Co. Chef Jim Lahey on Homemade Pizza and Infecting Himself with Hookworms


Jim Lahey revolutionized home bread making with the simple no-knead technique he perfected at the Sullivan Street Bakery. He then turned his attention to pizza, dishing up inventive pies at Chelsea pizzeria Co. And now you can make Jim’s pizza at home. He’s got a new cookbook out called My Pizza: The Easy No Knead Way to Make Spectacular Pizza at Home. We called him up to learn more about making pizza at home and ended up learning a hell of a lot more than we ever wanted to know about infecting oneself with hookworms.

I think people are intimidated to make pizza at home when it’s so easy to call for delivery. How easy is it to make pizza at home?

How hard or easy is it to boil an egg or cook it? I don’t think it’s more difficult than any other food people can process. When you make a steak or burger or roast a chicken, a certain set of things are useful to know. … Some people have prejudices of what they’re used to eating or seeing, whether it’s watching Melissa Clark [make pizza] on a JetBlue flight [television] or [eating at] their local pizzeria. When they go to make pizza, they’re going to emulate that. At the end of the day, you’ll enjoy the things based on experience. … I wrote my book for people to create their experience and open up the dialogue for that experience: how we make food and dressing a pie and cooking it. I can’t control their baggage, and that can be the standards they’re used to. There’s social discourse with food about how popularized food is by food blogs. Every assistant I have has a food blog. Food in its digital form is feeding the latest bubble, but the book I wrote is not trying to confront that, but to give people the basic tools to have fun and make pizza at home.

What’s the essential equipment people need to buy?

A good pizza stone. You can go online and find a kiln supply store and find a kiln tile you can cook on. You’ll want to season it first, though. Take a batch of dough and practice dough-making techniques and get it dirty and cook off anything that might not be nice in it. If you don’t have a good pizza stone, take a 12- to 14-inch Lodge cast-iron skillet or griddle and use that. And then you have to have a reasonably good but not great oven and know how your oven works. It’s a matter of looking around in your kitchen and having fun. Practice the thing that you’re making and look at the results. You can follow the recipe to the letter and be blown away because it exceeds expectations, or you can follow the instructions and not be blown away because it falls short of your expectations, but you won’t know until you try it out. The book really just wanted to open the dialogue.

A home oven isn’t as hot as a pizza one, though. How high do you need to go?

If you have the fancy equipment and gizmos like lasers you’re looking for up to 600 or greater, that’s awesome, but if not, that’s OK, too.

What’s the most popular pizza sold at Co.?

The Margherita, which, regardless, is ultimately the test. You couldn’t open a pizzeria and not have a good Margherita pizza. And the Popeye, our spinach pie.

How do you come up with the ideas for your toppings?

99.9 percent of all your ideas sound great and look good on paper. Well, maybe 95 percent. I’ll do this, I’ll do that, but usually they aren’t that interesting at least to inspire reproduction. However, I would say if the dish works well in pasta, then there’s a pizza equivalent out there. Lots of recipes I came up with are inspired by pasta. Or vice versa.

Any types of pizza you wouldn’t ever do?

I’m not suggesting barbecue chicken à la Spago, which to me is the height of culinary irresponsibility but fun for the hipster chef club. But then again the hipster chef crowd looks at people doing pizza as toilet paper and as an affront to cuisine. The hipster chef culture is at an identity crisis point between selling out and just doing what you love to do, which at the end of the day is what we should all be doing: doing what you love to do and having fun.

OK, so what I’ve really been wanting to ask you is about the hookworms that you revealed you infected yourself with in a New York magazine article.

Oh, follow-up! That coughing I have right now is the last of that syndrome. That’s when the worms I infected myself with became adults and got in my lungs and caused an irritation that resembles pneumonia. There’s inflammation with mucus and they got in the GI tract and small intestine. The reason I did this is because I hate taking medicine. As a 45-year-old guy, I had aches and pains in my joints and I had a history of asthma, which is considered to be autoimmune. It’s not a wheat allergy, but I’m kind of allergic to inhaling wheat, and I wanted to kind of see if I could find a therapy that could make my body happy. After I infected myself, I had the heebie-jeebies and had moments of regret: What did I do to myself? I had the same experience when I foraged for mushrooms in the woods and I saw ovolo mushrooms and I sautéed them and had them in pasta and after I thought, Oh, what if I’m mistaken and it’s a type of [poisonous] amanita. Either I’m really smart or a jackass.

How did you find out about this hookworm cure?

Radiolab. I love NPR. It’s the best, even in the digital age.

So did it work?

Since I’ve undergone treatment, I have had some of the weirdest side symptoms. I ate at a restaurant opening which will remain nameless and had the most bizarre food allergy. Remember that movie, Hitch? I had an allergic reaction similar to the one in that movie. I’d never had that reaction. That or they served me a cockroach or poison ivy.

Check back in tomorrow, when Jim discusses the parallels between fine arts and culinary arts.