Saturday, January 28, 2012
Interview: Cane Rosso owner Jay Jerrier
Deep Ellum pizzeria is celebrating its first anniversary.
A little more than a year ago, when Jay Jerrier’s mark on the Dallas culinary landscape was made merely with the tire treads on his pizza oven trailer, a play on words such as "Raising Cane Rosso" might have gone unnoticed. But not today.
Just a hair shy of its first anniversary in Deep Ellum, Cane Rosso has burst onto the Dallas restaurant scene, and since the day it opened, its wood-fired, Neapolitan pizzas, and warm, comfortable atmosphere immediately struck a chord with Dallas diners. Since then, there have been some changes – such as the addition of Pizzaiolo Dino Santonicola in September – almost all of which may serve as evidence that Jerrier may have been called Midas in a previous life.
We sat down with Jerrier for a discussion about how he’s turned his restaurant into gold over the past year, what he’s learned, and what’s coming up for Cane Rosso.
Entree Dallas: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Jay. Can you give us a general idea of what this last year was like?
Jerrier: The past year has just been insane. I mean, we were hoping that the restaurant would do well, but we had no idea that we would get the kind of attention or level of interest from the people and the media that we have. Obviously, getting the recognition in the press is great – for an independent, small business, it’s awesome. All we hoped for when we opened was that we would be busy; that maybe we’d get a few best pizza recommendations or that we’d get some good reviews on Yelp. It’s certainly far exceeded our expectations. We’re passionate about it, too; we put a lot of work into what we do, and it’s nice that it actually is working from a business standpoint.
Something we knew going into it was that with Neapolitan pizza, people either really love it or really hate it. It’s a divisive style of pizza and we know that. We don’t have big, crispy slices, chicken, ranch dressing, or pineapple – which a lot of people like. We’ve kept with our mission: We’re trying to create that santo merde - that "holy crap!" moment – that I had when I had pizza in Naples for the first time, where it was like, "wow, this is what pizza can be," and it seems like a lot of people appreciate that. Now, we have some people that eat in here four or five times a week, which is more than I could have asked for.
We’ve made a lot of changes too, though. We didn’t want to just come in and stick to our pizza and that’s it. We constantly tweak it based on feedback from the staff and our customers. We’re always trying to improve the dough, to tweak the the way we make it, the way we cut the cheese, the way we source our ingredients, and we’re always trying to make improvements in products. We’re never about just saying, "Okay, we’ve arrived at the top of the mountain and this is it. We’re never going to change it." We’re always going to be looking at things we can do better.
Of course, there are some days that I come in and I’m just like, "Man, I just do not have it today." I just take myself off the oven on those days, mostly because I’m so freaking tired I can’t see straight.
What was the single biggest surprise the past year held for you?
I think the biggest shocker for us was the Food Network (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives). It’s just amazing that they would come in and feature us on a show within a year of opening – it’s just crazy. Of all the things I’ve done this year, that has been absolutely, positively the most stressful. That’s real. I hated it, I hated it, I hated it. I don’t know how anybody raised their hand to be on Next Food Network Star or anything like that – it’s exhausting. The amount of preparation you have to do is insane; it’s very tedious when they’re actually shooting, and you’re doing the same things over and over and over and over again. On top of that, it was really stressful when I was on camera with Guy (Fieri, the show’s host). In the back of my head there was a voice that kept telling me, "This is a top ten show on cable TV. And it’s watched by millions. This is in HDTV." So the whole time I was just like "holy shit!"
I felt like it went so poorly, but I guess we’ll see. That was probably the most shocking thing for us – it was really surprising. But we’re definitely happy to be on it.
The past year has also generated a lot of talk about your social media skills – how have things like Facebook and Twitter affected your business?
I love social media. I love messing around with Facebook and Twitter and telling people what we’re about, and what we’re currently trying to do – this restaurant is a very personal space for me, and it’s what I’m passionate about. We don’t use social media just to pimp the restaurant; I just want to give people a sense of what it’s like to be here every day. So that’s why we’ll take pictures of food and what we’re experimenting with. So if I try to make some Sicilian dough today, we’ll post pictures of that because I think it looks cool, or whenever I think there’s something I might be interested in seeing on a Twitter or Facebook feed, I post it. We joke around a lot around here – we keep the environment light, and our Twitter and Facebook feed is just what it’s like to be here in our restaurant: a lot of jokes, and a lot of food.
Your Industry Nights have been received very well, with some notable names coming into your pizza kitchen. How has the culture among the chefs in Dallas affected how you operate?
