It appears the two biggest pizza nerds in the world are both from Wellington. Samuel Flynn Scott spoke to the capital’s pizza guru, Tommy Millions, about the perfect slice, learning his craft, and his alternative social media style.
Tommy Millions started life as a little woodfired pizza trailer that would pop up at farmers’ markets and events. Then it was a single pizza shop operating out of a converted toilet in Wellington’s party-zone Courtenay Place. Now it’s a virtual empire: two stands, the shiny flagship store, and the glorious Lucky Chicken.
The brainchild of Tom Kirton, the face you see on the box, Tommy Millions is really good pizza. Not authentic Napoli pizza, not strictly New York style (though it is definitely in that family), it’s Tommy’s pizza. I love it; I have eaten mountains of it. I ate it the week they opened. I had got myself a slice knowing practically nothing about it. Instantly I was transported – it took me straight to the place where I ate my first New York slice.
That was on The Phoenix Foundation’s first US tour. We landed in NYC late at night; everything looked like a movie, and like a beardy gang of munters who got cut from The Warriors we descended on the closest pizza spot to our garbage hotel. It was unlike any pizza I had ever eaten. Cheese slice: crusty on the bottom from being pre-cooked then reheated to order, enough sauce to balance that extra crunchy base, faintly sweet, the perfect amount of cheese, insanely mouth-burningly hot. It was true love. The New York slice was now part of my eating vocabulary, more important to my sense of self than a service station mince pie. So you can imagine my emotional state on being taken back to that sensation, but in Wellington.
I finished that first slice of Tommy’s and went straight back for another. Second slice in and I was talking to Tommy, asking him about his processes, his ingredients. I’ve watched his career from afar ever since. The opening of two new pizza shops. The slow and ultimately incredible search for the best chicken sandwich, resulting in the 2017 opening of fried chicken store Lucky (after you get a slice maybe go next door and get a chicken sandwich, they’re fucking great).
I always enjoy catching up with Tommy – we’ve chatted about pizza dozens of times over the last six years – but interviewing him was slightly daunting. I have worked in kitchens, I know how tough hospo work can be. I know that you need to earn your respect around chefs, they are busier than you will ever be and they don’t take no shit. Just look at Tommy’s social media pages. Trolling reviews are re-contextualised by Tommy in the most wonderful direct way. Somehow when he is being defensive it comes across as joyous. There is nothing more damning than someone taking delight in your harsh criticism.
Setting up the interview proves tricky. One, then two, then three of Tommy’s staff pull out of shifts with colds. Chefs are never supposed to get sick, never supposed to take time off. This old school attitude is ridiculous but the reason is this: if you’re not there to do your job someone else, who is probably already in the weeds, has to instead. And today that means Tommy.
I foolishly suggest that we could conduct the interview while working and that I’ll happily do whatever food prep he needs doing. So here I am, slicing up the biggest pile of mushrooms I have ever seen. The energy of the kitchen is electric. Tommy, who has just finished a shift cooking chicken next door, after doing prep all morning, is organising shift cover for tomorrow on his phone and making pizza after pizza.
I sense we are in the calm before the storm. It’s Saturday night, things are gonna get busy. I must chop the shit out of these mushrooms, and get into it…
Sam: How did all this happen? I have to ask because it seems to me that people don’t start working kitchens to become a chef, they start to have a job.
Tommy: To make some pocket money and get laid, that sort of thing…. My first kitchen job was when I was 14. My auntie has a catering company in Auckland, she’s from a family of doctors and lawyers, and in the ’80s going off and becoming a chef wasn’t a thing women did. But she went to London and did it and then came to New Zealand to start the catering company.
There were four boys at home and every summer holiday two of us would go up to Auckland to work for Sue. The first time I was 14 or 15, we’d help out, wash dishes, peel vegetables and go and do off site catering jobs which is where I’d learn…
Mise en place?
Haha, no, more like the proclivities of what chefs do before events.
That was mind-blowing for a 14-year-old, to see people smoking weed before work.
That was a mind opening thing for me too. I started in kitchens at 14 too, and I did it because I really wanted to cook, but I got a bit disillusioned by just how hard the work actually is. But I couldn’t believe how much weed everyone smoked.
I know right, 14-year me was pretty sheltered up to that point. Anyway, I did that job for a few years but never really thought much of it.
It was nice you got to start with your auntie and not in the usual macho environment.
