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March 19, 2022

Student To Expert: Adam Sachs Comes Full Circle

by Joe Bonadio

It’s been exactly three years since I met Adam Sachs, during my first trip to Las Vegas’ Pizza Expo back in 2019. I had traveled to Vegas with Tony to cover the event for the blog, and Adam was in his usual role, working alongside Tony at the demos. We hit it off right away.

Shortly after my return to San Francisco, I ran into Adam at the Ferry Building farmer’s market, where he was working one of the vendor booths. I’m a Saturday market regular, so that became our connection point, and I’d see Adam there nearly every week. I’m always up for a little food-oriented conversation, and we never ran short of topics.

Adam has long been a collaborator of Tony’s, but somehow he’s never appeared on the blog before. We thought it was high time, so last week the two of us finally sat down outside of Toscano Brothers/Dago Bagel in North Beach for a talk. Lightly edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: Adam, you have a unique position in Tony’s orbit. Can you tell me how the two of you met?

Adam Sachs: Well I make bread, a lot. And I’ve been making pizzas since I was in college, but I realized that I didn’t really know how to make pizza properly—and I thought the thing that I was missing was the sauce.

My friend RJ Owens knew Tony, so I asked RJ to ask Tony for a sauce recipe. At the time, there really weren’t any books that had good pizza recipes. So RJ asked Tony, and the next week when I saw RJ, he showed up with three #10 cans of tomatoes, and an herb blend. He said, Here’s how to make the sauce.

So I made the sauce, and I made the pizza and was really happy about it. And I couldn’t believe it: this guy Tony, who I didn’t even know, just gave me three enormous cans of tomatoes and a recipe! Just out of the blue.

So I went in to thank Tony, and I brought a loaf of bread that I had made. I gave it to Tony, and was thanking him for the instruction and all that, and he said: Tell me about the bread. What flour did you use in it? I started talking about the flour, and it turned out that Tony bought a lot of his flour from the same people that I did.

JB: The Giustos.

AS: Yeah! Central Milling. I think that Tony was surprised that I was buying from them. Back then, Central Milling didn’t really have a retail presence, it was mostly wholesale. But I had worked at another bakery briefly, and made a connection there.

So Tony and I started talking about flours, and we started talking about doughs, and it was a common language. And we just hit it off, right there. He said: One of these days you’ll have to come in and stretch pizza doughs with me.

Adam has worked countless competitions and demos with Tony, including many appearances at the enormous Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.

Adam has worked countless competitions and demos with Tony, including many appearances at the enormous Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.

Time passed, and we stayed in touch, but I hadn’t gone to Tony’s to stretch doughs. Then right around the time his book [The Pizza Bible] came out, I saw him. He asked me to come to one of his classes, and I said that would be great.

So I went to one of the classes he gives for professional pizza makers. Five day class. I figured I’d do prep work, I’d do whatever I had to. And I just had a great time, and I learned a lot. I realized what I knew—but I also saw I didn’t only need help with the sauce. There were all these things that I didn’t know about pizza.

JB: There’s so much that goes into it.

AS: There’s so much to it. But Tony was happy to teach me. And just watching what was going on in the class, I learned a lot.

And after that, he asked me help him with a demo. It turns out that if Tony asks me to do something in the kitchen, I can follow directions, and Tony gives really clear directions. So he came to know that I was reliable, I’d show up on time and get something done.

JB: Where was this demo?

AS: It was a food and wine exposition at Fort Mason, and Tony was appearing. He’s up on the stage, and he goes through his intro, and does some pizza acrobatics. Then he shows the people how to make dough, and how to make a pizza.

And Laura [Meyer, Capo’s Chef and longtime co-conspirator] and I are assisting him, we’re baking the pizzas in the background while Tony’s teaching. We’re watching what he’s doing, and it’s amazing. He brings the crowd to life. He loves what he does, and he conveys that love.

The ovens at the demonstration are home ovens that we aren’t familiar with. We had asked the
organizers to turn ovens to the highest bake temperature they could, and now the ovens are fully preheated and on.

