If you've ever thought of dropping it all and opening that restaurant you've always dreamt of, then get ready to feel some serious career envy. We sat down with Joe – the man behind authentic Neapolitan pizza joint, and Deliveroo exclusive restaurant – Crust Bros, to find out how he turned his pizza dreams into a reality.
"I started the business three years ago. It was the classic story of working a corporate job, trying to use my degree, but really my passion was in food. The more I played around with pizza, I thought I should learn more about it. I made the trip over to Naples and went all over Italy, trying to find all of the best pizzerias in the country."
"I was living the dream, basically. Eating lots of pizza – it doesn't get better."
If the idea of touring Italy to taste all of the best pizza on offer sounds like an incredible trip, that's because it was. "I ate good two to three pizzas every day. I was living the dream, basically. Eating lots of pizza – it doesn't get better."
It wasn't all a holiday though, it was a tour with a specific goal in mind. Where did he find the best pizza? "Gotta be in Naples. There was a pizzeria called Da Michele. It's classic – you queue for an hour to get a plastic seat and it's the rudest service you will ever have in your life. It's just, here's your pizza, here's your Peroni, enjoy. It's like 5 euros, it's amazing. As soon as I saw that I thought, I have to do this back in England, just with a smile."
Joe's obviously not a man for half-measures; " I came back, went in head first and bought the oven. It has to be a proper Neapolitan oven, to get the effect." The effect that he's talking about is the leopard-style spotting that you see around the edges of a Crust Bros pizzas. It's the way they like it in Naples, but we'll come back to that.
"We've done events where we've done 10 pizzas, and some where we've done 900."
The next step for Joe was to set up a stall at a Shoreditch food market. "For us, starting off with street food was the perfect way to test an idea, refine your product and get everything right. We've done events where we've done 10 pizzas, and some where we've done 900 pizzas. We've kind of done everything now, no matter what gets thrown at us we can get on with it."
So how do you go from working a graduate role in Ocado to "I was just trying to do something sensible first. I worked in kitchens since I was 13, so I always thought I would do that. But then you go through school and university, you get a job and you realise where your passion lies."
Next, we meet head chef Nabil, who had a very interesting journey into the business. "I used to work for an Italian company that delivered mozzarella – that's how I met Joe. I was a pizza chef before I came to the UK, but when I came I wasn't able to speak English very well. I thought it was such a cool idea for a business. He gave me a chance, I took the dough, and got to work. He was like, 'Wow.'"
"The first step is the dough, then the pizza itself is the second step…"
As a Neapolitan native himself, we asked Nabil exactly what makes the perfect pizza. The answer was inspiring and Italian in equal measure; "Passion. Without that you can't go ahead. You have to want to find out everything about pizza. It's all inside the dough – it's chemistry. What makes it light? What makes it taste better? When you start to study the flour and the yeast, you learn all of this stuff. The first step is the dough, then the pizza itself is the second step."
As any GBBO fan will know, the process is very scientific. "It's a different experience from something you would normally get in England. We prove our dough for at least 24, or as many as 72 hours, so it's super soft. It's got an almost beer-style taste to it – that develops over time. We shape it into balls, then we let it rise again. We take it out, slap it into a pizza base. Then we cook it up for 60-90 seconds in our oven. So the whole process is 48 hours, roughly. That's how it develops the flavour."
It's obvious that nailing the authentic, Neapolitan style cooking is very important to Joe. "When I was preparing to launch the business, I didn't have one of these ovens (he's referring to the cavernous pizza oven, that fits ten pizzas at a time, at the centre of the kitchen). I thought I'd nailed my recipe, and that it was perfect. Then I got my first proper Neapolitan oven and cooked it up, and it was just a completely different beast. The first time you try to cook something in it, you've got 60 seconds to get it right. It's great fun, but it's a learning experience."
"There's the dough and three other ingredients, there's not much to hide behind there."
That dedication to doing everything in the right way applies to the ingredients too. "Our philosophy is that quality ingredients speak for themselves. Take our Margherita, there's the dough and there's three other ingredients. There's not much to hide behind there. We use the best mozzarella, which comes from Campagna every day. We use basil from Italy and our secret tomato sauce. Then we bake it for 90 seconds, at about 500 degrees.
"That's how you get the quintessential, almost leopard-spot pattern around the crust, one of the hallmarks of Neapolitan pizza. It's nice and thin on the base, not like a crispy pizza – it will never be like that because of the flash cooking process. It's more of a knife and fork eating job, it's a bit messy and that's one of the beauties of it. If you've got tomato on your face afterwards, you know you've had a decent Neapolitan pizza."
If Einstein was right, and success is 1% talent and 99% hard work, then nailing Neapolitan pizza is 1% chemistry and 99% love of the game. "In the early days I would get maybe three hours sleep over Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I used to make the dough in my kitchen, so the first base we had was my studio flat. Half of our kitchen was a giant dough mixer, we'd be selling pizza from eleven in the morning until eleven at night. Then I'd go home and start up the mixer for dough for two days' time."
"You have to love what you do. I stood on the street for three years."
Joe leaves us with a word of advice for aspiring food vendors. "You have to make sure you can get your speed down. Competition for spaces is really high, so you need to be able to take your chance, and make sure you can make a lot of portions really quickly."
And how could we discuss pizza without returning to that other p-word? Passion. "The other thing is, you have to love what you do. I stood on the street for three years, if you're not passionate about your product, you're the one serving it, the customer will tell you if you don't like it. You need to tell the story as well, because that's part of it."
We couldn't agree more. That passion really comes through in the way that Joe and Nabil talk about pizza, and in the way that it tastes. We spent an hour with them, and we almost feel like dropping it all and starting our own food stall. For a piece of Italian flavour that you can't find anywhere else – the Crust Bros are your guys.