This is my first restaurant, so in a lot of senses I had no idea what I was doing. But what was cool was that being an outsider to the business, some serious restaurant vets embraced us and gave us advice. You know, between Jack Perkins (Maple & Motor), Brian Lusher (The Grape), Rusty Fenton (Rusty Taco), and Jason Boso from Twisted Root across the street, everyone has been totally, unbelievably helpful. I’ll even get unsolicited help – like, Brian Lusher might say "I sent my mushroom guy over to you. I think he has some good stuff you ought to see." The guys at Jimmy’s Food Store are great, too. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Plus, you mentioned our Chefs Nights – everybody is such a good sport. I mean, geez, we had Dean Fearing in here. It was ridiculous, and that one picture that I have of Dean, Bruno [Davaillon], and [John] Tesar all lined up in a row? I can’t believe that. Everybody just has such a good time when they come here. And Kent Rathbun is coming next week. You know, we have a long list of chefs from these hardcore restaurants that want to come hang. It’s something I talk about it in the Observer article, and I think that’s what we need more of – unsolicited, willing collaboration. You know, working together to kind of lift each other up.
And that’s what I like about Deep Ellum, is that down here all the restaurants don’t try to kill each other. We’re all trying to help each other for the sake of making the neighborhood strong and getting people to come in and hang around. If we ever have a slow night, we’re trading pizza for burgers at Adair’s, or we’re getting burgers from Twisted Root, or somebody’s sending us food or we’re sending somebody else food. It’s just a really cool environment. I think it’s so much better than a bunch of pizza places just trying to undercut each other, trying to kill each other. I love the guys from Serious Pizza. I love the fact that we can all work together, and I think we need more of it.
In fact, Tiffany Derry (Private Social) wandered in one night, and she was saying the same thing. She said that down in Houston all the chefs hung around together and they all shared food. Then when she got here she didn’t see that at first, but now she’s seeing more and more of it. Independent chefs do talk a lot, and hang out a lot. We do a lot of – not that I’m a chef – but we do a lot of events together, which is fun. Everybody has a good sense of humor. You know, all these people you read about in the media, "This guy is such and such, he’s a total dick," or whatever, I have yet to run into that. All the people that have been in here, they could not have been nicer. And everybody is here to have fun and joke around – there’s a great comedy scene in the kitchens of Dallas.
So Year One went pretty well. How do you follow it?
Geez. That’s the question – it’s going to be a hard act to follow. I think that we’re certainly looking at additional spaces. We have the team queen, Megan Dennison – who is total badass – as the GM with the vision of her at some point taking the role of head of operations so we’ll be able to do this over and over again. So, we’ve got the operational side of the infrastructure set – she deals with all of the stuff that I hate: ADT, vendor issues, and stuff like that.
And having Dino on board makes it so I don’t have to be here to make 90 percent of the pizzas. I always joke with him that I’m the best oven man in Texas, but he’s been making pizzas for 20-something years, he has a few years a head start on me. Selfishly, though, I’m using it as a great opportunity to learn – I’ve learned a ton from him already, but I can’t ever admit that in public, because he has no shortage of ego (laughs). Dino’s been really helpful in improving our pizza and helping us understand the way Neapolitans make it, and why they do what they do; why they make pizza better. So, I think we made good pizza before, but I think our pizza’s a lot better now – it’s really more of what I envisioned the way I wanted it to be: a real light, puffy rim, and the bottom is crisp and not burned. And so we want to keep going that into 2012.
We want to continue to improve this particular space, too – what the true purpose of next door is, between private events, overflow, seating, and whatnot. And I think that in 2012 we’ll sign a lease for another space for Cane Rosso for sure, and I would be shocked if it was in Dallas. I think it’s likely that we’re going to go to Fort Worth. We have a lot of customers over there from our weekly travels to Times Ten Cellars. I like the area, and we found some pockets in Fort Worth that are very similar to Deep Ellum in terms of the types of buildings and the guts of the buildings, and the rents are affordable. Those are the kind of places that we look for. It’s funny, when we were first trying to get this off the ground, there were a bunch of landlords and commercial real estate guys that had zero interest whatsoever in Cane Rosso. Now they’re like "hey buddy, what’s up, if you’re ever looking to expand, give me a call! We love restaurant guys!" Yeah, sure dude.
Anyway, we’ll get a space. I think that’ll be the biggest thing on our plate. That, and I’ve got another pizza maker joining the team – it’s a guy that used to work with us when we were just mobile, who went back to New York for awhile. But now I convinced him to get back down – another beast to our pizza making team that can knock out a Neapolitan pizza, but who also works in a lot of old school New York style. You know, he can do the other stuff: big, crispy New York slices, Stromboli, all kinds of different rolls, and stuff like that. And who knows, we may get a wild hair and want to experiment with some of that stuff every now and then. It’s a totally different kind of dough and a totally different kind of experience – I think it would be fun. But our biggest thing will be to keep the momentum for this place going, and then see if we can’t find a good space somewhere else in the area.
So do you still eat a lot of pizza?
You know, I don’t eat that much pizza anymore. Maybe every now and then. Dino, though, that guy still eats a lot of pizza – he loves him some prosciutto cotto and mushrooms. Luckily for me, we have enough other stuff here; we use a lot of egg yolks in our Caesar so we have a lot of leftover egg whites, so I’ll make a lot of omelets in the morning when I get here. And I like our sandwiches and our brunch items. There’s always something else to eat here.
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