Chef Bobby Bonsonor Hellen sweats like a water fountain underneath the orange-and-blue New York Mets baseball hat waiting for his grandma pie to be ready. He is standing right in front of the deck oven of his almost one-year old restaurant GG’s, located in the East Village on 511 E 5th St. in New York.
“I wanted this restaurant to be good to the community and this mentality is something I learned from my [Italian-American] family,” Hellen said.
The now 32-year-old pizza expert was first introduced to the Italian-American culture of Staten Island as an infant adopted from Bogotà, Colombia. “I don’t know if it would have been the same, if I were brought somewhere else,” Hellen said.
GG’s doesn’t claim to be nothing but a contemporary New York restaurant. Still it has an Italian accent, and a Californian twist.
Coming from a family that started cooking everything from scratch and having lived in California, between Carmel and Mount Shasta, Hellen is picky about the ingredients and products he uses.
In the back of GG’s lays a sustainable garden.
“The space was already there and I have been around a lot of people that have grown vegetables and produces,” Hellen said. “It fits what we are doing and everyone is really passionate about it.”
Not only is Hellen conscious about the ingredients he uses, but also how to make his dough.
Even if very small, he remembers standing in the kitchen observing his grandma preparing the dough of her squared pizza early in the morning. She would have baked pizza only later that day to share with the big Italian-American family and community.
“My grandma was one of my biggest inspiration getting into food and [making me understand] the kind of atmosphere I want [in my restaurant]: communal and community driven,” Hellen said. “I started to cook with her and I ended up cooking for her.”
Lavinia Pisani: Why were there so many Italian-Americans in Staten Island?
Bobby Hellen: I think the immigration moved from Italy to Brooklyn and then the kids of the first generation Italians moved to Staten Island, or to New Jersey, some to Queens, but you could see exactly where. If you asked the parents of the people I was hanging around with “where did you grow up?” “Where were you born?” Most of them would have said Brooklyn. [This is also the story of my family] my grandma was born in Italy, I believe in Naples, my mom, and dad, are from Brooklyn, and they all moved to Staten Island, where we got united.
LP: What are the characteristics of your pies?
BH: It takes me a day and a half to prepare the original squared grandma pie dough, and a day to prepare the round one. This means I am able to serve about 30 portions a day. It was during my trip to Italy, I took in mid 2000 with my business partner, that I learned how to properly prepare dough. We stopped at a culinary school in Basilicata that a friend of mine was at, and we made pizza. I learned a lot of stuff from making pizza for a day there and this helped me also to get into this place. [At the culinary school] they were harping a lot on how here in America, and other places, dough is not allowed to ferment long enough so that the yeast is still active. [Another thing I learned] was to be careful with the ingredients I was using. In Italy you guys have the fortune of not having a lot of chemicals in food as here in America. The flour here is usually bleached and bromate, which is carcinogen. Everywhere except the U.S. this is pretty much banned. Here [at GG’s] we use unbromated and unbleached flour. We offer 7 types of pies on our dinner menu, and very unconventionally only one comes with tomato sauce. I think that when you are using very good ingredients, you can figure out a way for people not to miss [tomato sauce.] If you want you can have it, but this wants to be a new way of making pizza. I don’t think of pizza only as tomato sauce, mozzarella, and everything you want on top. I find this to be very one-dimensional.
LP: What type of oven do you use? And what do you think about the wood-fired one?
BH: I use a gas deck oven from the ’70 I got from the back of a nail salon in New Jersey. If you buy one of those now it comes with 5 buttons, switches, and stuff. Mine has on, off, and temperature. That’s it, very simple. The wood fired oven sounds very romantic to me because of the fire. That’s very Italian. Dario Cecchini in Panzano, Tuscany, is one of the world most famous butchers and he would often quote Dante’s Inferno. This is the connection I have when I think of wood fired oven. Reality is that here in New York very few people have the experience of knowing how to properly use it, and it’s very expensive too.
LP: What are the differences between your pie and the New York pizza slice?
BH: A very small percentage of people look at the ingredients and the process [of making pizza.] Back, a long time ago, people off the boat from Italy started Pizzerias [in New York] and they needed people that produced tomatoes, cheese, and flour. Most of the time producers were Italians. After a hundred years that care faded away and people don’t necessary buy the proper products anymore. You can make a lot of money from pizza, and people found that out. Once people make money, some try to lower the [production] cost. New York slice pizza, of the last generation, I think brought the pizza quality down because of the products they use. A lot of $1 slice pizza shops use for example provolone instead of mozzarella. I get mozzarella from this place in Brooklyn and IT IS mozzarella.
LP: When did you understand you wanted to become a chef?
BH: I don’t know if I have come to that yet. My first job was as a busboy. I was eating at an Italian restaurant a friend was working at and the owner asked if I wanted to work that night, so I said “yes.” I was 15. I started from there and I decided I wanted to work in the kitchen. A lot of the older guys that were working there thought I would have had to go to culinary school. A person of my family actually went to The Culinary Institute of America and so I was inspired to go.
LP: Who are your mentors? Have you had an Italian one?
BH: I had a few good mentors. In general I see a mentor also as someone knowledgeable not only in the kitchen, but in life. Being a chef, or a cook in the city, can be challenging because of the lifestyle you live, so any tips on that are greatly appreciated. I also remember of an Italian guy I used to look up to. Salvatore was a cook in my first job and he showed me what was good, and what not. He was one of those that would have suggested me going to culinary school. He taught me how to make pasta, hustling, and moving my butt around the kitchen. As far as life goes, he inspired me to try to put myself always into a better position. That’s why he was always playing the lottery. I remember he paid me to go to the deli around the corner to buy cigarettes and the lottery for him. I was about 16. For a few reasons he wasn’t allowed to go to that particular deli. That taught me how not to spend all my money in gambling, smoking, and drinking.