Before he stepped behind the volcanic brick oven at Pizzeria Orso last fall, just after Will Artley left the place, chef Bertrand Chemel swears he had never made a pizza in his life. Which is why he wanted to start from the beginning, almost literally. He turned his attention to Naples, Italy, cradle of what many consider the world's best pizza.
As a classically trained chef who also leads the kitchen at 2941, which shares ownership with Orso, Chemel was essentially following protocol: You learn the basic building blocks and fundamental techniques before you put your own stamp on a dish. But Chemel was also following common sense. As a Frenchman, he wasn't about to presume knowledge about Neapolitan pizza.
"Being a real pizzaiolo, it's just not that easy," Chemel says, his words thick with Gallic vowels. "Just because I'm a chef and I can cook ingredients [doesn't mean] I can be a great pizzaiolo. That's why I wanted to go through the certification."
The results of Chemel's training in Neapolitan pizza have just come in: Two of his pies, the marinara and the margherita, were recently certified as authentic Neapolitan by VPN Americas. The certification places Orso in the same rarefied company as local Neapolitan pie-slingers 2 Amys, Pupatella and Il Canale. It's unclear whether Chemel is the first French native to oversee a pizzeria certified by VPN Americas. A call to the group was not immediately returned.
In a sense, the VPN certification satisfies an early passion for Chemel: Before he took over Orso, before he became executive chef at 2941, before he worked for Daniel Boulud and before he staged at Michelin-starred kitchens across Europe, a teenage Chemel toiled in a bakery in a small town outside of Vichy, France. His first job in the culinary world was at a place that worked with dough.
"I went there two years in a row in the summer and really liked that atmosphere," Chemel remembers, as he stands near the Forno Napoletano oven. "The only thing I didn't like was the lifestyle."
If the early morning hours dissuaded him from entering the baking business, Chemel has now, a quarter century later, returned to the world of leavened breads, although mostly in flatbread form.
His dough salutes the VPN rules: The chef uses ultra-refined "00" flour with a sourdough starter and sea salt (he relies on Caputo flour for now, but wants to experiment with other brands, much like chef Tony Conte at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana); he lets the dough rise for 24 hours in a temperature-controlled room before cutting and rolling it into balls for a second, shorter rise; he hand-forms the dough into pizza rounds no wider than 11 inches; and he cooks the pies in a wood-burning oven at a temperature no less than 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
Chemel originally wanted to chop his tomatoes by hand, using Ciao-brand imported DOP San Marzanos (the initials stand for "protected designation of origin," and the label is used to protect the integrity of Italian products). VPN leadership quickly put the kibosh on that practice.
"The guy is like, 'No, [use] just a food mill. Don't overwork it. It's just perfect. It's chunky. It's not pureed. It's not watery.'"
The Frenchman learned other rules along the way, too, whether they were spelled out or not. Like when baking a margherita pizza, you need to char the fresh basil leaves, but not too much. "They want some blistered [leaves]," Chemel says. "But they don't want the whole thing to be black." Same goes for the crust: Some spotting along the edges, but not an inner tube around your pizza.
One practice that Chemel won't follow comes at the end: He won't serve his pizzas whole, as is the custom in Italy.
"I would say 80 percent of the people want it cut," Chemel says. "They come here because we're doing Neapolitan pizza, but they're like, 'I don't care. I want it cut.' And we have a lot of Italian customers, and they want it cut."