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Introspection is good, right? But I probably spend way too much time having thoughtful internal debate about things like, “Is it possible to make a banh mi pizza?” Or, “Is there a place for leftover shrimp and andouille gumbo on a pizza, or will it require a spoon?” “What about a deconstructed clam chowder pizza?”
I haven’t done the banh mi pizza yet. But I have tried the other two, and I can say they were moderately successful. But there’s a man whose pizzas are over-the-top inspiring. They make me consider pushing the limits of what “belongs” on a pizza.
There’s a Facebook group called “Homemade Pizza Hangout.” It’s what you’d expect. All kinds of people are sharing photos of their homemade pizzas there. Some are glorious. Some are the beginner’s amoeba-shaped pizzas that we all make at the beginning. Many pizzas look like mine, meaning red sauced, round and competent.
But one day, I was stopped dead in my scrolling: the pizza was breathtaking. It was artful. It was glorious. I wanted to try it, knowing full well it would taste transcendent and unlike anything that I know and love as pizza.
It was a tuna poke pizza. Please know right away that there was no cheese or tomato sauce. There was a vivid, extreme closeup photo of this concoction. We’re talking chunks of deep, red tuna steak, bright red cherry tomatoes halved, furikake, crescent-sliced sweet onions, bright white and bright green scallions sliced on the diagonal, pine nuts, bright green, diagonal-sliced serrano peppers, all of it glistening with soy sauce and sesame oil.
There was also a hashtag: #WillThereBeAngryItalians. It made me laugh. The images made me hungry. I couldn’t stop looking as much as I wanted to look away and move on.
I reached out to the creator of this masterpiece, Tuan Tran. His work is so elevated, I really wanted to know more about what inspires him and what drives him. Chef Tuan lives in Miami Beach, where he runs a food truck called FAT TACOS. He also does a pop-up for pizzas.
I asked him what inspired his pizza quest, and he said, “The lack of good pizzas in Miami is the biggest source of inspiration. And also the art and craftsmanship of it draws me in. I want to make the best pizzas I can and improve every day.”
So there’s a degree of artistry and craftsmanship being practiced. I also understand the dearth of good pizza, which is part of what originally inspired me when living in Los Angeles before the days of Mozza. But I’m a rank amateur, a writer with a pizza problem. Chef Tuan is a smart guy and a pro. Besides having a degree from Le Cordon Bleu, he has a Bachelors in Biology. He can take that pizza stuff and science it! (Yes, I used “science” as a verb. If that pains you, I get it.)
I asked him if he’s done any Vietnamese fusion pizzas. He responded with another photograph of a pizza inspired by Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year: it was topped with pistou (which is like a French, basil & garlic pesto), crispy roast pork, mung beans, dried shrimp, scallion oil, nước chấm (a sweet, sour, savory, salty, spicy dipping sauce you’ve probably experienced), Thai basil and mint.
"So," I asked him, "is this a little like the flavors of your youth transposed to a pizza?" He laughed. Maybe because he’s from Minneapolis. “In a sense. More like traditional Vietnamese festival dishes, like whole roast pig, all Vietnamese flavors on a pizza. It's not a far stretch, because in Vietnam the banh mi is one of the most popular foods. So I thought if this would work on a banh mi, why not on a pizza?”
Well, at this point, I’d been pondering a banh mi pizza for months, so this all made total sense. (And bahn mi hardly represents the flavors of my youth in Connecticut—but I love banh mi.)
And then, Chef Tuan said the thing that summed up so much of pizza spirit. I've been thinking about how people love pizza. It brings them together. Pros never tire of making it. It transcends culture and all kinds of barriers. And it was as if Tuan knew I'd been thinking about this.
Chef Tuan said, “I believe all it takes is one dish--one recipe that triggers a happy moment in life can be the catalyst.” Delivering a happy-moment trigger on a plate. If that’s part of your reason for making pizza and stretching the boundaries of pizza and encouraging people to try new (sometimes ridiculous) pizzas, fantastic.
Pizza is people coming together around a plate of food meant to be shared. And if, as a pizzamaker, you can do something surprising like a poke pizza that stops someone dead in their tracks, or an étouffée pizza (which made my wife proclaim, “I’ve wasted my life”), isn’t it all worth it?
Parting thought: I think Chef Tuan’s poke pizza should be dubbed The True Hawaiian.
Find more fabulous images and commentary from Chef Tuan Tran at his blog, www.CookingWithChefTuan.com
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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