It was a very feminine kitchen, but she was hard ass. She’d started at badass kitchens in the ’80s. She knew how to give it, but she didn’t want that culture in her kitchens. She’s still running it now, it’s a really successful business.
Then I went off to law school, and didn’t do anything food related until I finished my degree. Had a job lined up at Russell McVeagh, but decided to take a year off and moved to Canada with some friends, ended up in Montreal. I didn’t really speak any French so I knew my only chance of finding work would be in kitchens. There were three of us living in one bedroom and we all went looking for kitchen and call centre jobs. All three of us had interviews lined up at the same restaurant. I was the only one who actually got up and went to the interview, so the other two missed that and went and got the call centre jobs.
Ha! Well it pays to be able to get up on time if you want to work in hospo.
My friends were horribly disappointed with their jobs and only lasted a week and mine was fucking awesome… At a place called the Clairmont Cafe. I worked there about six months, picked up some skills. There were two guys there who had worked at the only New York style pizza place in Montreal and somehow I was already thinking about pizza. So they had the inside knowledge.
Had you had any kind of pizza revelation at this point?
I stopped in New York on my way to Montreal and went to a place called Totonno’s in Coney Island
Oh yes, classic spot, you did well.
We fluked it. We were just wandering around Coney Island checking out the freak shows and and we got chatting to a couple of freaks. We asked if there was anywhere we could get some pizza around here and one of them said “dude you’re half block from the most important pizzeria in America. In the world even.” So we went to Totonno’s. I have some video of this guy with the sauce from my shitty phone at the time, because they have this distinctive style of pizza there.
The saucey style.
Yeah the sauce on after the cheese
Exactly. And for every pizza they make this old guy comes from the kitchen out back with ladle full of sauce and gives it to the pizza maker who’s making the pies out front so he can spread it on the pizza. And if they’re making two pies he does two trips. It makes no sense – just bring two portions at once.
I love that New York thing though, where it just takes as long as it takes.
Yeah like Dom DeMarco from Di Fara’s, he’s one of the slowest pizza makers I have ever seen.
So anyway, I had this pizza awakening at Totonno’s and then these guys I was working with in Montreal hooked me up at the local pizza place. I completely lied about being able to stretch dough. They worked out that lie pretty fast but kept me on anyway, and that’s where I first learnt how to make a real pizza.
But you have law degree at this point so how does this part time job on your gap year turn into a career?
Well I came back to New Zealand, started working as a lawyer, pretty quickly realised that that was never going to work for me and that I just needed to make pizza. I probably wouldn’t have lasted long anyway – my billable hours were dwarfed by time spent on TradeMe searching for pizza ovens.
I found the pizza oven trailer and got it for about a quarter the price that were usually going for. I managed to convince my old man to lend me a few thousand and we drove straight to Auckland to pick it up off these people who had the dream, got set up and then realised that catering was incredibly hard work and perhaps not such a great idea. I could’ve learnt that lesson too I guess, but it’s never quite sunk in.
We had already had a name, before I knew how to make pizza really. First off we were called NYPD.
New York Pizza Something?
We leave the D up to people’s imaginations.
New York Pizza Dicks?
Give Up Your Dicks… I kinda thought Pizza Dudes but that works too. It was me and my brother. He was in a similar mind frame, he was still at uni, in his last year of med school but he really wanted to be part of it. He’d dabbled in food as well, he’s the head chef of a South African barbeque restaurant in Amsterdam now. He works as a doctor too, but cooking in Amsterdam at the moment.
At this point we are interrupted by customers wanting a special order and a delivery guy showing up to collect some pizzas. It is starting to get really busy. I’m still chopping these mushrooms. My iPhone is covered in flour, I’m standing right next to an insanely hot pizza oven and that kitchen energy I was so excited about earlier is starting to morph into some deeply buried kitchenhand PTSD. Don’t pass out Sam, that would not look cool.
So how did you go from the wood-fired pizza at the farmers market with your trailer to the…
Bricks and mortar?
That, but also the style, the authentic twice cooked New York slice. It’s a different kind of pizza.
I don’t know all the reasons but I know I’ve eaten so much pizza in New York. When I lived there, on and off over the years, I’d eat three different slices a day for months. I just built up a taste memory database.
The sweetness level is super important.
Yeah and the salt
Do you add sugar?
Not anymore. We changed [passata] brands and what we use is sweet enough.
I feel like I can tell if I’m gonna need to add sugar when I open that bottle of passata.
Totally. If you get that metallic tang…
…then you might just need a pinch.
