Happy 10th Birthday, NOFA-VT Pizza Oven! “We started this mobile pizza oven adventure in 2006 to introduce eaters to the farms, foods and flavors of their community,” says Enid Wonnacott, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). Wonnacott’s love of agricultural fairs ultimately sparked her vision of a mobile unit that could travel from fair to fair, or farm to farm, and offer a product that features the best tastes of each locale, from pizza and bread to roasted veggies and meats. “Pizza is a great choice because it has grain, dairy, veggies and meat,” says the ever-optimistic Wonnacott. She applied for a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education) grant, which helped NOFA-VT purchase the oven. Built in 2006 by the Maine Wood Heat Company, the oven is made from “white earth” tiles from France and covered with a copper dome. The trailer and oven combo weighs 4,000 pounds.
“The oven makes NOFA a visible presence statewide and allows us to connect to Vermonters in their communities,” Wonnacott explains. “Since we also vend at festivals and private parties, out-of-state guests can enjoy a slice (pardon the pun) of classic Vermont food experience. And of course, we promote the local farms whose organic products we purchase for use on the pizzas.”
“When I get to work the oven at an event,” Wonnacott continues, “I can source the ingredients locally, prep cook and serve that food, and then witness the appreciation of both the eaters and the farmers. It’s like going to a great party ... with a purpose!”
Wonnacott’s favorite combo? The classic NOFA “beetza”—roasted beet, corn, fresh arugula and a little bit of pork sausage!
Since 2014, Tucker Levy has been responsible for transporting the oven and preparing the wood-fired pizzas. Here’s a glimpse into the backstory of a NOFA pizza oven baker.
Edible Green Mountains: So Tucker, what’s your background in food?
Tucker Levy: I grew up in Weybridge and graduated in 2009 from Middlebury College, where I studied environmental science and geology. During college, I got a summer internship at Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester, learning to make cheese and selling at the farmers’ markets.
In the winter of 2011, I landed a position as an intern at this awesome place, the Boonville Hotel and Table 128, two hours north of San Francisco. It feels a lot like Vermont. I stayed there for three years. It was like getting paid to go to cooking school, preparing meals night- ly with amazing ingredients. They also had a stationary pizza oven, made of straw, sand and clay, and another woman and I ran that for weddings. I fell in love with that and dreamed of making it into a business someday. But I got homesick for Vermont and came back home.
EGM: How did you end up as the NOFA pizza oven baker?
TL: I had always wanted to work for NOFA so I kept checking their website for job openings. In the spring 2014, I saw they needed some- one to run the mobile oven. It was my ideal job! I was also making pizzas at the Old Brick Store in Charlotte.
EGM: Describe a typical day on the road with the oven.
TL: I need to be on-site at least two hours before the event starts. I swing by NOFA’s office in Richmond, pick up the coolers of product, tables, utensils, serving stuff, firewood, and load it into the truck. Then I hitch up the trailer with the oven. Once I arrive at the site, I start the fire right away. It takes two hours for the oven to heat up to about 800 degrees. Once the fire is underway, I make the dough and portion it into balls. While the dough is proofing, I set up the tent and arrange the cooking area. I get my helpers started on prepping the veggies and cheese. We roast some of the veggies and cook the sausage in the oven as it heats. As the event starts, we begin stretching the dough into pizza rounds and load the toppings. People are amazed at how quickly the pizzas cook—about three minutes in that super-hot oven.
EGM: Best aspects of the job?
TL: I get to travel around the state and set up in incredibly beautiful places. I love the variety of farms and the different character of each. I also meet wonderful people. They’re so curious and engaged with the oven. It becomes a participatory thing, where I can share what I learned with people, talk about NOFA and the importance of local foods and farming.
EGM: Most challenging?
TL: The weather! Inclement weather adds a whole level of complications. Since we’re outside, cooking in the rain can be a mess. If the flour gets wet on the table, that impacts how the pizza will behave in the oven. If it’s windy, the oven doesn’t burn as efficiently. Anyone who bakes knows that temperature and humidity can affect how dough proofs. And we never know exactly how many people will show up at an event, which makes it challenging to portion the ingredients.
EGM: Speaking of that, how do you source your toppings?
TL: I always work with the host farm or farms in the area. I contact them about a week before the event to see what they have in abun- dance and what’s in season. If need be, I supplement with produce from Intervale Community Farm in Burlington. Tomatoes can be challenging if early or late in the season, so we often use hothouse tomatoes grown by Long Wind Farm in Thetford.
EGM: Any unusual ingredients?
TL: Roasted beets! Enid introduced them to me. We roast them in tin foil with some olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar or maple syrup. In general, I like to mix it up and keep things creative, which is easy to do with pizzas.
EGM: How about the dough?
TL: I make a pretty classic simple dough with flour, water, salt and active dry yeast. Four parts white flour to one part whole wheat.
EGM: How many events each year?
TL: We do about 50 events. Farmer socials, organized by NOFA and hosted on farms around the state, are my favorite. We also do the Earth Day celebration each April in Poultney, the strawberry and pumpkin festivals at Cedar Circle Farm, and the Shelburne Harvest Festival in the fall. Last summer, we did the Valley Stage bluegrass folk festival in Huntington and a party to celebrate the Intervale Community Farm’s 25th anniversary. We also do a few weddings and private parties.
EGM: What’s so compelling about a pizza oven?
TL: The power of fire draws. People gravitate to the oven which is striking in itself. They’re intrigued by the concept and ask a lot of questions. An outside pizza oven generates such goodwill and a sense of community.
EGM: Tell me about your own catering business, One Hearth.
TL: I always dreamed of having my own business, and working the NOFA oven inspired me even further, so last spring, I built my own mobile wood-fire pizza oven with Colin Pratt, who grew up in Middlebury with me. He has tons of pizza experience and is an ac- complished metalsmith as well. We funded One Hearth through a Kickstarter campaign. We’re based in Burlington’s North End, and we do events all around Vermont, from catering and weddings to Arts Riot food trucks, the Old North End ramble in late July, Ciderstock at Woodchuck Cider, and Foodaroo in Middlebury. And I still make the dough for NOFA and run their oven as often as I can. It’s pretty amazing that I can make a living this way!
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
EGM: Breakfast today?
Tucker Levy: Coffee. I don’t eat breakfast.
EGM: Cake, pie or cookies?
TL: Raspberry rhubarb crumb pie, with cardamom ice cream if I can find it.
EGM: Most memorable childhood meal?
TL: Potato latkes and applesauce.
EGM: Guilty food pleasure?
TL: Snickers bars.
EGM: Midnight snack?
TL: Carrots and peanut butter.
Maria Reade’s favorite NOFA pizza comes loaded with any combo of roasted veggies, from Someday Farm of course. The essence of summer on a crust, washed down with a cold IPA.