Backstage: Douglas Coffin ’76

QTell me about yourself.

AI went to Yale and was class of ’76. I ended up going there in part because my uncle was the Yale Chaplain, Rev. William Sloane Coffin ’49. I took too little advantage of all that Yale had to offer. I didn’t hear my uncle preach nearly as much as I should have. I dropped out of Yale my junior year and got involved in a food co-op in New Haven. We took over a grocery store and did a full range of foods. It was just fascinating to learn about food at a time when so many different foods were coming to the country. We were getting a lot of Italian and French imports of cheese and fancy foods we had never had before. I loved working with something I could feel with my hands, see, smell and transform right in front of my eyes.

QYour thoughts on food?

AGood food doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple meal made with the right ingredients is a wonderful thing in its own right. It doesn’t have to show off.

QHow was the Big Green Pizza Truck born?

AWe started six years ago. I had made a little wood-fired oven that I used to bake bread for my catering businesses. I have always loved to make bread. I started doing that when I was a Yale undergrad; I wanted an excuse to turn on the oven during a cold winter day. When I was doing that and making bread, no one complained that I was running up the heating bill. I began experimenting with wood-fired brick ovens because they helped with getting a really crispy crust. Part of me always loved the romance of a wood fire. When a neighbor found out I had a brick oven with a wood fire, she kept insisting that I do a pizza party for her son’s birthday. I first declined, saying I didn’t know how to make pizza and the oven’s not right to make pizza. She convinced me to try anyway. It was great to see people watching pizza being made. It was a wonderful piece of food theatre. It’s the type of food that I’ve been trying to make — very simple, done with fresh ingredients.

QWhy’s it called the Big Green Pizza Truck?

AI was trying to figure out a logo and a name for the truck that would sort of describe what the pizza truck was. I was drawn to the logos of old seed packets and produce. Following that logo would follow the style of the truck. It seemed ‘Big Green Truck’ would be a good name. Another one I considered was ‘Hungry Boy Pizza’ with a picture of my son eating pizza.

QWhere do your ingredients come from?

AWe buy stuff from all over the place. We buy a particular brand of mozzarella called Grande. We buy a lot of our flour from bakery suppliers. We buy some of our produce locally from some of the farmers’ markets. A lot of our other ingredients we buy from restaurant suppliers. We try to buy some of our salad greens through the Yale Farm. They make wonderful salad.

QFavorite pizza?

AI don’t really have a favorite one at this point. I am partial to old-fashioned bacon and onion pizza but I also like white pizza with sautéed yellow and green squash, capers and kalamata olives.

QWhat’s some of the best pizza you’ve had in New Haven?

AI think when I first moved to New Haven, it was an absolute revelation to eat at Sally’s and see that pizza could be a really wonderful food. Having grown up on Long Island, I didn’t know anything about good pizza. It was just really a phenomenal experience for me.

QWhat do you eat at home?

AI’m never home. I go home to sleep.

QSo what do you eat?

AI eat peanut butter and raisins on martini potato rolls. I eat gelato. I do like a good sandwich. I’ll have a salami provolone and prosciutto on a roll made from some leftover pizza dough. I drink a lot of coffee.

QWhy do you wear the hat?

AWhen I was trying to figure out what one would wear alongside a 1940 truck, I went back and looked at some of the pictures of the Works Progress Association photographers. What I noticed a lot was that they had fairly wide-brimmed straw hats and many of them had high-waisted chaps with suspenders. I was trying to go with that style of clothing. Most of the staff doesn’t like the idea of suspenders. That got phased out pretty early. I do think that the straw hats are very useful when you are working in full sun in the summer. Better than baseball caps.

QHow did you develop the truck design?

AI knew that I wanted a truck rather than a trailer because a trailer is hard to move in tight spots. I wanted something that was timeless. I had a wonderful conversation with architect Manuel Ayala. We did a rough sketch of the back of the truck on a cocktail napkin that went on to form the basis of the main design. I knew I had to have a sink with hot and cold running water so I could do my own cleanup. I knew I had to have a generator to power some refrigeration and a cappuccino machine. That would be nicer than big institutional pots of coffee. I tried to figure out what would work for dessert. I didn’t like the idea of carrying cakes or pastries on a truck because they would all be bounced around, so I hit upon the idea of ice cream and gelato and was originally making those off the back of the truck. That seemed very much in keeping to the style of the truck and something that we could make fresh.

QWhen you transform your truck, what are the steps you go through?

AThe first thing we do is lift off the side panels on the truck. Those become the tops of tables that we set up to serve the pizzas on. Underneath those panels is the oven. We take out a chimney section, attach it to the roof and fire up the oven to get it nice and hot. Then we turn on the cappuccino machine to get that warmed up and make ourselves espressos. Then we start laying out all of our toppings on an ice bath. We carry about 21 different ingredients. Then we’ll get out some dough and we’ll partially stretch the pizza dough for the first 20 pizzas so that when we get started, all we have to do is give a quick toss on the back of our hands.

QBest party you catered?

AOh goodness, there are so many that were a lot of fun. Two weeks ago, we did a party for a wedding anniversary for a couple. I think it was their 40th wedding anniversary. They were just the liveliest group of people. Someone brought up an accordion and they were all singing and clapping along. I hope that when I’m that age, I will still have that much fun.

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