For sure. We used to add it but now it’s literally just tomatoes and salt. Except the pepperoni sauce is really based on a Pizza Hutt profile: roasted garlic and oregano. We get the Greek oregano from Sheckter.
Sheckter is Steven Sheckter from On Trays Food Emporium, a truly amazing specialist ingredient shop and deli in Petone. Their reuben sandwich is perhaps the best in NZ.
I love dried oregano now, after completely going off it.
I think people used so much dried oregano in pasta sauce in the ’80s that it was disgusting. Then no-one touched dried herbs for about 15 years, and now it’s trendy again…. Man I am really slowing down on these mushrooms.
Where did you learn the craft, New York right?
Yeah I had a few trips to New York to really go deep. And I had some good fortune. I met Fred Plotkin [legendary expert on Italian food and music] at this great hidden burger spot, and he just started chatting to me about the book I was reading. We struck up a friendship and he ended up taking me on these pizza tours of the outer boroughs of New York.
It was only later that I found out he is regarded as a world expert on Italian food and opera. I went and door knocked at this place Paulie Gee’s he’d just opened. He was part of the new wave Neopolitan, really creative toppings, breaking some of the Naples rules. It was perfect timing, perfect neighbourhood, and he just smashed it. He’s licensed the Paulie Gee’s thing to other people – they’re not franchises, I don’t know how you’d describe it, they’re called Paulie Gee’s Miami or Paulie Gee’s Chicago. Run by other guys that were not professional chefs. He calls them his band of pizza warriors.
He’s not selling the concept to restaurant consortiums?
No it’s just like minded people, who we all met on pizzamaking.com, so just nerds. So there was Paulies, then A16 in San Francisco, that was fucking awesome. Technically I reckon it’s probably the best pizza I’ve eaten.
Was Paulie’s a revelation for you?
Mostly for just having a discerning clientele. Finding out what it takes to stand out in a sea of good pizza like New York. That was pretty awesome.
So while I was doing NYPD I linked up with the Scopa [famous Cuba St Italian restaurant] guys because I needed a place to work out of. I custom made a CV for them with a take on the “I Heart Scopa” logo but making it ‘I Heart Pizza’ and told my story.
I think I need to interject here with some Wellington restaurant world background info. Enzo and Nardi Bresolin are the offspring of the late great Romero Bresolin who broke the mould for what a Wellington eatery could be with the flamboyant, storied Il Casino. The Bresolins have carried on in the family business and with partner Simon Niblett they are hold down Scopa, Tommy Millions, The Bresolin and new reasonable priced, super cool pasta and natural wine spot 1154. Nardi is one of the hardest working dudes in hospitality, Enzo is one of the most charming (you may have seen them on The Great Food Race), and along with Niblett they have done some really great shit. Mysteriously, Enzo has gone on a kind of soul searching, never-ending sabbatical. I can’t entirely work out what he’s up to via his Instagram but he’s maybe starring in some kind of Portuguese motorcycle film?)
Enzo didn’t think anything of it and said ‘we have no jobs right now’ but somehow it made its way to Nardi and Simon, and Simon got what I was on about. We sat down for about three hours and six beers and he revealed their plans for world domination which included pizza by the slice and I had a goal to do that as well.
I never understood why people weren’t doing that. It’s the best late night drunk food.
I can remember my first drunk pizza by the slice vividly. Late night in Whistler in British Columbia.
So I started working for Scopa and instead of getting paid they gave me access to the test kitchen.
Making the deals to make it work.
Yeah dude, but if I took the trailer to Newtown Fest or homegrown you make five or six grand in a day, cash. I wish I’d saved it but at the time I just thought ‘this is the golden ticket’. I’d post photos of myself rolling around in cash on my bed.
So making more money than most of the musicians at Homegrown then.
Ha maybe. So that went on a few years, working at Scopa and running NYPD out of their test kitchen. Then the council sent out for proposals for this building in 2011, we submitted, got shortlisted, and eventually got it.
Then it took us a year to build it. We had to stop for the Rugby World Cup, it was a heritage building, and it’s significant Māori land, so every office in the council had their own axe to grind. Eventually we opened 2012, fourth of July.
Fourth of July, was that on purpose?
Yeah bro, independence, which was ironic. It’s almost the opposite of independence. Locked. Down.
It must have been a huge change in your lifestyle, from doing the pizza trailer to being a business owner, having employees, partners, a shop that needs to be open every day?
