors to the public tonight. But I was lucky enough to have been there last night for a special pre-grand-opening celebration, where I got to meet Brad, and sample some of his artisanal fare.

As you approach Olio Pizzeria you’ll first notice the clean scent of burning olive wood, which seems to cover the corner of 3rd and Crescent Heights like an invisible security blanket. But inside the air is clear and cool – a detail made all the more surprising when you notice the thousand-degree wood-burning oven blazing just a few feet from the door – perhaps your first clue that Olio Pizzeria is not a typical pizza joint.

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If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of a wood-burning oven, fear not. Brad will happily refer you to an EPA study reporting emissions from proper wood-burning ovens to be negligible at worst. A wood burning stove? Now that’s a different story. But Brad’s wood-burning oven works, as he likes to say, like a catalytic converter. The oven is so hot that it practically neutralizes the wood smoke before it has a chance to rise from the burning embers and escape into the atmosphere.

As it turns out, this oven is one of the more environmentally-friendly, energy-efficient cooking devices available, retaining its heat for days. Before last night, Brad hadn’t fired the oven since Monday. But when he came in Thursday morning, the oven’s interior temperature had fallen to a cool two-hundred degrees. That’s a big drop from a thousand degrees, but to retain even that much heat after two and a half days without fuel is impressive, to say the least.

The majority of the hot items served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Olio Pizzeria will be cooked in this oven. And to give you a sense of just how efficient the system is, the breakfast items will be cooked using only the residual heat from the night before; very little heat energy goes to waste. And even after twelve hours of inactivity, the oven’s interior temperature never drops below five-hundred degrees.

So where did Brad find this magical oven? Is it the invention of some NASA genius? The next evolutionary stage in cooking technology? Not quite. It’s a Valoriani – or as it’s called in North America, a Mugnaini – a simple wood-burning oven that continues to be manufactured at the Refrattari Reggello in Tuscany as it has been since the end of World War II. So while it may seem like space-age technology, it actually predates the microwave. But it’s quicker, with each pizza taking just three minutes to bake.

And if that’s not enough to assuage your eco-guilt, all the wood Brad uses comes from agricultural trimmings produced right here in California. So not only is the oven clean burning, but it’s local burning, too. And despite the oven acting like a natural catalytic converter, Brad’s added a smog filter just to be safe. But it looks like he’s added a lot more than that. At eight hundred and sixty square feet, the restaurant space isn’t exactly small, but between the kitchen, the oven, and the bar, very little room is left for seating. And the second story seating area – which would more than double the restaurant’s capacity – isn’t a seating area at all, but a space wholly devoted to the oven’s massive ventilation system, which looks like something extracted from the guts of the International Space Station – not the trappings of a 3rd Street pizzeria.

But the sci-fi undercurrent of Olio Pizzeria – which seems to run through the restaurant like the Wizard of Oz, half-hidden behind the curtain of standard kitchen accoutrement – doesn’t end there. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Brad went on to earn an advanced degree in food science from Cal State Long Beach before going to work for ConAgra, the research labs for the Department of Defense, and other food laboratories across the country. Brad is a food scientist, and his approach to cooking inevitably reflects that.

And perhaps nowhere is Brad’s science background more apparent than in his dough. Unlike most pizzaiolos who utilize one type of dough, Brad uses three – fermenting each at a different temperature for a different length of time. When the three doughs are ready, he mixes them together at a specific ratio to give the pizza crust a unique flavor and texture. Only if it’s done exactly to Brad’s specification will he think it’s right. And it is right – more than right. You might even say it’s perfect. It’s certainly complex; at once light and dense, crispy and chewy, dry and moist – the dough itself would make a satisfying meal, leaving the sauces, cheeses, and toppings aside.

With all the science involved in Brad’s cooking, I asked his former colleague Robert Danhi – brother of The Grilled Cheese Truck’s Dave Danhi – and himself an accomplished chef, CIA graduate, food writer, and laboratorian, if what Brad was doing here could be called “molecular gastronomy”.

“Molecular gastronomy comes after what we do,” Danhi said, explaining that the term denotes a fancy form of culinary deconstruction, and a variety of techniques fine chefs employ to play with diners’ expectations while showcasing their skills in the kitchen. But what Brad’s doing is more fundamental. “We want to understand the science of what’s happening on the street,” Danhi said, adding that the purpose is not to reinvent, or dress up, or deconstruct, but to contemplate what’s already out there – and determine how to recreate it more perfectly. Where molecular gastronomists use their understanding of food science to mystify, food scientists use it to demystify.

And that’s exactly what Brad is doing at Olio Pizzeria: using his hands, traditional techniques, simple tools, and quality ingredients to create food that is satisfying and delicious. He’s not reinventing pizza; he’s reintroducing pizza, with an eye for the microscopic details that elude most other chefs and pizzaiolos. And it pays off. Every one of the pizzas I sampled last night – made by hand right before my eyes – tasted like it came from a dedicated craftsman, not a skillful magician.

And though the pizzas I sampled were all well-executed, the real treat was the savoy cabbage pizza. It won’t be on tonight’s menu, but when it does arrive, look out. Made with spicy housemade chicken fennel sausage (no pork), with fire-roasted tomatoes, mozzarella, Irish cheddar, Grana Padano, and savoy cabbage – “cut think but cooked thoroughly” – the pizza is everything a pizza should be: piled high with juicy ingredients, variegated with exciting textures, and bursting with flavor. You might not think cabbage and pizza belong together, but this pie will make you think again.

Yet after all of Brad’s accomplishments in the kitchen, he sometimes has trouble with the little things. “Espresso is the hardest thing I’ve ever made,” Brad said, going on to list all the minute details that make or break the perfect cup – things most people don’t even think about when pressing the start button on the espresso machine. Because to Brad, if it isn’t perfect, it isn’t right. But even as he’s rigorously applying science in the kitchen, and quietly obsessing over the smallest details, he never reduces food to something clinical – never doing with a machine what he can do with his hands. And it makes me think we could use more chefs like Bradford Kent.

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