Ben Leventhal

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August 20, 2014 at 4:04pm
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Where Are They Now: Adam Kuban

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Eater was sold to Vox Media at the end of last year and as a result it will change more in 2014 than it has during the entire rest of its existence. I think Amanda Kludt and her team are doing an excellent job. As exciting as this evolution is to watch, it has me a little bit nostalgic, frankly. It has me missing the old days — and you’ll forgive my cheap back-in-the-day riff here — when features like the Deathwatch and the IMterview roamed. When this story ran.

It led me to reach out to Adam Kuban earlier this year to ask him if we could get together and chat. On paper I was interviewing him for sort of a Where Are They Now: Adam Kuban, but practically speaking, I just wanted to hang with an OG food blogger, one whose output, regardless of platform, I’ve always enjoyed.

Kuban started Slice, a blog about pizza, more than a decade ago, on account of deep obsession and, ostensibly, free time. Along the way he invented the “pizza upskirt” and was part of a small group of people who set the ground rules for food blogging that are still in effect today. Now he’s running a sold-out pizza pop-up, Margot’s; and he works one shift a week at Paulie Gee’s, the superb Brooklyn pizzeria, in training to franchise it in Portland, Oregon. Of all of the many characters who in one way or another have spent time talking about eating as a matter of profession, Adam is categorically top-5 for me. He is everything that is right about the medium. His tone is razor sharp yet approachable, he’s consistent, and he knows what he doesn’t know.

Adam’s day job is with NYC and Company, the city’s tourism portal, where he works on web and social media editorial. He’s married and has a 25-month-old daughter, Margot. We met for lunch a few months back at Don Antonio. His choice, natch.

BL: So this place is the Keste guys?

AK: I can’t remember exactly how it breaks down. I think Roberto from Keste is up here now and his daughter runs Keste. He was joking — and I don’t even know how old his daughter is, maybe early 20s — [in Kuban’s Italian pizzaiolo accent] “I told her not to follow in my footsteps, but what does she do … ?” He runs it with Antonio Starita, hence Don Antonio. They just opened one in Atlanta, too.

Exactly how much pizza do you eat?

Too much! Probably more than when I was editing Slice, ironically. At least twice a week now. I try to do a weekly pizza lunch, and then I put that up on Instagram with that stupid hashtag, #weeklypizzalunch. At least once a week I try to go out for pizza at a place that I’m either revisiting out of curiosity or a new place. Either it’s new because it just opened or I’ve shamefully never been there. So at least twice, because there’s that one time when I go out for lunch, and then at Paulie’s I’ll eat a few slices here and there when I’m working my shift. Sometimes I bring home a shift pie from Paulie’s and I’ll eat maybe half of it.

Do you think about pizza differently than you did ten years ago?

When I started Slice, my notion of pizza was very braggadocious. I think I was trying to prove something. Like, Hey I’m a New Yorker, guys. This was my way of trying to prove some kind of New Yorker cred, I guess. Our pizza’s the best. Fuck that Chicago shit. I think the tagline was, “It’s not deep dish, it’s not Chicago dreck. This is about New York pizza.” Over the years I softened. To be more inclusive in the Serious Eats way, I had to soften a bit on the Chicago thing. Plus, after a while, you just tired of the whole rhetoric.

I look back to the way we talked about restaurants when Eater started and it was fundamentally an outsider publication.

Yeah.

But over the years, by virtue of the fact that we were successful and in the same way you were, I think it moved in the direction of being more insider. But, also, we just knew more more about what we were talking about.

Exactly. When I started I was just some dumb-ass, like, there are a ton of good pizzas in New York. Follow along as I eat through the good ones and keep notes. And then, yeah, slowly, to my surprise, people were like, “Oh, there’s this crazy pizza blog. Cool.” And then pizzeria owners started knowing about it and then when you come you’d become friendly with the owners. It was outsider, nose up against the glass wow this is cool. Then, it was “Hey, you’re from Slice? Let me show you around the kitchen. Let me show you the oven. Hey, do you want to top some pizzas?” It fundamentally changed from being a very personal, off the cuff thing to being more professional.

