The day I went to interview Tom Kirton of Tommy Millions was the first day of the Sevens in Wellington. Sexy bananas, cowboys, pukekos all over the place. But you know, come 2am that morning those nanas aren’t going to be so perky. Tom may be the man behind the name and face on the pizza boxes, but HE always works the graveyard shift, not for the stories (THOUGH my god, he has a few) but because that is their busiest time. Pizza by the slice is, after all, the perfect drunken snack; if David Hasslehof has taught us anything, it is that things can get messy with burgers, but pizza is perfectly portable for that stumble home. And unlike the kebab, Tommy Millions pizza actually stacks up sober for a damn fine lunchtime snack. (even more so now they offer 2 for 1 margarita Pizzas during lunch hours).
So I sat down with Tom a few hours before he was due to start what would no doubt be an interesting night.
How did you come to set up Tommy Millions?
I was always interested in food growing up and made pizzas at home. But after school I decided to go to law school, although I worked in catering the whole time I was there. After Uni I moved to Canada - I saw that cooking jobs were plentiful and I didn’t need to speak French. So I bluffed my way through an interview and ended up grilling steaks at this bistro in Montreal; it was fine but nothing special. Things changed when I went to New York on holiday. I basically went to eat heaps of pizza. There is this one joint out in Coney Island called Totonno's, it's one of the original pizza places in NY. It has been in the same family since 1924 - there is the surly grandma in the kitchen and the grandson making pizzas out the front. You could tell he had been working the oven for 40 years. Everything he did was so precise and refined, he was the man.
So I went back to Montreal and got a job in a pretty sweet pizzeria and learnt a few things. I moved back to NZ in 2008 and started a job at a big law firm in town. I lasted three weeks [laughs] - apparently that is still some sort of record there - and in the three weeks I was working there all I did was look on Trademe for Pizza ovens, read about pizza ovens and just be a massive pizza geek. So left the job, found a mobile pizza oven and started up NYPD with my brother - a wood-fired catering company that we would do on the weekends. But I needed something to keep me going during the week and I'd always wanted to work with the Scopa guys so approached them and they seemed to like the idea too. The Bresolin boys and I saw a gap in the market for doing pizza by the slice in Wellington, so it was just a matter of time and the right space. It took several years but we found it.
How did you end up at your iconic location?
The council put a call out for submissions for the development of the public toilets in about 2010, they eventually shortlisted it to three of us and we came out on top. We finally opened the 10th of July 2012. People still come and ask us to use the toilet, they can't get their head around that it is no longer there; it hasn't been a toilet for about 15 years!
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far?
One thing I knew would be an issue but didn't realise how much, was the weather. When I was doing mobile catering I cooked in sideways hail. I've cooked in every type of weather. I've had whole pizzas come out of the oven and literally wrap around my arm - I peeled a fair bit of skin off with that one. Even at the shop we are semi-exposed and there are days when flour is flying everywhere. I dream of the day when I'm actually fully inside.
I'm also learning how to teach people. Pizza making is all about feel and touch and it’s hard to explain that. So we have all these metaphors, most of them x-rated.
Who taught you everything you know?
Sounds whack but… the internet taught me! It is bizarre what you can learn off YouTube; there are massive pizza geeks all around the world who are all about experimenting with different techniques. Changing one aspect of the process and seeing how that affects the dough and doing it really methodically, it’s quite scary the amount of time that some of these guys who are just home pizza makers put into dough making. So I learnt the basics from that and then from my own trial and error and making hundreds of pizzas on a daily basis. There is this great video from Anthony Monjerry. He has this day-in-the-life short doco of him in his pizzeria. I show it to all the new guys I take on and most of them end up wanting to be just like him.
Paulie Gee’s pizzas in NY, which is an iconic pizzeria - I went back to NY just before I opened Tommy's and did some unpaid stints at a few places (Paulie Gee's, Pulino's and A16) and Paulie especially made a huge impression on me. He was in his sixties and gave up his career in IT to open his pizzeria, and 9 times out of 10 that can be a complete failure. But Paulie was one of the success stories; he has such a great view on life, music and pizza and one of the best wood-fired ovens in the world.
Who do you admire as a chef?
Locally - I'm lucky to be friends with people I really respect as chefs. Dave Verheul is such a humble and awesome dude and he has been friends with Scopa boys for a long time and is a really cool guy to chat to. Jacob out at The Larder. Lucas Tock who isn’t so well known. He is the chef at Crazy Horse. He is an absolute battler who has been brought up in that whole “Yes Chef, No Chef” environment so he is quite old-school and I don't think he gets the props he deserves. It is steakhouse, so it is a limited genre. The stuff he is doing on the side is just awesome. Playing around with all kinds of techniques - pickles and doing cool shit.
Internationally - Chris Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a wicked dude, a pizza philosopher. He just had to give up pizza making because he reacts to the flour. He is tuned into supporting local farmers and everything he uses is sourced from people he knows and trusts and loves.
