“I’ve really come to love the pepperiness, the spiciness, the bitterness of weird weeds,” Sarah Minnick says in the beginning of her new Chef’s Table episode. The audience watches her trudge through her family’s garden, clipping flowers for her next pizza. “It’s very magical when you can just go into your yard and see stuff that’s popping up everywhere, and you’re just like, ‘Guess what? We’re going to eat that for dinner.’”
Minnick, one of six chefs to appear in the newly released Chef’s Table pizza season on Netflix, is — in the perspective of many — one of the authors of what we see as Portland pizza: sourdough pies topped with seasonal ingredients, using flours made with Oregon-grown grains. Her restaurant, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, has become a destination for her pizzas, all made with five Camas Country Mill flours, topped exclusively with produce from Pacific Northwestern farmers. It isn’t a place for a slice of pepperoni; instead, pies come topped with summer chanterelles or fresh fenugreek, edible flowers or sprigs of purslane.
Before she became a celebrated pizzaiola, however, she was a fine arts student, working in her college cafe. When she opened Lovely Hula Hands in 2003, her boyfriend was the chef, and she focused on the front of house. In her Chef’s Table episode, viewers see how she taught herself how to make pizza and developed her passion for wild, distinctive, and hyper-seasonal Oregon produce. Eater chatted with Minnick to talk through her career, the show, and what it means to build a restaurant from the ground up.
Eater: My first question, because I truly cannot stop thinking about it: Is that really your garden? It’s huge.
Sarah Minnick: So there was a Polish woman who lived on our block, and she had a huge garden. And then when she died, her nephew came and knocked on my door to see if I would just buy the house right away because he was visiting from Poland for the weekend. So we just bought it with all the contents. Anyway, she had this huge garden with one chicken, and all she grew were potatoes. So the garden is intact, but that was many years ago now — it’s really fertile because that’s all she ever did there. It’s essentially my mom’s yard, but we grow stuff there for the restaurant and ourselves.
Watching this was really a lovely dive into a side of your life that many Portlanders may not know unless they’ve been following you for years — you originally wanted to be a painter and went to college for art. How does that side of you emerge in your approach to food?
I’ve always been a very visual person, so I did go to school for painting. I’ve seen food that way ever since I first started cooking: the opportunities there to make sure it looks beautiful. I think it’s important that food is delicious, too; sometimes people will sacrifice flavor and go, “Let’s just make it pretty.” A lot of times you can see food that’s ripe, that’s delicious, food that’s going to make sense together, and you have the opportunity to do both. That’s been easy for me, to make sure they work together on the pizza. It’s just another outlet of that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be painting, drawing, sewing. It just happens that the best way for me to do that is through cooking. It took me a while to figure that out.
Something that also came into more focus for me while watching this episode is that your story is somewhat the reverse of many chef-owners: You were an owner first, and had to teach yourself how to be a chef. Talk to me about that process. What are we not seeing in the show that was a part of that story?
I always loved working in restaurants, but I thought, Oh, I better go get a real job, I need all the benefits. But I wanted to have a creative career, and I knew I loved working in restaurants. We had this opportunity to open this restaurant, and it became clear that my sister and I were good at it, but the cooks kept leaving. It kind of fell to me, after being open for years, having chefs rotate through the door. I was like, “I better learn at least some of this because I want to have influence on the menu,” and when I would work with the chef, sometimes they’d be like, “You know what you want, but like, you want me to execute it. And, you know, I don’t really want to execute your vision.”
So we opened Lovely’s, and I had someone that made pizzas for the first two years, who was like a family friend. I did the salad menu and executed that, and I also made the ice cream, and I also waited tables. But then the pizza guy moved on, and I was like, “Oh, crap.” I didn’t know how to make pizza at all. I got the Tartine Bread book, and he gave me two weeks’ notice, so I had to jump in, make it work. But it turns out that I really loved it, and I was good at it. So I just took off with that and was like, “All right, I’m the chef.” That was a nice surprise, and it took the pressure off the idea that you’re always going to have chefs coming and going, which caused a lot of stress.
The show does a good job of illustrating the time you spent trying to fine-tune your crust recipe. What do you look for in a good crust?
Somewhere in that Tartine Bread book they say, “Pizza dough is just bread dough; you just make pizza out of it.” I switched from a 100 percent white flour dough to a whole wheat sourdough, and I just had to struggle with it. The hydration always changes, just because we use so much fresh flour and flour that’s not standardized. The flours from Camas Country Mill change, so we have to roll with that. But generally, there are five flours in our dough. So what I look for in pizza dough is that it’s similar to a good loaf of bread. Sometimes when we get press, or people hear that we’re the “best pizza in the country,” people will ask for “extra crispy,” and I’m like, “What the heck?” I just let them know it’s bread dough. It’s not just crispy; it’s a lot of different things. I look for a little sourness, a lot of flavor. It should be crispy on the outside, as far as there being an actual crust to break into, and then there’s an inside that’s a little bit more like bread dough.
In previous conversations, we’ve talked about how you want to deepen our understanding of what seasonal cooking has become. How has your relationship to seasonal cooking evolved since you first started making pizzas?
When we first opened Lovely Hula Hands 18 years ago, we didn’t work with any farmers. My boyfriend was the chef and we had a pretty fanciful menu that was all different kinds of things, like Thai food, Southern food — whatever he wanted to cook. But when we moved up the street and Troy Maclarty was the chef, he was from Chez Panisse and he started working with farmers. That was like 14 years ago; there weren’t that many farmers who had relationships with restaurants. But they would quit farming in the winter and there was no year-round farmers market, so there was just no produce from November until March. So we used a produce company to fill in the gaps.
Eventually, we started having a year-round farmers market, and a lot more farmers started making deliveries directly to restaurants. At that point, I just cut off the produce company, we just went with farmers and the farmers market. That means that stuff is limited. In the winter, you have to make sure you put up enough stuff, you have to guess just how many thousands of pounds of tomatoes you’ll need to make it through. But pizza is a great medium for that because it is pretty simple. If we run out of parsley, we’re just out of it; we have to be creative with something else.
Something I found particularly interesting in the episode was the way you brought in the influence of the Culinary Breeding Network — how has your relationship with those farmers and seed breeders changed the way you cook, or how you develop your pies?
What Lane [Selman] does at Culinary Breeding Network is that she brings chefs and farmers together so farmers can figure out what chefs want. It’s more about building direct relationships between chefs and seed breeders and farmers, making those connections so that when you’re serving something or cooking something, you feel more invested and connected to it. I like to go to the market, I like to see what people are growing, and I don’t want to be in the position of telling people what to grow. To me, it’s a challenge to get things to work that way. It’s something we keep in mind in the kitchen at Lovely’s.
In the episode, there was a serious emphasis on this DIY style of restaurant that I think many people associate with a younger Portland — this Goodwill-furnished restaurant, in your words, that has no startup money. As it becomes more expensive and harder to staff restaurants, do you think that’s something people can still do here?
I’d like to think so, because the alternative is pretty bleak. But there is a certain misery to doing it that way. We all worked for pennies way back — restaurants were not well-paid jobs. I wouldn’t go back for that, for me or for my employees. I’ve been through enough to not want to do it again, but also I hate to think that it’s gone. You do have to be young enough and willing enough to go for it. But now people have noticed Portland, and people are willing to invest in people’s ideas. It’s just different. It’s not good to have debt and investors trying to pull out some sort of profit; that would be miserable, too. We pay people more, we charge more, and it’s much better, I think.
The full season of Chef’s Table: Pizza is now available on Netflix. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.