The Pizza Paradox: Home Cooking and Personal Science

Last week I had pizza at the home of my friends Bridget and Carl. It tasted divine. The crust was puffy, chewy and the right amount. The thin-crust bottom was slightly crunchy.  The tomato sauce had depth. The toppings (two kinds of mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, zucchini, onions, goat cheese) were tasty, creamy and a little crunchy. It was pretty and three-dimensional. It was easily the best pizza I’d ever had, the best home cooking I’d ever had, and much better than the lamb I’d had at Chez Panisse the night before, although the lamb was excellent. The pizza hadn’t been hard to make nor were the ingredients expensive. Do other people wonder why this is so good? I asked my friends.

At some level I knew why it was so good — why the sauce was so good, for example (see below). The puzzle — let me call it the Pizza Paradox — was that commercial pizza, even at fancy restaurants (such as Chez Panisse), is so much worse. In restaurants, pizza-makers make dozens of pizzas per day. Business success is on the line. That should push them to do better. Professional cooks study cooking, have vast experience. They use a pizza oven. My friends have never studied cooking, never cooked professionally. They might make pizza once/month. Nothing is on the line. My friends don’t have a pizza oven. High-end restaurant pizza should be much better, but the opposite was true.

In my experience, high-end restaurant food usually is much better than home-cooked versions. Why is high-end pizza a big exception — at least, compared to Bridget and Carl’s version?

My explanation has two parts. First, the concept of pizza is brilliant. It taps more sources of pleasure than any other food I can think of. Chewiness from crust. Fat from cheese. Umami, sweet, and sour from tomato sauce. Protein from cheese and meat. Complexity of flavor from sauce and toppings. Variety of texture from toppings and crust. Variety of flavor from toppings. Attractive appearance from toppings and bright red tomato sauce. Most foods fail to tap most of these sources. For example, a soft drink isn’t chewy, doesn’t have protein, doesn’t have fat, doesn’t have variety of texture or variety of flavor, and isn’t attractive.

My friends had one goal: to make the best possible pizza. It couldn’t take too long or cost too much but they weren’t trying to save time or cut costs. Over the years, they tweaked the recipe various ways and their pizza got better and better. Experimentation was safe. If a variation made things worse, it didn’t matter. It would still taste plenty good. (Due to the brilliance of pizza.) Variation was fun. After making pizza in a new way, they’d eat the pizza themselves (with guests) and find out if the new twist made a difference.

Professional pizza makers don’t do this. After a restaurant opens, they make pizza roughly the same way forever. The pizza at Chez Panisse, for example, looks the same now as many years ago. The owner might want to make the best possible pizza but is unlikely to experiment month after month year after year. The actual cooks just want to make satisfactory pizza. Making the best possible pizza is not part of the job. The owner might benefit from better pizza but the cooks would not. They’re cranking it out under time pressure (watch Hell’s Kitchen). They do what they’re told. Owners fear experimentation: It might be worse. It won’t be what’s expected. Don’t mess with success.

This illustrates what I’ve said many times: job and science don’t mix well. To do the best possible science or make the best possible pizza, you need freedom to experiment. People with jobs get stuck. All jobs — including professor at research university, rice grower, and pizza maker — depend on steady output of the same thing again and again. Trying to maximize short-term output interferes with long-term improvement. To do the best possible science or make the best possible pizza, you also need the right motivation: You care about nothing else. People with jobs have many goals. This is why we need personal science: To overcome the (serious) limitations of professional science.

All this should be obvious, but curiously isn’t. Long ago, philosophers such as John Stuart Mill claimed that people “maximized utility”, apparently not realizing that maximizing output (which happens when people work “hard”) slows down or prevents innovation. Later thinkers, such as Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman, glorified markets. They too failed to grasp, or at least say anywhere, that market demands get in the way of innovation.

The recipe for my friends’s pizza had several non-obvious features:

1. Pizza dough from Trader Joe’s. At Chez Panisse and other high-end restaurants, this would be taboo. It might produce better results — you still couldn’t do it.

2. Pizza stones above and below the pizza. My friends use an ordinary oven. Maybe an ordinary oven with two pizza stones produces better results than a pizza oven.

3. Balsamic vinegar in the tomato sauce. They got the idea from a friend. American cooks, including professional ones, routinely fail to understand how much fermented foods (such as balsamic vinegar) can improve taste. My friends also use more traditional flavorings (marjoram, basil, and garlic) in the tomato sauce.

