When you walk into a chef’s kitchen, you’re walking into an extension of themselves. It’s soothing and comforting and rhythmic watching them prep or cook a meal. After just a few weeks of being open, Chef Evan Eriksen of Pie 95 food truck already has that unity with his truck. His morning prep routine includes strategic checking of each container of dough to see that it is proofed properly, slicing mozzarella with skilled movements, all while stoking a fire up to 700 degrees in the wood fired oven in between. These are the moments behind creating authentic wood fired pizza. Would it be easier to put premade pizzas into a temperature controlled oven? Absolutely. However authenticity was tantamount in Evan’s decision to open Pie95.
With a resume a mile long, Evan started to cook at a very young age. In fact, he was secretly bussing tables as a kid making $4 an hour without his mom even knowing. Evan explained, “Some kids dream of being a firefighter, or a doctor, or this and that. What did I dream of? I wanted to be a chef. That was my thing. I went to culinary school in South Florida. Then I did Food and Beverage Management which was a waste of money and time because I stayed in the kitchen. After culinary school I moved to Manhattan and I applied to so many different restaurants. I only heard from two. One was Gotham Bar and Grill and one was Daniel. I went to Gotham, did my trial, and they said if you want the job come back tomorrow. I showed up the next day for work. I don’t think they actually thought I was going to show up.” After working at Gotham Bar and Grill for a year and a half, Evan began to apply to Le Bernadin, a 4 star Michelin restaurant in Manhattan. He got the job and worked at Le Bernadin for a year to the day. “It was one of the most intense work environments I’ve ever experienced” Evan told us, “You learn to simplify what you’re doing but do it the best you can. Chef Eric Ripert has a book called 4 Star Simplicity. You’re doing simple food but it’s executed perfectly. You aren’t even allowed to touch salt or pepper for the first few weeks of working there. When you’re a young arrogant chef that thinks he knows what he’s doing, it is a humbling experience. No one starts with seniority. You work your way up by improving.”
After Le Bernadin, Evan left to go work for The Modern and James Beard Best Chef award winner Chef Gabriel Kreuther. Evan worked there for 3 years to improve his technique. He realized at that point that no one was leaving for him to have the opportunity to advance, so he accepted the job of Sous Chef at Oceana. Evan described Oceana, “They are a seafood powerhouse. All fish was coming in whole with full fabrications of everything. That was my first sous chef position, I did that for a year and a half. It was a good learning experience, I had to prove myself to everyone since I was coming in as sous chef. All the cooks that think they’re better than you want your position.” After years in New York, Evan found himself at a point again of wanting to travel. He describes it as a “travel bug”, but it’s visible to anyone who converses with him that it is more than just that. He constantly observes–whether it be the feel of the dough as he makes a pizza, a conversation with a customer, or interactions with his colleagues. He’s present and aware of everything around him, and draws his energy from such. Instead of going to Europe, Asia, or Spain, where Evan feared he’d be “shucking peas at the bottom of the totem pole” if he didn’t speak the language, he opted for culinary powerhouse Australia. Evan described the Australian food scene as a juxtaposition to America’s due to chef commitments to tradition here. His quick example was,“Would you ever think of putting goat cheese with tuna? Probably not. But it works if you do it right.” Once he moved to Australia he met with Quay in Sydney. “The cooks there were going in at 8 in the morning and working til 10pm. It’s beautiful and I love the passion but I like to live a little bit. I’m not 22 years old sipping on the koolaid of the whole fine dining thing” he explained. Evan found himself at Tetsuya’s, a French-Asian restaurant that had him committed after an oyster. “It was such a simple flavor and so amazing. I didn’t need the intricate technique of molecular gastronomy. I had a surreal moment in eating this oyster.” As pieces fell into place and he fell in love, he found another job at Summit where they sponsored his stay for a year and a half.
One day he was sitting on the wharf having a beer with pizza and relaxing and he had what he deemed his pizza moment. He realized, “That is what life is about. Enjoying moments like that, not so much I just spent 400$ on a meal, what was the third course?” Evan came back to the states and got a job at Restaurant Medure. After it caught fire they moved him to Matthew’s where he was the Chef de Cuisine. He had family issues come up that he needed to take care of at that time, which ended with a transition to California where he took an immersion course to be a sommelier. Laughing, he told us, “We were drinking too much wine and I didn’t pass the course but I DID get the certificate of completion! I got a job at St Regis hotel, I was executive sous chef at Ame restaurant. Their lease ended and the hotel did their own restaurant instead of outsourcing. There we were doing the tweezer food, another Michelin starred restaurant. So my friend comes from New Zealand and we ate at French Laundry. We spent several hundred dollars on the meal, It was a great meal, I was full, we were drunk. But what was the 5th course? The 11th? I couldn’t even remember the technique.” That moment led him to a 5 month hiatus from the restaurant industry working as an Uber driver. While he was doing that he began his pursuit of pizza with endless trips to find wood fired pizza all around San Francisco. “All my friends thought I’d gone off the deep end. I was a chef and just wanted to make pizza. When I left The Modern and Gabriel left, my friend got promoted. So I wondered if I was doing it wrong. I got a job making wood fired pizza and they got Michelin recommended. The owners went away for a month and left me in charge, I started working on the pizza hardcore and became tuned into the dough and that was it. I had the confidence.” Evan spent months speaking with mentors in Jacksonville, in particular Bill with BBQ Jax. He said “Evan, you’re a chef, you can do this!” He spoke with two different builders, put down a deposit, and began the process of selecting an oven to pursue his dream of wood fired pizza. “If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. Your word is all you have. I tried doing the best pizza that I could, because if you’re going to do it you have to do it the best you can.”
