Chef’s Corner: Chris Decker Interview
Brian Hernandez goes in-depth with Metro Pizza's Chris Decker on pizza, life, and the art of the craft.
Bright lights, water fountains, mini volcanoes. Las Vegas is famous for a lot of things, and pizza is fast becoming one of them. In a town that sees tourists from all over the globe year-round, your pizza game must be on point, and Metro Pizza’s game is definitely on point. This is due in no small part to a man named Chris Decker. Chris has been slinging pies under the tutelage of the great John Arena for the last 21 years, and he shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary. He is breaking away from the crowd and creating some of the most delicious and beautiful pies Sin City has seen to date. I was able to sit down with Chris and pick his brain about how to thrive in a tourist town, what drives his creations and why he loves pizza so much.
Brian: Hello Chris. Thanks for taking the time this morning to sit down with me.
Chris: No problem.
Brian: So, you work at Metro Pizza of the Las Vegas, NV. Area, and you guys have how many locations now?
Chris: We have 4 full service locations right now. Also, one in the airport and one in a casino right off the strip. So, actually 6 in all.
Brian: Which one is your favorite one to work at?
Chris: I started at the Flamingo and Decatur store, so that one will always be the number one for me. To me, the pizza just tastes the best there. I love that one.
Brian: Alright! So, let’s jump right into to getting to know what makes Chris Decker tick. What is your earliest pizza memory. Maybe a smell, something visual, maybe you were waling down the street and someone chucked a slice at your head?
Chris: You know, I have a couple. Growing up, my Dad always made pizzas on Fridays at home. So, when I was young, it was cool to watch him do that and take part in it. He didn’t have anything to do with the pizza making world, or even cooking, but for some reason he always made pizzas on Friday. Then, when I was young there was a really great restaurant called Duff’s in upstate New York. There was this really old man whose job was to make pizzas and his work station was right in the middle of the restaurant. He would let us come up and play with the dough and show us how he was making the pies.
Brian: How did you end up getting started in the business then?
Chris: I’m from up-state New York, and when I was in college I made pizzas, just kind of for fun. Then I transferred out here to UNLV, and I didn’t want to go home one summer, so I applied at Metro Pizza in 1997, and I ended up staying. I’m now in my 20th year there. I think what I love most about it is the creativity, the working with my hands, the instant gratification of seeing somebody take a bite and loving it. Seeing that right away is something that keeps me motivated pretty much every day.
Brian: How much freedom do you have to play around with recipes that may or may not go on the menu?
Chris: I get to play around every single day with something. If we did the same menu items that we have for the last 20 years, I would go insane, you know? You have to keep it fresh. So, I try to do something different at least a couple times a week. The past couple years John (Arena) has said, “Go ahead and do what you want. Run it as a special and see how it goes.” But as far as getting it added to the menu, it really depends. There are a lot of things that we really like that perhaps our customers aren’t quite ready for. You have to really focus and tap into what you think your customer base will embrace. And there are a couple of things I make for John and Sam (Facchini) that they really like, so at least that’s job security for me!
Brian: Let’s dig a little deeper into your pizza tastes. What’s your favorite ingredient to work with?
Chris: Well the one we use the most, so I think it’s the one I can’t live without, is olive oil. The Corto olive oil that we use is just great. I love everything about it. I love the flavor of it when I do side by side taste tests. To me it’s second to none and I use it every single day. Actually, I guess it is my favorite, because without it, I can’t really do anything.
Brian: Aside form the high quality of the food, what is one unique aspect of Metro Pizza and what you do there that you think keeps the people coming in day after day? A signature item, a gimmick, tap dancing bears? Something that is Metro Pizza and Metro Pizza only.
Chris: Well, a lot of people always ask, “What is Metro Pizza?”. It’s metropolitan pizza. Everyone that lives or visits here is from somewhere else. So, we try to do styles from all over the country, the different metropolitan areas. Traditionally our pizzas are New York style, but we also have thin crust pizzas, pizzas cut into squares, we have stuffed pizzas, we have thick crust pizzas, Sicilian pizzas. We have all of these different things because Las Vegas is a melting pot. To me, that’s the on thing that’s kept us going. We try to be your neighborhood pizzeria. And even if we don’t have a style from where you come from, I will say “tell me about it and I will try to make something for you.” And they never forget that.