4. Plenty of goat cheese. They scatter goat cheese slices over the top of the sauce.

There you have the secret of Bridget and Carl’s Pizza.

27 Replies to “The Pizza Paradox: Home Cooking and Personal Science”

  1. Great post. It reminded me of something James Altucher wrote a while ago:

    “A friend of mine once ran a chain of 100 pizza restaurants. He bought them out of near-bankruptcy and completely turned them around. I asked him what was the key to success of running 100 pizza restaurants.

    “I’ll tell you the one secret,” he said. “Make round pizzas”. It turns out that too often the pizzerias were making odd-shaped pizzas. Or would be delivered with the wrong ingredients. Or would be delivered too early or too late. He basically said, “don’t make basic mistakes” and you will be successful. He didn’t set out as his goal to make “the best pizza in the world”. Nothing close (almost by definition: his chain was made up all of Dominos pizza stores). He just wanted to do nothing wrong. The stores completely turned around and became super successful. He eventually sold them and made a lot of money.”

  2. The implications sound much like some of the stuff Celia Green says. The aristocracy and/or those with fortunes end up being the real source of innovation, because they have the time and the insulation from other peoples mores, to do the work. For a variety of reasons, one can innovate in pizza rather well, but I suspect there are a lot of projects for which being a wage-slave still gets in the way.

    Seth: I will check out Celia Green’s work. I have requested her book The Decline and Fall of Science. Is this where she writes about similar ideas? It’s very true that the aristocracy, etc., “end up being the real source of innovation.” Darwin was independently wealthy, Mendel, as a monk, was in a kind of aristocracy.

  3. you are leaning too heavily on the idea of taste as a fixed value; many people prefer different toppings, or thickness of crust in their pizza, more traditional preparations from Naples only use raw tomatoes for the tomato sauce, not a prepared cooked “pizza sauce” typically found on north american variations.

    some folks may prefer the sweeter/saltier sauce than the raw tomato and vice versa. this amounts more to preference than absolute taste.

    this is akin to making a case for the best way to drink coffee- people have highly preferential ways to drink coffee, no matter how traditional or statistically better one way is presented its about personal preference.

    the pizza you insist was the best ever may not be an opinion shared by each person who ate that same pie.

    Seth: There are widely-shared preferences. This is what allows the food industry to create popular products. For example, soup tastes better with certain amount of salt than no salt.

  4. I make pizza at home every so often (less now with the baby), and I’ve had the same experience — it easily competes, except on convenience, with anything we can buy. But I’m not sure how much it has to do with experimentation. Our first pizzas were already amazingly good; we have tweaked the recipe to optimize it within reason (our constraints are similar to Bridget and Carl’s), but I’d say our improvements have been incremental. We did start off with homemade dough and sauce, and local mozzarella, all of which are noticeably better than packaged alternatives — but those, in turn, still make homemade pizza that is better than almost anything we can buy. We do typically put caramelized onions on our pizza, which is an unusual topping, but it’s still very good when we don’t.

    Seth: Perhaps your tomato sauce could taste more complex. The usual recipes do a poor job of producing complexity. Likewise, mozzarella does not have a complex flavor.

  5. My kids eat a lot of pizza and they appreciate pizzas from different stores. There is something about the minor differences that they like, even though they pretty much get the same toppings every-time. If you order from the same store all the time they habituate to the taste and don’t like it as much.

    This isn’t the same as coffee where people get cross-addicted to an exact brand served in the same way.

  6. Thanks, I needed this perspective. I often feel like I’m doing a lousy job at personal science, because my record-keeping is the pits, I do experiments in fits and starts, etc. If this were my job I’d never get tenure. But in the past couple of years I’ve made significant progress on big problems, and I’ve gained important insights. I couldn’t run a pizzeria for a day, but I’m turning out great pizzas at home.

    By the way, Celia Green is, if nothing else, delightfully quotable:

    “It is easier to make people appear equally stupid than to make them equally clever, so teaching methods are adopted which make it practically impossible for anyone to learn anything.”

  7. Here is my wife’s great advance in pizza-making.

    We like to eat cheese fondue. There is always some left – a mixture of gruyere and emmenthal, flavoured with riesling, nutmeg and whatnot. We put it in the fridge and use it next time she does a pizza. Yowee!!!!

  8. “job and science don’t mix well.”

    this may be true, but where you have an owner-operator, rather than a wage employee, it is is often not true.

