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The Mad Baker of Sullivan St

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Lahey baking downstairs.  

In the afternoon, Lahey drives to the Delta terminal at La Guardia, for his monthly visit as consulting chef at Crust, a pizza restaurant opened by OTG, the same company that overhauled the food at JFK’s JetBlue terminal. In a way, it’s the perfect gig for Lahey; here, he is paid for the uncensored stream-of-­consciousness opinions that elsewhere just form the soundtrack to his work.

“I do not approve of that,” Lahey says, as a waitress passes by with an order. “Chicken diced up on top of a fucking pizza.”

It’s not on the menu, but, as Crust’s executive chef explains, once a customer sees grilled chicken elsewhere on the menu, it’s hard to deny a chicken-pizza jones. Lahey is unmoved by this argument. At Co., he lets people subtract toppings from the pizzas on the menu but forbids substitutions.

Scanning Crust this afternoon, Lahey has other critiques. The mouth of the ­pizza oven is too big. He spots drifts of soot in the oven and motions to its tender to sweep it up. “Not my culture,” he says. “I would never let my staff leave the oven so filthy. Ever, ever, ever, ever, ever.” He has some nice things to say, too, and not only about the “damn good pizza” (it’s his ­recipe); he’s impressed with the kitchen crew. He’s less keen on the corporate owner. “They should have asked me about knocking off my menu’s graphics,” he says.

Another pizza goes by. Just eyeballing it, Lahey indicts the pie for numerous offenses. The topping is too concentrated in the middle. The dough, he can tell from the crust color, was underfermented, and it’s gooey in the middle. Right there, surrounded by diners waiting for their flights, Lahey starts doing the crawl stroke. “It’s a pizza pool,” Lahey says, windmilling his arms through the presumed gooeyness. “I’m swimming across.”

With all of Lahey’s talk of the “prevailing culture” in front of a chef he clearly sees as being a part of it, the chef might be expected to take offense, but after Lahey walks away, the chef says, “You know what? Jim, of all the chefs I’ve worked with, has been one of the most insightful. He’s very passionate, and you can see it in the end result.”

Outside the restaurant, Lahey stops a kitchen staffer who’s leaving. “This is a very talented young guy I’m trying to corrupt,” he says, then trains his mentoring beam on the kid. “Just focus on getting your skills better, focus on your timing,” Lahey tells him, ­before adding some big-picture advice. ­“Always go for a percentage deal. Take it on the back end. Make sure you have some controls over the menu. No diced chicken.” The kid nods, grinning. “Even if it’s in the fucking airport,” Lahey continues. “Even if that diabetic obese bitch decides to storm out. You want your fuckin’ chicken breast, bitch? Here it is on a plate.”


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