The chef-entrepreneur on starting in the kitchen at 14, proving pizza could be gourmet with Spago, and how Johnny Carson inspired his frozen food
I left home at 14 to be a kitchen apprentice and spent most of my early career in some of France's best restaurants. If you wanted to be a respected chef, that was the best training you could have. By the 1970s, when I was at Ma Maison [a French bistro in Los Angeles], I decided to open my own restaurant. The easy choice would have been to open a French restaurant, but I decided on a pizzeria called Spago. I thought you could have fun with the ingredients and create delicious simple food, but newspapers ridiculed me, saying you couldn't create a gourmet experience around pizza. The editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit even took me to dinner to try to convince me not to open it. I had my own ideas, and it became a huge success.
I never thought about selling frozen pizza until Johnny Carson became a customer. I was preaching fresh food all the way, but Johnny would take home 10 or 12 pizzas at a time. One day, I finally said, "Johnny, what are you doing with all these pizzas?" He said, "I put them in the freezer and pull them out when we're playing cards. They're just as good." I thought he was crazy—and I had previously tried a line of frozen desserts that hadn't worked out so well. I was nervous, but if Johnny Carson liked my pizzas frozen, maybe others would, too. I went home to try it myself; I thought he was right.
It wasn't so easy, though. Duck sausage pizza was our most popular at the time. When I did a focus group, everyone said "Ewww. I would never buy a frozen pizza with duck." So I had to make the line more pedestrian—vegetarian and spicy chicken, a combination of cheeses. There were also some things you just couldn't do. My favorite was prosciutto pizza, but it doesn't freeze well. Our most popular pizza at Spago is the smoked salmon pizza, but you can't freeze that, either. And, of course, if people don't cook it the right way, the pizza won't taste as good. In a restaurant, you have much more control.
As my business has grown, the hardest thing has been to give up control. It might make people think I'm arrogant, but I'm not. This is my name. This is my life.