After six years of meticulously crafting sophisticated dishes at Marche in Menlo Park, Chef Howard Bulka turned his back on that last year.
He walked away — for the lure of pizza.
Bulka, 50, is still a partner in Marche. But his passion, energy, and creativity aren’t focused on high-end dining anymore. After years of working at white-table-cloth restaurants, Bulka has refocused his sights on down-home eating. It’s all about pies, Pecorino, peppers, and pancetta now.
Howie’s Artisan Pizzeria, presently under construction, is expected to open in the Palo Alto Town & Country Village this summer. For those keeping track, it’ll be in good company next to Sur La Table and two doors down from Kara’s Cupcakes.
Bulka, who lives in Redwood City with his wife and their 7-year-old son, proudly showed off the site to me, with its beamed ceiling, and tiered, 50-seat dining room. He pointed to where the gas oven will be installed to cook the pizzas that will be topped with his own housemade sausage and mozzarella, as well as Fra Mani artisan salumi, and Florida Gulf shrimp. And don’t forget the Straus soft-serve ice cream that will be swirled inside home-made waffle cones.
We talked about why this former executive chef of Silks in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, who had cooking stints at La Toque in the Napa Valley, Square One in San Francisco, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, got so seduced by flour and water.
Q: This is too funny, but you and I share something in common. We both received economics degrees from San Francisco State University. Of course, I never ended up using mine, opting to use my journalism degree instead.
A: Here’s something even funnier. I started as a journalism major in college. I wrote for the high school newspaper. But in college, I lasted all of three days doing it. I really can’t write. It’s a horrible chore.
In high school, you might get two weeks to write a story. In college, they sit you down at a typewriter and tell you that you have 15 minutes to write something. It was never going to happen.
I went from that to something really practical. (laughs) That was another huge mistake. Economics is not practical.
Q: So in this day and age, with our generation experiencing the likes of an economy we’ve never witnessed first-hand before, you don’t ever regret you didn’t become an economist?
A: Sometimes I regret I wasn’t a venture capitalist. (laughs)
In my senior year in college, I just knew I wanted to be a chef.
Q: You’re not antsy about opening a restaurant in this sickly economy?
A: I’m not scared. Because of the location, and the type of restaurant I’m doing, I think the economy will actually work in my favor. If people are indeed trading down, I think I’d be a good trade-down option.
Q: So we have David Chang in New York going from working at Café Boulud to doing modern Korean street food at his mini Momofuku empire. We have Dennis Leary in San Francisco leaving the elegant Rubicon to open his own little diner, Canteen, and an even teenier sandwich shop, the Sentinel. Now, you. Why are so many fine-dining chefs turning to super-casual instead?
A: Part of it is the economy. Clearly, you’d be foolish to open a fine-dining restaurant now or next year, as these things tend to run in 10-year cycles.
It’s also changing tastes. Someone once said to me that the more sophisticated one becomes, the simpler your tastes become. The older I get, the more enamored I am of finding that great bowl of noodles or that great pizza, not some great foam.
I know how to poach veal breast for 36 hours or how to foam any liquid. But it’s not where my passion lies. It’s not what I want to eat.
Today, there’s a lot of technique and a lot of composition on the plate. I like to do simple things impeccably well.
Q: Why did you decide in college that you wanted to be a chef?
A: Cooking had always been a hobby. As a kid, I made my own lunch. I’ve always liked to work with my hands.
When I was still in college, I’d walk around San Francisco, walk into kitchens, and ask to speak to the chef. I’d ask the chef how you become a chef, and what it takes. They all said it takes 10 years, the money stinks, and don’t go to culinary school unless someone else pays for it.
One day, I was walking down Union Street, and I saw a help-wanted sign on a restaurant, Bistro Les Halles. I was 21 years old. I asked the chef how he became a chef. He said, ‘Come work for me. You can start at the bottom.’ And that’s where I began. Eight years later, I was the chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and I got a call from someone who asked me how one becomes a chef. I told him the same advice that was given to me: Don’t go to culinary school unless someone else pays for it. And I also added, ‘Don’t pursue it unless you’re passionate about it.’
From the day I stepped into a professional kitchen, I loved it. I loved everything about it- – the smells, the sounds. I still do.
Q: Why is artisan pizza such a huge trend now?
A: Pizza is the third most popular food in the country after hamburgers and French fries. Pizza is adored around the world. You don’t have to convince people to eat pizza.
But a handful of chains represent 50 percent of all pizza in America. They’re merchants of crap. I don’t want to eat it. I don’t want my kid to eat it.
Q: What’s the best pizza you’ve had?
A: Frank Pepe’s in New Haven. The clam pizza was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I ooohed and ahhhed my way through it.
Q: What will your pizza be like?
A: It’ll be from the New Haven school. I believe pizza should travel well, be something you share, and something sold by the slice. Neopolitan-style dosen’t lend itself to that. I want to sell my pizzas in only one size, because size affects baking time, and the proportion of crust to center. The perfect size is just enough for two people. I want to apply the artisan sentiment to East Coast pizza.
Q: So how did you go about perfecting your pizza recipe?
A: I haven’t perfected it yet. Don’t tell my partners. (laughs)
I have made pizzas, and I’ve cooked at Italian places. But I’m a firm believer that you can’t cook the pizza you’re going to do until you’re in the space. I have a vision of what I want the product to be. It’ll just be a process of getting in there for a few weeks, and making a lot of bad pizzas before I perfect it.
Q: Is it true that your Mom was none too pleased when you told her you wanted to open a pizza joint?
A: My Mom’s whole thing is security. The fact that I was a chef to begin with is something she’s probably not OK with either.
I’m the only professional cook in my family. But my Mom is a great cook, a great old-world cook. My favorite thing that she makes is blintzes. She makes them from scratch with farmer’s cheese. On a Sunday afternoon, they’re just unbelievable.
Q: You continue the Sunday brunch tradition of your Mom’s, where you put out a spread of cold cuts, lox, and bagels at home every week?
A: Sunday is a day you don’t do anything. You should just keep it simple. We always did this for Sunday brunch. We all gathered around for it. It was a great way to bring family together.
Q: So your other hobbies are reading, gardening, and wood-working? What are your favorite books?
A: I read a lot of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Q: What do you grow in your garden at home?
A: Right now, I’m harvesting beets, carrots, and snap peas.
Q: Do you still do wood-working?
A: I put that aside. My dream is to retire with a wood shop in my home. But it requires so much time. You can’t do that and open a restaurant at the same time.
I’ve built patio furniture, countless shelves at home, and toys for my son, Louis.
Q: What pizza do you like?
In New Haven, I like Pepe’s and Sally’s.
Q: Your all-time favorite topping?
A: Sausage. Absolutely. Spicy Italian fennel-style is just yummy.