When Pulino’s opens next Monday, it will doubtless draw a stampede of pizza obsessives intent on making their own pronouncements on the pies that emerge from the restaurant’s vast ovens. But while plenty of people associate Pulino’s pizzas with the restaurant’s executive chef, Nate Appleman, far fewer know that their development and execution has been in large part overseen by Beth Ann Simpkins and Ruth Kaplan, the heads of Pulino’s pizza program. Simpkins, who first worked with Appleman at San Francisco’s A16, may be new to the pressures of opening a New York restaurant, but she’s certainly well-equipped to do so: before coming here, she traveled to Japan to open A16’s Tokyo outpost. Simpkins found time last week to take a quick break from the Pulino’s construction zone to speak with Fork in the Road about what goes into heading a pizza program, which restaurants she’s looking forward to trying, and how living in a California sorority sparked a career epiphany.
So how’s it going?
It’s crazy! Actually, it’s going good. It’s kind of hard to work in the kitchen when it’s a construction zone: we’re training a whole bunch of pizza cooks and can’t get to the ovens until a certain time of day. We have two ovens, and we just opened both up for pizza, which we’ve been giving to the construction workers. We keep them happy.
You and Nate Appleman first worked together at A16 in San Francisco — how did you end up there, and what sort of culinary background do you have?
I’m from Santa Cruz. I was in college, getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and knew I wanted to study abroad. So I studied in Florence for whole year, and coming back made me realize I missed cooking and the culture. To tell you the truth, I moved back from Italy to a sorority house in Stockton, California, and when I that happened, I thought, oh my god, these girls think this is good food! It really bothered me, and I thought, this isn’t right. I immediately got involved in the Slow Food movement and things like that. I knew as soon as I graduated that I was moving to San Francisco and going to culinary school. A16 was my first job — I volunteered there while I was still in culinary school, once a week on Saturdays. I got to butcher a lamb that got me totally hooked. [Later] I did a culinary externship in France and ended up in a Michelin-rated kitchen there. It was fancy, fine-dining food, the complete opposite direction I wanted to go in. All I could do was think about A16.
What does the head of a pizza program do to prepare for the opening of a restaurant?
Product research. Some of it’s a lot of fun — I get to eat a lot of cheese and try different olive oils. I’ve also been playing around with the dough — I’ve been on a completely 100 percent carbohydrate diet since this process started. (Laughs) And then picking the tools we want to work with and training the staff. Since we’re here we actually get to be involved with the minor details — they’re installing marble shelves by the pizza stations and asked me, ‘can you reach this’ — it felt like they were customizing them to my reach.
Are Pulino’s pizzas at all similar to those at A16?
No, they’re completely different. Everything is pretty much different: the ovens, dough, choice of toppings. Ruth and I and Nate spent a lot of time together just on pizzas, and had a lot of other sous chefs [try them]. We’re a kitchen where everybody’s opinion matters, and when when we hired our line cooks we told them if you have an opinion, we want to hear it. Keith has also tasted the dough along the way. With the pizza toppings, some of the choices on the menu have been some of my ideas, and some of Ruth’s ideas.
Do you have a favorite?
So far, I don’t know. But there’s nothing like classic margherita — you can’t go wrong with that. And some of the egg pizzas. Some of my favorite pizzas are the breakfast pizzas, like the sausage pizza — it’s breakfast on a pie.
Does the blog and media hysteria surrounding the restaurant’s pizza affect your work at all?
No, it doesn’t. We read about it some of it and we laugh. There’s some pretty mean people out there that like to comment.
As the opening draws closer, do you have any jitters?
Of course. I’m getting more nervous, I think, now that I’m seeing it all. The kitchen is coming along and they’re finishing the ovens today. To see it and know what it’s going to look like, seeing the reality, it’s like, oh man, here you go. It’s more exciting than anything else.
Pulino’s pizza is going to be quite different than Neopoliltan pizza, right?
I’m a certified Neopolitan pizza maker — really, my whole background is Neopolitan pizza. So I had to throw that out the window. Neopolitan pizza cooks in an oven close to 800 degrees, and we’re not doing that. And we’re not using San Marzano tomatoes or double zero flour. When I was getting ready to come here, every time I saw [Nate], he kept saying, “we’re not doing Neopolitan, we’re not doing Neopolitan!’
That said, did you try a lot of the city’s pizzas when you were doing research for your own?
Me personally, no. I know that Nate has. But I love Motorino and Keste. But I can’t eat those now and compare them to ours; they’re just a completely different category. I love all diff types of pizza, like the big greasy slices.
Are San Franciscans as obsessed with pizza as New Yorkers are?
I’d say so. That same hype is very alive and present in San Francisco. And we definitely have our opinionated diners. At A16, you’d be standing making pizza with people at the counter asking you all these questions and timing how long it takes you to make it. It’s like, can’t you just sit down and enjoy it? And then the pizza comes and they’re touching the crust, ripping it apart, analyzing it. Nate’s goal is to come up with pizza that you just sit down and enjoy.
Before you came here, you opened A16 in Tokyo. Did you run into any difficulties as a young American woman being in charge of the kitchen?
I actually didn’t experience any within the kitchen, or have any problems being a female. I thought I would, but the fact was I actually had some major responsibility and was pretty much the voice of my company, and I guess that put me in a good position in that kitchen. But it was challenging in ways you can’t imagine until you’re actually there. I started taking Japanese in San Francisco. Because of the Japanese project, since I hadn’t been in a management role yet, Nate moved me to SPQR, where I was the sous chef. So I was taking Japanese classes up the street and learned vocabluary and things I needed to know. But once you actually get there you’re like, oh my god. In the kitchen for the first week and a half, it was just me, and the company realized we needed a full-time translator — it’s not time for Beth Ann to learn Japanese, it’s time to open a restaurant. I didn’t get the chance to learn the language as much as I’d hoped to, [but] I was able to catch typos in Japanese on the menu — like, this isn’t tomato ragu, this is an octopus-based sauce.
At least here, you can speak the language.
Not all the time — people might be speaking English, but there’s still a lot of language barriers. [Laughs]
What do you think of New York so far?
It’s cold. [Laughs] I’ve been here a couple of times. I think the most challenging thing was getting an apartment. My roommate is a childhood friend, and we got an apartment right away and honestly, since we started working, I haven’t done anything else. I’m excited to get settled down into the work schedule and start exploring the city. I got here in January, which is not the most social month.
Any restaurant’s you’d like to try?
I think I need to experience some good steakhouses. And I’d like to explore Chinatown a bit more. Honestly, I’d like to go out and eat some of the New York soba noodles. I haven’t had soba and that was my favorite thing to eat in Japan.