The James Beard Awards are often referred to as the “Oscars of the food world,” and while Chicago chef Erling Wu-Bower has been nominated for three of them, he’s lost all three.
“I’m like Susan Lucci!” he jokes, referring to the soap opera star who didn’t pick up her first Emmy until she’d earned her 19th nomination.
At the Windy City’s Experimental Station, a space which Wu-Bower uses as a test kitchen and where he hosts pop-up dinners, he gives me a preview of the food that will end up on tables at his soon-to-open restaurant, Pacific Standard Time. There will almost certainly be more nominations in his future, but really, I just want to be there when the doors open.
PST’s opening will mark a big departure for the chef; he’s switching from jobs where he was a precision-cooking disciple to work with notoriously fickle wood-fired hearth and pizza ovens.
“I’ve done the precise thing,” he says, referring to sous vide cooking. “You embrace technology so as not to waste money.”
Wu-Bower was a devotee of chef Thomas Keller’s teachings in his landmark sous vide cookbook, Under Pressure. That kind of cooking played a big part in Wu-Bower’s career where he worked his way up through top-notch Chicago establishments like Avec, Publican, and Publican Quality Meats. He racked up those Beard Award nominations in the Best chef: Great Lakes category three years in a row for his work as chef de cuisine at Nico Osteria.
At Publican, he used sous vide for foods like pâté, terrines, and pork belly. The technique allowed him to nail dishes again and again, and it is forgiving enough that something could cook half-hour longer than planned and still taste great. Still, he had an itch to scratch.
“A hearth encourages conversation—you’re sitting around a fire, you’re having fun,” he says, making me think of exactly zero amazing conversations I’ve had with the gurgle of a sous-vide machine in the background. “There’s something innately good in burnt edges, the thin side of a steak, and the things that aren’t perfect. Cooking with fire is way harder, but it tastes better.”
To make amazing and consistent wood-fired food from the get-go, he’s leaning on two crutches: tons of practice, and a devoted application of the scientific method.
Wu-Bower gets up to stoke the flames of the Experimental Station hearth oven he’s using for his recipe testing until the hearth and pizza ovens at PST are ready to roll.
“This is the only oven I trust in Chicago,” he says. It’s a monster—big and beautiful, and there’s been a fire going inside it for hours.
I can’t help but notice a hairline crack that extends several feet across the front of the oven.
“That was me. That was the day I learned the thermostat was off by 400 degrees,” he says, estimating that it got up to around 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit when the fissure appeared
It was in this hearth that he and his partner in crime, Greg Wade, worked through what they call The Six-Week Pizza Dough Experiment.
Wade is the head baker at Publican Quality Breads, a current James Beard Award finalist in the national Outstanding Baker category, and Wu-Bower brought him in as part of his quest for pizza perfection.
The two of them explain that while a wood fire creates more variability in an oven, a dependable dough helps a chef control what’s happening. For as much as individuality is a romantic notion, if something is really good, customers don’t necessarily want change. In fact, if there’s change in the loaves he bakes at Publican Quality Breads, Wade hears about it.
“I get phone calls if the bread is not the same every time,” he says. “You’ve got to control fermentation, control hydration. If a new lot of flour comes in, the absorption rate might be off by a percentage, so I’ll increase the amount of water by about a percent. You build checks and balances so that chefs can recreate it every day.”
Wu-Bower and Wade wanted to come up with a better flavor and ideal texture for their pizza dough. For six weeks, they went full scientific method on it, tweaking one variable—type of flour, additional flour for more flavor, dough hydration, proofing times, or pre-fermentation—per week. One at a time, they sought incremental improvements before moving on to the next variable.
They got several weeks in before they realized they’d driven themselves down a dead end.
“We’d gotten too complex. We kept changing all these variables but I couldn’t get it consistent, let alone get it to where a sous chef could do it over and over again,” says Wade. “It’s got to be replicable for someone who’s not making it night after night.”
They backtracked, recalibrated, and focused, homing in on classic Caputo Americana flour with a little Spruce Farms wheat flour for extra flavor, then slowly introducing variables and retesting again and again. More than two months and 45 recipes after they started, they found what they wanted.
Wu-Bower works a dome of this dough into a disc and layers on toppings for what he refers to as his “mushroom pie.” It’s got stracchino cheese, cremini mushrooms, monster flakes of Parmesan, and, standing in for a more traditional chili oil, a brushing of bagna cauda made with olive oil, anchovy, garlic, lemon, and chives. On top, he sprinkles what’s essentially a dried XO sauce—smoked ham, dried scallops, dried shrimp, and aromatics—all cooked down in oil.
“We like to sneak in funky fish whenever we can,” says Wu-Bower, sliding the pizza into the hearth.
This would be the point where the purists might want to get off the ride, and that’s fine by me as long as I get their slices.
Set close to the oak embers in the 700-degree hearth, the dough crackles almost instantly as it settles on the oven floor. A few Parmesan snowflakes that have fallen over the edge sizzle for two seconds before they carbonize. Moments later, the dough begins to rise around the edge and the heat in the oven is intense enough that just a few seconds later, the part of the rim closest to the flame shows the desirable bubbles of char called leopard spotting. Using the peel, Wu-Bower spins the pizza for even color, then works it out toward the oven door where it’s cooler so that it cooks through without scorching.
As soon as the pizza comes out of the oven, in goes a dinged-up sheet pan with six pieces of cod marinated in the Shabazi blend concocted by NYC spice guru Lior Lev Sercarz, plus Wu-Bower’s addition of burnt Fresno chile, lemon, fish sauce, and roasted garlic. He nudges the pan toward the flame with a four-foot iron poker. Once cooked, each piece of fish goes on to crown a bowl of smoky oven-roasted vegetables. The flavors are further heightened by a ladleful of fumet made with fish heads, chives, onions, mushrooms, fish sauce, shiso, dashi, and a funky-spicy fermented condiment called yuzu kosho.
We sit and eat and talk by the fire and I have a bite of the pizza and a spoonful of that fumet and I see that these are the deep, thought-out, and well-balanced flavors of a chef who is opening his first place right when he should be. The PST team draws inspiration from what they call “California coast soul,” which sounds vague, but fish heads, fish sauce, fermented condiments, and Fresno chiles, all in one bowl make a very precise demand for all of your attention. Combining all of those ingredients are not woods you wander into without having not only memorized the map but internalized it.
A thousand things can go wrong when you open a new restaurant, but I don’t think that’s going to happen at Pacific Standard Time. In fact, my money’s on Wu-Bower walking off the stage with a Beard Award the next time he’s nominated.
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