This Cajun Chicken Pizza Will Remind You Of Your Salad Days

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Chef James Rigato created his Cajun chicken pizza when he was just a teenager. (Jacob Lewkow)
Chef James Rigato created his Cajun chicken pizza when he was just a teenager. (Jacob Lewkow)

Chef James Rigato is all about fresh, seasonal and local ingredients at his restaurant, The Root, in White Lake, Mich.

But when NPR asked him to share a story for All Things Considered's Found Recipes series, Rigato served up something a 16-year-old boy would love.

"Jimmy's Cajun Chicken Pizza ... it's the antithesis of everything I've worked for in my career!" he says.

No matter how many awards the 30-year-old wins, Rigato cannot get away from his Cajun chicken pizza past. The pizza made with shredded chicken, ranch sauce and Cajun seasoning is not on his menu, but his staff asks for it. Fellow chefs have even made it for him at their restaurants.

"The pizza tastes great but in that gluttonous way," Rigato says. "It just kind of hits every note, right? Sweet, sour, salty, smoky, melty, crunchy. ... It's just the same reason why, you know, Taco Bell tastes so good at 2 in the morning."

Rigato created the pizza when he was just a teenager working at the pizza station in a large, bustling restaurant in his hometown.

"Busy kitchen, I mean 600 people a night, just getting your butts kicked," he recalls. "These guys in their late-mid-20s, and they're all drinking beer, and they're spinning in their aprons and the towels and the flames. And I just remember walking in the kitchen and saying, 'There's no way I could ever do this.' "

Soon Rigato became popular among his co-workers who would come to him looking for food during a busy shift.

"I was kind of almost like the employee-meal guy," he says. "Half of what you were doing was to feed the staff. And I would basically make this pizza with ranch as the sauce and like these marinated tomatoes."

Before he knew it, almost everyone on the staff was eating this pizza. Even the chef, who decided to put it on the menu.

"That Cajun chicken pizza was the first time that, I don't know, it was where the levee broke a little bit," Rigato says. "I could get through now. I started pummeling the chef with ideas. So my brain hasn't stopped since."


Recipe: Jimmy's Cajun Chicken Pizza

Serves 2-4

Pizza dough
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup room temperature water

Place water in bottom of stand mixer bowl. Add yeast, honey, olive oil and stir. Next add flour and salt. Mix on medium speed for 5 minutes. Place dough in greased bowl. Cover and allow to rest for about 15 minutes. Place dough in fridge for 1 hour.

Pizza sauce
1 cup local high-quality buttermilk
1 cup local high-quality sour cream
1 packet Hidden Valley Ranch powder mix
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 large garlic clove, grated
Tabasco sauce, to taste

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix until there are no clumps. Set aside until ready to use.

Topping
1 cup roasted chicken, shredded
3 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
Olive oil
2 ripe tomatoes, diced
1/2 red onion, minced
8 basil leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon, zested
2 cups shredded cheese blend of choice (suggested: mozzarella, asiago, pecorino, fontina)

Pull all the meat from the chicken, shred and toss in a bowl with your favorite Cajun seasoning. Add olive oil until lightly coated. In a separate bowl, combine tomatoes, onion. Tear the basil into pieces and mix in with tomato and onions. Add olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Combine the cheese to desired taste and set aside.

Assembly
Heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove dough from fridge. Roll or slap dough out into a round, thin crust, about 14 inches. Place on a baking sheet. Top with sauce, cheese blend, seasoned chicken and marinated tomatoes. Bake until crisp and cheese is melted and bubbling, about 10 minutes. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and shredded pecorino cheese.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Warning - what you hear next could be tempting.

JAMES JIMMY RIGATO: Seared scallop with smoked apple butter and pickled shallots and a little golden raisin.

CORNISH: And if that doesn't make your mouth water, how about this?

RIGATO: Steak tartar or a salmon lox plate, goat milk grits with some smoked, butter-poached shrimp. You know, we use all-natural, grass-fed beef from a local farm...

CORNISH: Very good food - that's what James Rigato is all about. He serves fresh, seasonal, local ingredients at his restaurant, The Root, in White Lake, Mich. But when we asked him to share a story for our Found Recipe series, Chef Rigato served up something a 16-year-old boy would love.

RIGATO: Jimmy's Cajun chicken pizza. It's the antithesis of everything I've worked for in my career (laughter).

CORNISH: No matter how many awards this 30-year-old wins, no matter how much buzz or recognition, Rigato cannot get away from his Cajun chicken pizza past. The pizza is not on his menu, but his staff will ask for it, and fellow chefs have made it for him at their restaurants - this pizza that he created when he was in high school.

RIGATO: The pizza tastes great, but in that gluttonous way. It just kind of hits every note, right - sweet, sour, salty, smoky, melty, crunchy. It's just the same reason why, you know, Taco Bell tastes so good at 2 in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIGATO: I'm 16, and I'm working in this pizza station at this kitchen - busy kitchen - I mean, 600 people a night - just getting our butts kicked. These guys in their late, mid-20s, and they're all drinking beer and they're spinning in their aprons and their towels and the flames, and I just remember walking in the kitchen and saying, there's no way I could ever do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIGATO: I was kind of the - almost like the employee meal guy. Half of what you were doing was to feed the staff. And we'd make pizzas for each other, and you'd come up with crazy things. And I started making this pizza with ranch as the sauce and, like, these marinated tomatoes and eating it myself and then sharing it with one guy. The next thing I know, he's splitting it with the guy in the fry station, and then, you know, he wants one to go home for his girlfriend. And before you know it, this pizza's just - everyone's eating it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIGATO: The chef came to me and, you know, he was excited about the pizza, and he said let's put it on the menu. At that time, I don't think any of the other cooks had created anything. They just kind of were duplicating. And that Cajun chicken pizza was, you know, it was the first time I got on a menu. It was like a wish granted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIGATO: So when you're making the pizza, I like to use a focaccia-style dough, and I use ranch as the sauce. Use the Hidden Valley dry packet or some kind of modified version of it, and I like to use creme fraiche or yogurt instead of mayonnaise. Try to stay away from mayonnaise. I don't like cooked mayonnaise. I barely like mayonnaise at all, let alone cooked.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIGATO: A four-cheese blend with, you know, mozzarella, pecorino, fontina, roasted pulled-chicken pieces tossed in a little olive oil and the Cajun spice. And then the marinated tomatoes kind of drizzled on top, maybe with a slotted spoon so you don't get too much of the balsamic and olive oil. That's about it. It's a pretty simpe 16-year-old's creative pizza.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Chef James Jimmy Rigato of The Root restaurant in White Lake, the Mich. You can find details about his Cajun chicken pizza on our Found Recipes page at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.