Jacksonville proved to be the right place at the right time. Evan’s family lives in Colorado but his grandmother lives in Edgewater. Florida felt like home to him. Jacksonville had the energy he sought. It felt right, so he followed that feeling. In addition to it feeling like home, he told us “Jacksonville has a strong food truck energy and we are growing off each other. Latin Soul, Fusion, Butt Hutt, any word of advice I need I can call them at any time.” Pie95 quickly became a reality. The center of the trailer is the Mugnaini wood fired oven that was assembled in Italy, VPN certified for Neopolitan style pizza, and perfectly suited for the mobile life of food trucking. Every day it is filled with red and white oak which Evan meticulously rearranges and coaxes until the oven is primed for pizza. The menu reflects Evan’s desire for simplicity. He wanted a menu that was Italian influenced that was able to fluctuate with the seasons, but also a menu that he knew he could execute well. This is essential in the space restrictions of food truck operation, as it’s not practical to have one ingredient that is only used on one menu item. “I had to come at the menu with ‘what can I accomplish?’ Anyone can write a menu, but what can I execute? I’m already overwhelmed with everything else going on. It’s realizing what I can and can’t do. It’s efficiency. I wanted to have the Margherita on the menu because it’s traditional. That’s how you judge a pie. I wanted to have the Bianca on the menu because it’s like peanut butter and jelly with the Margherita. Pepperoni is my #1 seller right now because I’m using real pepperoni that I’m slicing myself.”
The buzz around Pie95 grew quickly as people discovered the amazing pizza Evan was making. Foodies, bloggers, and food truck owners came out to support him immediately. One moment stood out to Evan in particular. “Carl Catullo from Catullo’s Italian came to visit one night and I hadn’t met him before. He ordered pizza to take home and came back with a bottle of wine for me. I don’t know if it’s a $10 bottle or a $50 bottle, but it’s something I’ll save for a special occasion because it meant so much that he did that. After that he posted a picture for us on Instagram and we started getting so much love. He didn’t have to do that. I am doing Italian food and pizza, and he does pizza.” Owner Gary Lathion from Latin Soul also holds a special place in the Pie95 history as he received the first pie. In a world where starting a restaurant means a quarter of a million dollars and endless other resources, it meant more to Evan to be surrounded by a food truck family that lifts each other up.
The challenges that face Evan daily on Pie95 aren’t the normal challenges of a restaurant. Every day he makes poolish (the base for his dough). The first attempt was ready within five hours when it normally takes twelve because of the humidity. This particular day Evan was having his trailer wrapped so he didn’t finish his first dough until 1am. Evan explained, “Neapolitan style pizza is different than any other work chefs are used to. Every piece of dough while stretching and backing is all a little different. You have to feel where it needs attention. I find it more challenging what I’m doing now because I’m working with a live creation and dealing with the weather. One day you have proofing time of an hour and others it will be five.” The extra effort shines in the flavors of his pizzas. The Margherita with it’s light tomato base, sweet mozzarella, fresh basil, and salt and olive oil is pizza at it’s finest. With Evan’s goal of simplicity in mind, this is true perfection. Other highlights include The Carnivore loaded with fresh sliced pepperoni, salami, ham, and bacon. The Herbivore is it’s polar opposite covered in fresh vegetables, and the refreshing Bianca has a pesto base and lemon zest. Looking for something unique? Build your own that is fully customizable.
It’s exciting to see new food trucks come straight to the roads ready to go, and Pie95 falls into that elite category. With Evan’s experience, drive, and talent Pie95 is in it for the long run. Evan’s long term plans include brick and mortars all along, you guessed it, I-95. For now though, he is exactly where he was meant to be. “It’s good to experience life. Different things are good for different people. I needed to travel to be humbled. I was a beach riff-raff punk kid. I needed to have a chef call me out on Valentine’s Day for plating raw fish. Do I want Pie95 Beer Garden? Yes. I want people to hang out and have beer and enjoy their food. You can’t do a food truck in San Francisco, it would cost over $100,000 there and there are so many laws. It’s a great place, but I needed to come back and do it here. Follow your dream, don’t be scared to step out and do something. Life is about chapters, it’s not one chapter, so don’t just live one chapter. This chapter may be one year or two years. Just take the step and enjoy.”