When Home Slice opened on South Congress in 2005, it ushered in a new era of Austin pizza. Their take on New-York style pizza has won fans across the country, and the restaurant remains an active part of what they call Austin's "pizza family." For this latest installment of the Lifers interview series, Eater spoke with two employees who have worked with the restaurant since before it opened, director of operations Nano Whitman, and kitchen manager Phil Korshak.
Both men worked their way up from entry-level positions to their current roles, and collectively have sixteen years of experience working at the restaurant. The duo are also great friends and pizza 'philosophers.' Read on for stories of fateful bagels, managing lines, and how they believe pizza can make the world a better place.
When did each of you start working at Home Slice?
Phil: October 14, 2005
Nano: September of 2005
How did you each end up coming to work here?
Nano: I was working somewhere I didn't really enjoy, and was looking for something new. I saw a sign go up on this building that said "Home Slice" and I thought, That's going to be pizza. I knew I wanted to work there.
Why was pizza so exciting to you?
Pizza is different from all other foods. In a restaurant, usually people sit down and instantly are buried in a menu. At a pizza place, ordering is a conversation. You look up at the board and talk about what you each like.
It's a shared food. In my family, and this is super cheesy, but growing up we had a tradition that whenever we ordered a pizza, someone would say, Why do we each take one piece from the big pie? And we would all respond, Because we're one big happy family.
Phil: I moved to Austin ten years ago from New York. My wife and I met in the service industry, and I was running bars for the most part. We loved New York, but we could never afford to own our apartment, and we wanted something of our own. South Austin especially appealed to us – it had a soul.
When I saw Home Slice was opening, I was looking for a new job and I thought, Pizza? How hard could that be? The answer: really hard.
I had no experience baking professionally, but I did bake a great deal at home. I love the way people physically change, that they become visibly happier, when you hand them something you've baked yourself. I had this great interview at Home Slice, we talked for an hour, and I didn't get the job. They wanted seasoned cooks, so they could do pizza right. They did the right thing not hiring me, no lie.
But after the interview, I dropped off a bag of bagels I had made. I'd mentioned that I made them, and even though I didn't get the gig I still wanted to share. After they tried the bagels, they called me back. That's the great thing about food – it communicates. It needs no translation to speak a thousand words.
I came in for a second interview, and had a great conversation again about the everyday heroism of people in our industry. Regular people can do incredible things, and it's beautiful.
What do you mean by 'incredible things'?
Kindness. You get to be a part of someone else's story. There's this mindset of sharing, too. I love seeing Nano be invested in making sure everyone who walks through the door here leaves having had a better day. We remember that no matter how many people are at the door, or are calling, and each person deserves to be treated as a welcome guest. Working in this industry gives you a reverence for the present moment.
Why do you guys think pizza holds such a special place in our culture?
Phil: I've always enjoyed making the food that you look forward to eating the next day when you fall asleep at night. Pizza is related to childhood, it's the food you eat at birthday parties. Pizza is the Princess Bride of foods – a two year old and an eighty-year-old can enjoy it equally.
Nano: I love seeing an old couple eating pizza together. When you see the way their hands might shake when they eat it, but they still come out and share a pie. You know they've eaten pizza together for ever.
Not to get too new-agey, but there's something about the trio of pizza – sauce, dough, and cheese. It's notable that the classic style of pizza isn't California pizza, but New York. That very simple, classic combination. The new Neapolitan is best when it's just simple ingredients, just flour, tomato, and a little mozzarella on top. Its lack of pretense speaks to us.
Phil: When food is really good, Italians say, You have to get this in you. It's not something you'd say about sushi the way you would about pizza. Sushi cooks are sexy. It's a ballet, and I feel goofy and weird compared to them. What I do, there's no fineness. But I like cooking food that's approachable.
What are the challenges of working with pizza?
Nano: It's difficult, but possible, to make one good pizza. What's really, really hard is making a hundred good pizzas. Five thousand good pizzas. You can't do it yourself – you have to chose people with the same passion to help. Training others renews my passion, too.
When we first opened, we had people telling us we should expand fast, that we should franchise. Our little pizza mascot-girl could have been on teeshirts in Urban Outfitters. But that's not what we're about.
Phil: You have to temper your arrogance as a chef. The thing that you love is no longer private, and so you can't touch every pie you make. It's really rewarding to train someone who goes from punching the clock to finding real happiness in the process of making pizza – to help them see that they're making a difference. That's what we believe we're doing here.
How do you manage Home Slice's popularity?
Nano: I love a great hotel, because the moment you walk in they take care of everything, your whole life. I want Home Slice to have that same feeling of complete hospitality. It's not just about the pizza. People think of us as exclusive, as a place you have to wait in line for, but that's not our goal. We don't want people to have to wait in line – our job is to make you feel lighter. That's why we built More Home Slice, and why we're always trying to expand our operations without sacrificing quality.
Phil: It comes back to kindness. Life is short, and time spent in line is time spent building resentment. It's not pleasant. We want you to come here and feel totally taken care of – feel loved.
What has it been like working with each other for over eight years?
Nano: We've become really good friends. We play music together. I'm a student of philosophy, and Phil is a philosopher, so I enjoy having someone to talk about those things with. We're the only two non-owners who are management, and it's great to have a teammate.
The restaurant world is full of fast friends – you know someone's first name and that's it, but you've been through this intense experience together. It's like a play – you have this intense experience as a cast and then the show is over. It's been valuable to have someone I've worked with for years.
Phil: There's a level of honesty between us. We're both really good at being honest by accident, and not at the best moments. But isn't that the best thing? You want a relationship to be truthful. There's times when you get these crazy ideas, and you say, Am I out of my mind? And one of us says to the other, Yes, you're out of your mind.
Nano: My grandfather once said that marriage is a 60/60 proposition. Our relationship is definitely in that paradigm.
What has been your favorite moment working at Home Slice?
Phil: It was the day after Christmas, and we lost power in our proofing room for the dough. I came in and saw we had zero dough for the day. But, okay, you can still whip up an 8 hour dough – we could make it work. Then the mixer breaks. So we called Southside Flying Pizza and asked if we could borrow their mixer. And their mixer breaks. So now we're down at Frank and Angie's making dough, and ferrying it back to Home Slice in bus tubs in the back of a pickup truck.
The kitchen is in chaos, and meanwhile I look out at the front of the house, it's calm. While I'm losing it, Nano is tranquil and possessed. My reaction turned from fear into trust – I just felt bliss.
Nano: My favorite moment is from one of our annual pizza trips to New York. We take everyone who's been with us for more than a year and just spend days eating pizza in New York. We talk a lot about what we're doing here, and why we believe we're changing the world.
The final night, we were giving toasts, and a waiter stood up and said this trip had finally helped him understand what Home Slice is all about, and what family can mean to a restaurant. I felt really proud of helping to create that moment.
What's the weirdest moment you've experienced here?
Phil: It's always strange to look out from the kitchen and see a bride and groom, in their full get-ups, eating pizza in the dining room. People are doing that more and more – coming in to re-create a first date after they get married. It's surreal.
Every year we have a Carnival of Pizza, and there's a contest for how long you can keep your hand on an eggplant sub. Usually it goes for about 30 hours, but one year it went to 68. The woman who finally won, she was sleep deprived and out of her mind. I just took her into the kitchen and opened an oven full of fresh, baking bread. The transformation that washed over her face when that smell hit her was incredible. She was invigorated, but also soothed. She looked like she was close to epiphany.
· All Home Slice Coverage [EATX]
· All Pizza Week 2014 Coverage [EATX]