    Farmers are probably the best example. Many great innovations, like the stump jump plough and the combine harvester were invented by individual farmers (though it often needed a company to bring the invention to market). Farmers sometimes experiment with other things – crop and livestock management, and sometimes the “experiments” happen by themselves – unusual seasons/weather/soil conditions, noticing a difference between early and late planted X, or what happened when they didn’t plough/spray, or when they overgrazed, etc

    i’d say the key ingredient is a motivation to invent/innovate/learn. It is not just the independently wealthy who have it, but also those who need to do more/better for their own good. This is not often wage earners.

    Seth: The revolution in rice farming I wrote about recently happened because a non-rice-farmer got involved. One person. His work revealed that the millions of rice farmers were not doing nearly enough experimentation. Maybe they can do engineering (e.g., stump jump plough). They can’t do science (here, agricultural science).

  9. ‘high end’ really doesn’t exist for pizza – i can’t think of many places you can spend $50 on a pizza meal in the US). the cost of your friends’ labor on the pizza alone at their normal pay rate would have been much higher than $50 i am sure.

  10. to be clearer: the reason that you can’t get really good pizza is that very few people will pay for it – there’s no market for high end pizza. there are some places in brooklyn, franny’s for example, and some newish places like motorino, that do things you can’t realistically do at home. price point is much higher than most people are prepared for when they think ‘pizza’.

    Seth: Why is the pizza at Chez Panisse so bad, compared to what it could be? They could make much better pizza at almost exactly the same cost. They sell plenty of pizza at their price.

  11. With the farmers, many used to do their own science(experiments in productivity and land improvement), and a few still do (e.g. Joel Salatin). But almost all of them these days have been brainwashed into leaving it to the “experts”, be it universities, USDA, Monsanto etc.

    there is certainly scope for fresh ideas from outside, like the rice example, but there is also scope from inside. Salatin’s example shows that many cattle ranchers are doing it wrong too.

    The key thing is whether their ideas are picked up and implemented by others, otherwise, like your pizza example, the personal science only gets applied by/to that one person.

    I will certainly agree it is easier to experiment with things, like pizza or personal health, that you are not dependent on for your living. But some farmers and other owner operators still do their experiments too, we just don’t always hear about them.

    Seth: A book called The Power of Duck describes how a rice farmer vastly improved the yield from a small piece of land. I agree, there are exceptions.

  12. The best pizza makers in New York produce fantastic pizza that I am 100% sure is much better than your friends pizza, and it is their job, so I don’t think there is really much in what you are saying. I think it has more to do with the fact that a restaurant not geared towards pizza, like Chez Panisse, won’t prioritize it, and further and perhaps more importantly, MANY Americans have awful taste in pizza, so few places are incentivized to produce truly great pizza. My brother in law, from San Jose, hates New York style pizza and loves the crappy stuff you get at Mountain Mike’s.

    Making fantastic pizza doesn’t require too much innovation – only at the beginning, until you get it right, and nothing essential about a job will make that harder to do.

    Indeed, it seems like having an undiscriminating consumer base for pizza (most Americans) as well as not specializing in it but merely having it as one item among many, is what’s responsible, with number 1 being the main culprit, judging by how bad pizza is in America generally, even at fancy restaurants, with the one exception being New York which happens to have an extremely discerning consumer base for pizza.

    This example isn’t really a good basis for making generalizations about the nature of jobs – yes, jobs can be poorly designed so that they stifle experimentation, but then again, there is nothing essential about a job that does this.

    Seth: “There is nothing essential about a job that does this.” Let me try again to explain it. Foragers can either “explore” (look for new food sources) or “exploit” (revisit known food sources). They can’t do both at once. Jobs are essentially exploit, not explore. You hire someone to do something that will make money. I can think of thousands of examples. I can’t think of a single case where someone was hired to explore. Sure, some people on some jobs do a small amount of exploration. Google encourages this — but they have to encourage it. Otherwise it would almost never happen.

  13. Perhaps you have quite refined tastes compared to the “average” individual.

    I tend to view these circumstances organically in that as these businesses grow ever larger they are forced to satisfice a widening but middle dominated area of the bell curve of tastes, as that is where the numbers are… It is actually an evolving process but rather it devolves to be generic overtime as that becomes the most acceptable pizza on average.