Brian: Well, it sounds like you love your job, having been there for 20 years now. What is one thing you would maybe want to add to or change about the menu or Metro Pizza in general? Something you would think would benefit the pizzeria.
Chris: I would do a seasonal menu. We used to have one, but I would love to talk to John about bringing it back. Something that we would change about 3 or 4 times a year. Something with salads and fresh seasonal ingredients for the pizzas. I think the staff could use a little bit of a challenge too, and this would keep the menu fresh throughout the year. This would give them something to look forward to instead of the same menu every single day.
Brian: Now, you do have some residential locations of Metro. What is something you do locally to market to the residents of Las Vegas? Perhaps giveaways or partnering with schools or local charities? What do you do to keep Metro Pizza top of mind locally in such a saturated market?
Chris: We sponsor nights through the school PTA, they print out flyers, and when those are turned in, the customer gets a discount and we donate those sales back to the school. We also partner with Catholic charities and 3 Square, which is the food bank out here. We do a lot with them. I think it’s important if we are going to be a part of this community, which we have been since 1980, you have to give back, because at the end of the day we all live here, and we don’t want the town to suffer. If the town suffers, then we suffer.
Brian: Let’s go from playing nice to playing mean. Is there one ingredient you will never use? One, that if you saw an employee with it in their personal lunch, you throw it out and immediately fire that employee.
Chris: For me, it’s mayonnaise. I hate it. I can’t even look at it.
Brian: You mean mayonnaise as an ingredient on a pizza?
Chris: Just in general! At Lulu’s, the bakery which I also work in, you’ll see that there’s no mayonnaise on any sandwich or any salad dressing, nothing. To me I think people use it as a crutch. I know it is not typically a pizza topping, but I’m sure someone, somewhere, somehow has used it on a pizza, and I just can’t do that.
Brian: On the opposite side of that coin. What is one ingredient you don’t use at the restaurant that you would like to experiment with?
Chris: We had burrata on the menu for a while about 10 years ago. I think we might have been ahead of our time, or our customer base just wasn’t quite ready for it yet. No one quite knew what it was. I think it we would benefit bringing that back. It’s so delicious, super sexy, and everything about it is great.
Brian: So, do you think people are just a little more educate now I general on what good ingredients are for pizzas? A little more likely to step outside their comfort zones?
Chris: Absolutely, ten years ago the Food Network and cooking shows were just getting started, there was no Instagram, Facebook was just gaining its footing. It was only Emiril really on TV. Look at how we’ve evolved since then. The average customer knows a lot more and pays more attention to things like that. And let’s be honest, ten years ago it wasn’t as sexy to be a pizza maker as it is now. They’re regarded as great chefs along the strips and in all the major hotels. Everyone knows the most famous pizza maker in their own town anymore. Where as before, they used to just be the local place to go and then was a forgotten about thing. Even 5 years ago, we were still making really good pizza, but no one cared about who was making the pizza.
Brian: You attribute things like cooking shows and Instagram for opening people’s minds as far as trying new ingredients?
Chris: Yeah, and Trust. Trust goes a long way. With Metro having been in town such a long time, our customers trust us, and they know we’re not going to try to “pull a fast one” on them. I think when you go into a higher end restaurant, you trust the chef. So, if you see a tasting menu, you’re like, “Let’s roll the dice!” because you know you’re going to get a really good product. It’s the same kind of deal for us (pizzaioli) now. I think the customer has learned to trust their pizza makers as well.
Brian: John was kind enough to invite me out to work with him at a pizza and beer pairing event about 4 years ago, and I loved it. That’s the first time I saw the Lulu’s Bakery / Metro Pizza location in the same building in Centennial hills. I took notice that there were strict rules about the bakery people have to stay on this side of the building and the Metro folk have to stay on the other side even though the kitchens are attached in one spot. Is there a concerted effort to have them run on different schedules to keep business in both or do they have their own loyal customer bases, or is it more beneficial to each to have them as partner restaurants?