Magnus Nilsson - Fäviken in Sweden. Skis to work, shooting his own elk and is serving it up for only 12 people each night.
Then you have your heavy hitters - David Chang, Rene Redzepi, Anthony Bourdain they are the rock stars of the cooking world. It is like saying you liked Nirvana in their time - it just goes without saying.
What sets Tommy Millions apart?
We have made a point of using fresh, local, seasonal food, although we hate the clichés, because that is just food. If you aren't eating that then you are just a dickhead! I mean what else are you eating - not fresh, not local, out of season?! That's weird. From the start, we tried to get personal relationships with the guys we were going to use. We have a good relationship with Waikanae butchery, where Andrew makes our salami - it is a wild boar salami, which costs us a lot more than we should be spending as a pizza by the slice joint. I know how much some of the bigger chains pay for their salami and ours is about seven times more expensive, but that is by-the-by, because we have always been happy to pay more for good stuff.
We have a guy up in Auckland, he is an absolute dude, just come over from Napoli, started a small mozzarella business. His stuff is cow mozzarella but personally I prefer it to buffalo on a pizza - I don't believe buffalo mozzarella belongs on pizza; there is too much water. He makes us fresh mozzarella and fresh ricotta. He is currently maxing out his production for us and he is bringing over another guy from Napoli and eventually we will be getting all our cheese from him. You will always pay more for that stuff and it is hard because we are a convenience kiosk where price and value is an important part of our business model, but we are just trying to find that happy equilibrium between the two. Some people will tell us they can get a whole pizza for the same price as ours, that is the perception a lot of NZers have, but there is also a growing population of NZers and especially Wellingtonians who seek out the good stuff. The Foodsters™ I call them.
What is your favourite pizza?
People always ask what is your favourite slice and I always tell them margarita. They think I’m trying to sell them the one with the least amount of toppings to benefit myself but that is just the truth. The complexity is in its simplicity. It is balanced, you can't hide behind it. Any new pizzeria I go to I’ll always order a margarita because that is the benchmark.
What the key to a perfect pizza?
There is no such thing as a perfect pizza - I've never found one, but the key to a good pizza is attention to detail. The three components - bread, sauce and cheese - these all need to be right or the whole thing will fail. You want richness of cheese, sweet and acid from the sauce and good bread. Because that is all pizza is: good bread with some toppings.
Do you have a favourite ingredient?
Fat of any form - olive oil, bacon fat, butter. We get all these prosciutto scraps from slicing and I was thinking I should do something with it. So I cooked down 4-5kgs with onions, vinegar and chilli and heaps of spices to make a type of chutney. It's basically a meat spread, it’s pure umami!
Do you have trouble finding ingredients?
New Zealand doesn't have a large variety of flours and they are all pretty similar. They suit the style of pizza we do currently but when we go on to do a wood-fired pizza, we will need to import flour and that seems a shame to me.
Where do you like eat in Wellington?
Day to day - I eat most meals out as I work until stupid o'clock most nights. So I love going to KC Cafe and Taste of India on Kent Tce. Hands down the best chicken tikka in Wellington. When I can, I eat at Matterhorn, the best menu I've seen in Wellington ever. The Larder - I love that place for lunch, I think Jacob’s food is refined but really honest, and he's making offal that people can get down with.
What do you cook on your day off?
I'll cook once a week - on Sundays the restaurant people all get together, we drink heaps and eat heaps. Simple stuff like roast chicken, BBQ or pasta.
What do you always have in your pantry/fridge?
Dumplings in the freezer, spaghetti, garlic, canned tomatoes in the pantry and anchovies in the fridge.
What would you request for your last meal on earth?
Mum's roast chicken, roast tatties and gravy, or a Margarita from Una Pizza in San Francisco. Best pizza in the world.
Do you have a junk food secret shame?
Shit… you know what, my dirty habit… I love Arnotts Pizza Shapes! I'm not sure where their pizza part comes from - I guess the tomato powder - but I can smash a box of those, easy.
Do you have a vivid childhood memory around food?
I can remember the first time I saw someone bake bread. I was from a family with four boys and one working parent so there wasn't any time to bake bread. I went to Grandma's when I was 6 and I smelt bread for the first time and I couldn’t understand that it came from the oven and not from the bag. I guess that stuck with me and today I bake 50 or so loaves of bread a few times a week.
If you could get rid of one food item from the world what would it be?
Shitty sugar-filled white bread.
Is there any ingredient that you want to try or wish you liked?
I want to learn to love Marmite. I've tried so many times.
What is the future for Tommy Millions?
We are hoping to create a space to make everything we need for all the restaurants - butchery, bakery, ice creamery, everything made on site. And one day I want a small intimate wood-fired pizzeria. No holds barred the best pizza we can make with the best ingredients. Tommy Millions is for the people; the next one will be for me! But I have to put in a lot more hours and late nights before I can earn the right to do that.
I also want to give a huge shout out to Rebecca Parker of Department of Correctness. She has kindly jumped on board as our proof reader! Things just got serious.