    Seth: I don’t think I have refined tastes, at least with pizza. (Maybe with tea.) I rarely eat pizza, I am not a connoisseur. I think everyone, not just me, wants a tomato sauce with a deep complex flavor. I think everyone wants a variety of textures. And so on.

  14. Seth: Why is the pizza at Chez Panisse so bad, compared to what it could be? They could make much better pizza at almost exactly the same cost. They sell plenty of pizza at their price.

    I don’t know first hand about Chez Panisse because I haven’t eaten there. I live in NYC and it’s not convenient. Among people that I know, a lot of them think that Chez Panisse used to be better than it is, and now even though they aren’t as good as before they can charge a premium based on their reputation. I don’t know if this is true in the case of Chez Panisse but it does happen a lot in the restaurant business (and not just the restaurant business!)

    I was thinking about your article today and if you think about it a whole lot of food items are like this. For instance I can make a much better cheese sandwich with ingredients from most stores than I can from almost any restaurant. Peanut butter sandwiches too. Why?

  15. Regarding the best pizza to be had in New York, the 3 I like best, in descending order of excellence, are Difara in Flatbush, Totono’s way out in Coney Island, and Grimaldi’s by th Brooklyn Bridge. Now this is just from the places I have tried. Supposedly authentic pizza places are popping up all over Brooklyn and NY that many say are the equal of the above named places, but I haven’t eaten at most of them, and the few that I have, like 88 on Atlantic avenue downtown, was very good with great fresh ingredients, but fell short of top honors.

    One of these days I have to make a pizza tour of NYC – mostly Brooklyn, really – and see if I have to revise my estimates 🙂 But I doubt. Pizza cant get any better than the first two of those places.

  16. Grimaldi’s by the Brooklyn Bridge is fantastic. Grimaldi’s in Hoboken is utterly mediocre. They use the same kind of coal-fired brick oven, the same ingredients, and reportedly the same preparation techniques, but their pies are soggy, doughy, and not particularly flavorful. I don’t know nearly enough about pizza to theorize as to why that is.

  17. Cooking is the easiest place to learn the rewards of self-experimentation. And in my opinion, guacamole is easier than pizza.

    either mashed or cubed avocado

    one or more of: tomato, peppers (green, red, jalapeno . . . ), onion, garlic

    Herbs and Spices:
    one or more of: cilantro, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, cilantro, salt

    lemon juice or lime juice

    Seth: I suggest adding balsamic vinegar. And irregularly chop the red pepper.

  18. Regarding guacamole, I experimented with variations about 25 years ago (using different recipes). I finally came to the conclusion that onion and peppers overwhelm the avocado, that the tomato must be peeled and chopped into tiny pieces, that cilantro must be used sparingly, and that the flavors to add are cumin, coriander, onion salt, and garlic powder. I haven’t taken the test further to determine if lemon juice or lime juice is best (or balsamic vinegar in your case . . . . I don’t like vinegar).

    It’s a small group of ingredients which can be combined quickly to create side-by-side comparisons, with no baking required.

    The only problem is that after creating your own recipe this way, no restaurant guacamole compares. All the others are a variation on, ‘how disappointed am I going to be?’

    Seth: That’s good to know. You don’t like vinegar? Apparently you like sour, since you use lemon juice or lime juice. I fail to see the difference between using vinegar and using them. None of your ingredients produces a complex flavor. I think there is room for improvement.

  19. There is a large dose of arbitrariness in such discussions of optimal recipes. With regard to the pizza cooked by Seth’s friends, I doubt that I would have liked it much, even back in the day when I ate dairy products. To me, goat cheese always had an unpleasant odor and flavor.

  20. Sometimes the best approach when cooking is to bring out the essence of the food. For example, I prefer most vegetables to be boiled in salted water until they’re halfway between crisp and soft, then drain them and dress with butter.

    As for guacamole, my recipe enhances the essential flavor of avocado while generating a different flavor. I will experiment with adding fermented food and will send you a link to the results.

    I’m actually not here to argue about recipes. My understanding is that you’re writing a book about how people can benefit by personal experimentation. I suggest that cooking is an easy way to introduce the concept, and that guacamole may be an easier introduction than pizza.

  21. Isn’t that the point of tenure? You prove you’re smart and capable of strong scientific contributions. and then you draw a paycheck for life and you’re free to work on whatever you want to work on. It may be onerous to get tenure, but there has to be some selection mechanism and I’m not prepared to suggest a better one.

    Seth: I agree, tenure does increase freedom. But not enough for all purposes.

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