Every day. I slept out the back quite a lot. We started with ten staff, doing 96 hours a week. I was only person working here who had ever made a pizza. I literally had to make every pizza. That was gnarly, with the festivals you knew you’d get slammed, but it would be over in seven hours and you could then go party. Suddenly it was seven days a week.
It must change again when you open more stores, you can’t control everything.
That’s been the biggest growth curve for me: learning how to train, and how to let go of things and trust the training and your systems and the people. Trust they will sing the same tune you do. That’s what I’m most passionate about now. It’s fucking awesome.
I’ve noticed in your socials that you’re giving a lot of props to your staff.
You definitely have your own style online. It feels very un-PR, unmanaged. You like to give the trolls a bit of rope to hang themselves.
I find all that shit so funny. But yeah I’ve made some missteps for sure. I’ve got some gems in my screenshots, hilarious DMs I get at 3am. It’s got to the point where I think people are deliberately sending me wack shit because they know I might repost it. It takes up a lot of my time now. We’ve never spent anything on PR or advertising. Almost every bit of promo we’ve had has come through word of mouth and social media.
There’s is an attitude that’s not cocky or anything, but kinda reminds me of skater culture. That attitude of ‘we do this cool thing and we’re good at it and we do it our way and we’ll promote it our way’.
Yeah we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But some people have definitely come here thinking we are further down that culture than we are. You know, thinking ‘this place is loose, it’ll be fun’ and yeah it can be, but mostly it’s hard work.
That hard work is why you have to have fun with it. Anyone thinking any type of hospo job isn’t hard work is in for an ass whipping.
But yeah, I guess we are part of that new attitude to food.
You’re part of that generation. The low-brow/high-brow mix. Yes it’s pizza, yes it’s fast food but there is a culinary element to what you do. The specials are always pretty interesting.
That’s the little outlet and that’s what I try to get out of these guys (Tommy gestures to his staff who we are totally getting in the way of as they serve an increasing crowd of Saturday pizza hunters). It’s good to give everyone a bit of ownership over the menu, teach them about costings.
When do the drunkards kick in on a Saturday night?
Ten or eleven and that just goes until four. To be honest my hours and lifestyle have had to change since we opened. I did every graveyard shift for the first three years and I haven’t done one in over a year.
You got kids?
No. But I’m an uncle to two beauties and a godfather to Wiki & Nardi [Bresolin’s] two boys. We went to the older boys school yesterday and did a pizza making class. He wants to be a pizza chef now. Those boys are a big part of my life.
As Tom fills the last shelves with whole pies that will be sliced and reheated to the drunkards as the night progresses, I wonder if the shelves stacked with pizzas will all be consumed. “Oh yeah we’ll refill these slots 10, 15 times. From now until the end of the night we’ll do another 250, 300 pies.” By this stage I have chopped all the mushrooms, the night-shift crew have all arrived, it’s starting to feel pretty busy and I guess we have got to as good place as any to move on.
Tommy Million’s has not stayed static. Three locations in Wellington, and I could imagine it moving further afield. Tommy’s chicken venture is actually going nuts; new locations are inevitable. But also Tommy is a chef. One thing we didn’t cover is the years Tommy spent going back and forth to NYC, learning the craft. He is never going to be happy resting on his doughy laurels. The pizza coming out of his ovens is fantastic whether he is there or not now. So he can look to bigger, more culinary adventures – and he will.
But the pizza journey isn’t finished. The relatively new vegan pie is really good. The weekly specials are always a delight. We go out for a drink with Jeremy Taylor (of Slowboat records, the real mayor of Wellington, and the first person to write a profile on Tommy back in 2012 for Stuff) after our interview for a good gossip on the Wellington food and music worlds.
Jeremy and I are being a bit intense about the fact Tommy has never done a Hawaiian as a special. Finally he admits that he loves Hawaiian as much as the next kid. It’s just that it has to be really, really good. Making a Hawaiian that wins over the haters, that would be an achievement. Do it Tom!
Taking some photos the next morning, we eat a few slices and I remark that the crust seems slightly softer, still super crunchy, but a more dynamic shift between the top and bottom of the pizza. Of course it’s not mistake – he’s recently changed the temperature of the first cook and prepares and cooks the pies on a tray.
“It’s halved the training time and it’s less artisanal I guess, but the chances of getting a slice from all three stores that’s got exactly the crust that I want is so much higher,” Tommy says.
It doesn’t matter if it’s bread, tomatoes and cheese. It doesn’t matter if 30% of the customers are boozed. It has to be the best it can be. And it is, and I love it.
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