Interview: Ben Burakoff of Pizza 2000

If you’ve been following us for a while now, you would know that much of what we do revolves around food and drink. We love a good rye (Bulleit to be exact) a great brew (Hardywood is most seen around the office), and if you’ve ever been to a Ledbury party you would know that the food is never an afterthought. So when we caught wind of pizza pop-up dinners (mysteriously named Pizza 2000) at our favorite local bakery Sub Rosa our interests were piqued.  The Pizza 2000 dinner’s are elusive – usually only advertised via a solo Instagram post or word-of-mouth – and often benefit a local charity or business in need. We wanted to get to know the mastermind behind the ingenious idea, so when Pizza 2000 founder Ben Burakoff invited us into the bakery for pizza and conversation we invited along talented local photographer Kate Thompson to document the whole thing. Here we talk about The Food Network, how The Cheesecake Factory left an indelible impression, and transcendent bread experiences.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a baker at Sub Rosa Bakery in Church Hill. I’ve been cooking professionally for about 8 or 9 years. I grew up outside of Boston and moved to New York City in 2006 without a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I had romanticized the city a lot from books and movies that were close to me, and from stories about heroes of mine who had lived there. I’d been spending most of my spare time cooking recipes from one of the Mario Batali cookbooks, and for a couple years had been watching endless amounts of Molto Mario, Iron Chef, $40 a Day with Rachael Ray, Unwrapped with Marc Summers, and this one really great show with this west coast guy with long hair who would cook straight out of his pantry. Every show was set up like he decided what he was going to make at the last minute; like, “Oh, I have this risotto here. That will go great with those wild mushrooms we found this morning.” But I really bought into it. He always looked so good and was really calm and organized. You knew he would be really good in emergencies. I think I wanted to be like that guy the most. That’s been pretty much my goal since I started cooking.

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Why were you so intent on working at Sub Rosa?

I met Evin (co-owner of Sub Rosa) at a bakery we worked at together in Brooklyn, and once she got closer to opening Sub Rosa I sent her an email asking if they might be looking for a vagabond baker. I really wasn’t learning how to make bread in New York. Most of the bakeries are high production, with each piece of the process split among many different people, so it’s kind of like flipping open a book and just reading any random ⅕ of it. And that aside, we weren’t making the kind of bread that got me so into it in the first place.

I came down to visit about a week before they opened. Evrim was milling grain as soon as I got there and explaining everything to me through a face mask. I could see actual wheat berries flowing down between these two grinding stones, going through a sifter, and coming out into my hands as fine flour. For someone who’d been searching for a rough understanding of the breadmaking process, it was mindblowing.

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They took me to Peter Chang’s that night. It’s so unassuming – it could be a Chinese buffet place. But then you taste the food and you’re completely transported. The whole weekend was like that. I spent the next day shaping bread with Evrim and the two bakers working with him, and painting the inside of the bakery. The feeling was so positive. I really can’t describe it well enough. Evin took me to Byrd Market that afternoon, and that night Evrim made rye pasta from flour he had just milled, I made a sauce in the oven, and Evin made a salad. She’s still the master of salads. Mistress? Master? It was so wonderful. It’s kind of embarrassing to share this in some way cause it feels like I’m talking about a love affair or something.

That night I told Evrim if there was an opportunity then I would love to come down, and on Christmas day I got an email from Evin offering for me to come work at Sub Rosa. Best Christmas present. Ever. (Even though I’m Jewish.)

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What’s your first memory of food?

I remember visiting my grandmother in Canada when I was around six or seven and being blown away by eggs benedict and also french fries with malt vinegar.  Around the same age I remember being at a friend’s birthday party. There was a big buffet spread set up in the backyard, with snacks and dips on cocktail tables. I sat down next to a very large bowl of potato chips and started just eating, and eating, and eating. Eventually my parents had to step in and take the chips away.

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What draws you to baking bread?

What drew me to bread initially was wanting to make pizza, and wanting to learn how to make a really delicious dough. But growing up I never had any experience or familiarity with the type of bread I make now, and I didn’t eat the way I eat now where bread plays a much bigger part. I remember being in the CVS parking lot with my mom and having a loaf of Sunbeam white bread on my lap. That was the bread that everyone had in their house.