Chris: Well, the bakery opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 3 p.m., and the pizzeria opens at 11 a.m., so there is plenty of time for both locations. You could go to Lulu’s for breakfast then come back for dinner at Metro. There’s not really a competing atmosphere because the menus are completely different. And it’s a good thing, because Metro had such a big customer base when we opened Lulu’s 5 years ago it really helped. No one really knew what Lulu’s was at first. First, we were a food truck, and no one knew it was associated with Metro Pizza. Between them both they are different things completely, but they have worked well together. They have helped each other out.
Brian: That’s great, and to the audience, if you haven’t been there I highly recommend going at the time frame they are both open because there is a walk-through for customers. Grab a bagel at Lulu’s and follow that with a great pie at Metro Pizza. I was very honored to be able to work in both kitchens and mess up a lot of dishes for John Arena. He was very patient with me and I learned a lot!
Now, in a town like Las Vegas, with so many out of towners and hundreds of pizzerias all over, what is the best type of marketing that Metro Pizza does to keep the butts in the seats?
Chris: We don’t necessarily focus on the business off the strip. We try to be Las Vegas’ neighborhood pizzeria. We want the locals to come. We do have that one in a casino a block up from the strip and the airport location, but first and foremost, we want families to come here and eat. We’ve had generations upon generations come here to eat. You’ll see everything from grandparents down to their grandkids that com here. We’ve done christenings, then their confirmation, then their weddings, on up to birthdays for their kids. We want to be a part of this community. We don’t really market to tourists as much. Of course, we want them to come, but most of all we want that local customer because we know they’re going to come back. Repeat business is where it’s at.
Brian: Well, 37 years in a location is a long time. But Vegas is ever growing. Do you do any new mover marketing (NMM) for new residents? Try to get that recurring customer early? Or do you rely on word of mouth?
Chris: We have done NMM in the past. That’s one thing I think we need to get better at, is trying to create new business. You don’t want to get caught up in the situation where your customers are dying. Sorry to be so blunt, but you get that with loyal customers after 37 years in business. You need to keep the new people engaged and always strive for new customers. It’s funny you mentioned all the pizzerias in Vegas. They just released the best of voting cards and for the pizza category alone there were 52 nominations. I mean, think about that. So, you ask, “how do you stick out?”. You just grind, do the best you can every day. You hope your employees have the same mind-set and drive, and hopefully you’re doing better than the next guy.
Brian: That’s some great info right there Chris. Thank you. So, now, we’ve come to the dreaded “Scott Weiner’s Lightning Round”, where I throw 3 ingredients at you and you tell me how you would use them on a pizza. They tend to be a little weird. Some you might already use, some you probably don’t. But that’s the fun. This gives us a peek inside the mind of the pizzaiolo. You ready to go?
Chris: Bring it on. Been waiting for this.
Brian: Ok, ingredient number one, probably one of my crazier ones…pickles.
Chris: Funny enough, we use pickles. We have a pizza called the “Flying Piggle”. We use carnitas (BBQ pork), we put that on the pizza, and when it comes out we top it with French fried onion rings that were soaked in buttermilk, and then bread and butter pickles. That’s actually one I created as a special for the National Finals Rodeo when it was in town. That was one that actually got added to them menu for a long time. On the menu it said “Who would ever put pickles on a pizza? We’ll do it when pigs fly.” Hence the name the “Flying Piggle.”
Brian: I love it! Great flavors with a theme. Ok, let’s do another off the wall one. Egg.
Chris: Yes, a while ago I had an egg pizza that we were doing with sopressata and cacciocavallo cheese and fried egg. That was delicious. Again, it had pickled peppers on it too, so you can see a pattern forming. But it di break down that cacciocavallo cheese which is super rich. And that pickled pepper with the egg…I just love egg on a pizza. There’s something about getting it just right so the egg yolk kind of becomes a sauce. I love it, I’d put egg on pizza every day if I could.
Brian: Wow. This is just way too easy for you man. But I like it! Let’s see if we can trip you up. Let’s go with figs, and this is a tribute to U.S. Pizza Team member Gino Rago. His favorite ingredient.
Chris: Now, figs I would love to put on a pizza, but that fig season is so defined. Especially out here. When you get them in you better buy them because the next day they’re all gone. The classic flavor of prosciutto, arugula and fig is awesome. I love that combination. The super bitter green with the sweet fig is great. We’ve used them a couple times. I like to use them in the bakery for different seasonal toasts. Just a ricotta toast with some fig and honey? That’s hard to beat. That’s comfort for me right there.