Do you miss the early days?

I do miss the early days, in a way. With Slice as it is now, there’s less room for personal stories. I would almost say personality, although you can get that through in the writing. For the personal stuff, readers don’t care. In the early days it was very much my blog. I could get away with “Me and E-Rock went to Staten Island. Staten Island’s crazy!”

But it’s an interesting thing. That kind of voice and personality is exactly what made the site successful.

I think that’s what readers connected with, not only on Slice or Hamburger Today or Serious Eats. But, blogs in general. That was what people connected with. That’s why there were blogs and there was the mainstream media. As blogs became more professional, they lost some of that craziness. I miss the early days when you could just get up a post about whatever and just kind of express yourself without really thinking about page views, thinking about SEO, thinking about how it will play on Twitter, if it’s shareable on Facebook … I do miss the sense that you were making it up as you went along. Now there’s a formula to things. There’s a way to do a lifestyle blog. There’s a way to do a recipes blog. You have to have beautiful photos. You have to have giveaways.

Doesn’t that suck?

It does. It is formulaic. It all kind of blends into the same voice. “Look, we have a giveaway from Kitchen-Aid. Fun!” It’s a little sad to see what was once my baby kind of lingering there. Languishing.

Would you buy it back if you had the opportunity?

No. I love it, but that kind of small indie blog just wouldn’t be worth my time. Or my money, unless it was $5. I hate to say that about what I just called my baby, but what value would I get out of it? Advertisers flocking to it? Probably not. It would just be a personal project and I could very well do that on Tumblr or Wordpress and just start a new one. In fact I have Famous Original A, which I barely blog on as it is because—Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare are kind of my distributed blog.

So, speaking of your distributed blog, from what I can tell, you’re not just working at Paulie Gee’s. You’ve dropped hints you’re doing it as a matter of training to open your own.

Basically, Paulie is franchising. He’s not going the normal route. He’s looking for people like me or the guy in Baltimore. Pizza nerds who are passionate about pizza and have this weird pizza dream. With Paulie, what he’s always said is that this is the way he can expand, but still stay in Brooklyn. Hopefully all the people who open one are personable enough to do the Paulie thing. Like, “Hey how are ya? Ya been here before?”

And yours is going to be in Portland.

I lived there for three years after college and fell in love with it. But, I wanted to see what New York was like, so I moved here. I always had in the back of my mind that I would retire to Portland. This wouldn’t be retirement, but like Paulie says, “Ever since I opened this place I never worked a day in my life.”

Where in the apprenticeship are you?

I would say I’m in the middle. For Paulie, he wants to get them opened as soon as he can. I want to train up a little bit more before I get out there. I’m probably 60% of the way there, I think. I can top those pizzas with the best of them. I can stretch the dough now, which turned out to be the hardest part. The oven I thought would probably be the hardest—it is the hardest physically, because you’re in front of the hot oven and you’ve got one hand just about being burnt off.

Basically there are three people on a station. Well four people on the pizza making operation: expeditor, dough stretcher, topper, oven. You’ll have the expeditor calling out the pies that go in the round — we do three to four pizzas a round. The stretcher stretches out three to four rounds of dough, the topper tops them, then the oven guy or girl throws them in, spins them, cooks them. A whole round you could do in three to four minutes—well, let’s say four to five minutes. So, how it works when you’re training you start on toppings. That’s easy enough. You should be able to do toppings no problem after one or two nights. You’ll start out stretching dough when it’s slower. If you get into trouble then they’ll switch you out, throw you back to toppings. With dough, I was constantly thrown back to toppings. With the pizza making on the oven, after a couple of time I could make it through a shift. But I need more practice on that.

It sounds like you’re living the dream.

Yeah.

* * * 

Epilogue. I did this interview with Adam in March. It’s five months later. By way of update, Adam writes, “I’m actually staying in NYC to open a bar pie place now. In the very early stages — still writing my business plan.”

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