I had a surreal experience in 2011 visiting my sister in San Francisco. I’ve had a lot of surreal experiences there actually, it’s a really bizarre and foreign place to me. My sister lived a block away from this famous bakery, Tartine, and when we walked past it there was a huge line out the door and partially down the block. I had never seen anything like that at a bakery. I peeked inside and there was a very large man, probably 300 pounds, sitting down by himself, tearing through a whole loaf of bread and rocking his head back and forth in a kind of disbelief at how good it was. He was completely transported. The bread must have been THAT good.

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Soon after that I found out as much as I could about naturally fermented bread and started baking at home and at work as often as I could. I love the physical process of making bread, but beyond that what I love the most is how accessible good bread is. It’s visceral the way music is, so there doesn’t need to be a special context or background to understand it. You just react. Tasting it hits in a very deep place, and there’s something universal there.

Sub Rosa works with heirloom grains – can you tell us as little bit about the process of sourcing and baking them.

Seeing so many different wheat’s side by side has taught me the huge variability not only from one variety to another, but from harvest to harvest and region to region. Growing up buying AP flour from the grocery store I would just see the brand names, which were always the same from year to year. Each wheat has its own color, flavor, size, smell, and baking characteristics. It forces you to pay attention and to be adaptive.

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Sourcing has been an ongoing process that Evrim continues to pursue. This year we have Keen Bell Farms growing four different varieties of wheat for us in Rockville, VA, and William Hale in Louisa County growing a corn native to Virginia called Bloody Butcher as well as heirloom rye. Evrim met William a few years ago at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference and they pursued growing Bloody Butcher together.

When did you become food-obsessed?

When I was younger my interest in food came from tasting something that I loved and wanting to experience that again, as soon as possible, over and over. I was the same way with music, where I would discover a song or an album that I loved and listen to it on repeat for weeks. With music that led to getting a guitar and learning how to play my favorite songs and practicing them over and over, and with food it meant I ate a lot and was really chubby. Most of the stuff I was really excited about eating was from chain restaurants and I would beg my parents to take me back. When I was thirteen I ate the same thing at the Cheesecake Factory at least once every week for a year, which was Tex Mex Egg Rolls with avocado dipping sauce and the Sante Fe Salad with extra cilantro dressing on the side. It was SO good and SO consistent. It was always the exact same every week. I really don’t know how they do it and it’s probably best not to ask.

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What inspires the menu for Pizza 2000? Seasonal ingredients, pop culture happenings, etc?

Usually the menus are inspired by whatever Tomten Farm have at the time. I obviously have a soft spot in my heart for chain restaurants and junk food, so the ideas that come into my head first are things like “unlimited salad and bread sticks” or “sour cream and onion potato chips” when I know garlic and onions are in season.

Mostly I’m trying to make sure the dough is as good as it can be, and when that happens it almost doesn’t matter what’s on top in a certain sense. Whatever the menu is and even when it sounds sort of ridiculous, I’m trying to make good pizza that people feel good about while they’re eating it and after. Evrim and Evin’s dad talks about The Second Meal: “There’s the first meal, which is when you’re eating it, and then there’s the second meal, after you’ve eaten it.” We’re trying to make two back-to-back good meals.

Pizza 2000-0018

What are you working on now? Any exciting projects in the works outside of Pizza 2000?

We have a bunch of things that I’m excited about, but I don’t want to jinx them. Right now I’m most excited about my garden. I’ve wanted to learn about gardening since I moved to Church Hill two years ago so it’s kind of a dream come true.

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 What is your greatest extravagance? (Editor’s note: We will ask each interview subject a selection of questions from the Proust Questionnaire.)

Daydreaming and overthinking, followed by Icelandic chocolate from Whole Foods and olive oil from oliveoillovers.com.

What is your motto?

“Wow.”

What is the quality you most like in a man?  

An understated or playful humor.

Photography by Kate Thompson. Follow her on Instagram here

2 comments

  • This is a great interview with lovely photos! Just one thing – Bulleit Rye (also my favorite) is not a bourbon, it’s a straight rye. Feel free to not post this comment, just wanted to let you know. 🙂

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