Brian: Man, I’m getting so hungry! Ok, on to more recipe related questions. The recipe you’re gifting us at the Chef’s Corner, I think we settled on the star shaped one?
Chris: Yeah, it’s called the Stella. I’ve seen it on Instagram and I’ve tried for so long to get it right. It’s one of those things when you put it out there, once people see it, everyone wants it.
Brian: Who made it first?
Chris: I saw it on an Instagram for Patrizia’s in New York. That’s the first place I have seen this and where I decided I needed to try to recreate it.
Brian: Credit where credit is due. Much respect. How do you build it?
Chris: It just has our regular pizza sauce, then I shaved some garlic over it, so it melts into the sauce. And when it came out I put the beautiful half piece of burrata right in the center some fresh baby basil leaves, a drizzle of olive oil, and the star points are filled with a ricotta mix. Just extra flavor, and they can even eat the points as an appetizer.
Chris: Yeah, just the basic flavors presented in a new and exciting way. That’s all you need to create buzz in your place. Outside the box thinking.
Brian: Well they can get this recipe in the May issue of PMQ if they want to try it for themselves or see the video at www.pmq.com/0518B. I did, and I had a blast trying it. Telling you folks, watch those star points. That’s what’ll get you.
Thank you so much for the recipe Chris! I did want to ask you one more thing. What is the best part of Metro Pizza that has kept you working there for over 20 years?
Chris: You know, working side by side with people you actually get along with and like, like two legends like John and Sam, I mean we just get along. If people got along with their bosses like we get along, it would be different. I don’t really think of them as my bosses, I mean, yes, I have to answer to them, but we work together as a team. I think that’s what’s kept me here for so long. Working side by side with them and growing with them. It’s great to work side buy side with people that are collaborative ad loving.
Brian: I think you actually answered my next question. Is John Arena really the monster that the internet has painted him out to be, or if he’s pretty nice. I know for a fact he’s one of the kindest, humblest, most sharing men in the industry. I don’t think anyone would disagree.
Chris: That’s the thing. He’s always calm. That in itself is very helpful. You know for a fact how stressful this industry is. Someone calls off, someone’s in a wreck, someone has the flu. You might be going crazy with all those different things, and then he’ll come in and say, “OK. We can do it this way, or that way,” and by the end of the day you’re done. But in the moment, he’s always calm, and that’s the one thing that is great. Anyone who knows him can attest to the fact that he’s always a calming force and teaching, and to work side by side with that is great for me, for anyone.
Brian: I did hear something about him the other day on the Facebooks or the interwebs. I think it was Will Brewer calling him out on the size of his forearms. I didn’t pay attention during my time with him, but is he like Popeye? Does he have giant forearms that crush spinach cans?
Chris: Hahah! People don’t know, but he has been practicing karate for like 40 years and is a black belt. So as gentle as he is…he can bend you in seven ways and make you scream for mercy. So, don’t test that. You don’t want that side to come out!
Brian: I will take your word for it that Mr. Arena will bend me in twain! What is the biggest lesson you have learned from John or Sam that you would pass on to others.
Chris: Empathy. Other people’s feelings. No matter if it’s customers, employees, your product delivery guy. No matter who it is, John and Sam have shown me to take a step back and consider the other persons point of view. Empathy is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from them. You can learn to be a better pizza maker from anyone. You just can’t learn to be a better person from anyone.
Brian: That’s definitely a great trait to pass down to the next generation. Seems like it’s lacking in today’s society. Chris, thank you for your time today. If people want to learn a little bit more about you, John Arena or Metro Pizza, where should they go?
Chris: Yeah, MetroPizza.com has our menu, locations and a little bit of history. But everyone comes to Las Vegas at least once in their life. I would suggest reaching out to us through Facebook and let us know if you’re coming and we can make your trip that much more special. And if you’re a pizza maker we are very open to making pies with you in the kitchen. That’s what I love about pizza. It is and always has been a very communal dish. We’re all of part of this crazy pizza family. When you’re here, come out and have some pizza with us.
Brian: Words to live by. Thanks again Chris.
Chris: Thanks Brian!