I keep looking at the pizzas, because I’m worried about them burning. And Tony and Laura are laughing at me, because I’m nervous about all this. So I turn my back to the oven for about a minute and a half—and suddenly there’s smoke billowing out of it! (Laughter).

They had set the oven to Broil. So that was my first experience working on a demo.

JB: And you had no idea where it would eventually lead.

AS: Exactly. Now we’ve done the bagel thing, and other projects. I’ve gone to Pizza Expo for seven years now.

JB: Your position is Tony’s assistant?

AS: Yes. And when you spend enough time around a teacher, especially a teacher like Tony, you actually learn something. What’s remarkable is that now when people ask questions at Expo and other events, I actually know the answer sometimes! And I mean really know the answer.

JB: The student becomes the expert.

AS: I still have a lot to learn, but when I’m answering questions, it feels like that.

JB: But you came to the table with a lot. When did you guys first start talking about what would become Dago Bagel?

AS: Tony took me along with him to a class at Central Milling, Keith and Nicky Giusto’s place. It was probably 2015 or so. At that point, Tony really looked at me as a bread baker. These days Tony tells me “Adam, bread is your passion, but pizza is your calling.” (Laughter)

It’s true though, bread is a real passion of mine. I’ve made all these different sorts of breads, and I love baking bread, because you’re always learning, always getting better.

But to improve and to be consistent, you have to pay attention. It’s not the kind of thing where you can fake it.

So Tony and I went to this class at Central Milling. That was the first time we really made bread together, and he’d been talking forever about having a bakery, and bringing something back to the neighborhood. And we started talking in earnest when Tony began looking at the old Italian French Bakery.

JB: On Grant Avenue.

AS: Yep, right around the corner. He wanted to have something that was old school, San Francisco, sourdough loaves, which look like a baguette, but I don’t think anyone called them baguettes.

We started talking about bagels—and I had never made bagels.

After years of assisting Tony at competitions around the world, Adam competed for the first time in Parma, Italy in 2019.

After years of assisting Tony at competitions around the world, Adam competed for the first time in Parma, Italy in 2019.

JB: So you guys came to bagels at the same time.

AS: Yeah. I had eaten bagels for a long time. Me and everybody else! (Laughter)

Bagels are a lot like pizza: people’s favorite pizza is the one they grew up eating, or their
memory of the one they grew up eating, and nothing is as good as that. Bagels are the same thing—it’s the bagel you grew up with. And just about everyone has a strong opinion of what a bagel ought to be, and those images are all very different.

And people have a distinct view about New York bagels. I didn’t grow up eating New York bagels, but I’ve eaten a bunch of them, because I lived on the East Coast for a while. And I have a good sense of what they should taste like.

So I started looking around for recipes. I knew some of the basics: it’s a high gluten flour; it’s a ring; it’s boiled before it’s baked. Those are the key things.

JB: But if that’s all you know…

AS: Exactly! But it’s not that hard. And if you’re a bread baker, that will get you pretty far. So I did all kinds of research on bagels, and I found out all this stuff, but not what I was looking for.

JB: It’s a roll with a hole!

AS: Right, it’s a donut! But you’ll remember when we were doing the testing, some of them really were rolls with holes, and not much more.

JB: That was pretty much every bagel in San Francisco for years.

AS: Well, there were some good ones, and in the last 3-4 years there have been some really good bagels out here. Some more New York style, some a little less. But it has really changed.

JB: It’s a bagel renaissance.

AS: It’s a bagel renaissance. So then we started baking, and you were there when we started doing the initial tastings. And the thing is, if you’re going to do bagels, you have to boil them, and that involves having another piece of machinery in the bakery.

JB: So at that point you were just looking at feasibility.

AS: Feasibility. At the same time, I thought: I’ve never made a bagel before, and I’d like to really learn how to do this. And this was an excuse for me to spend a lot of time making different batches of bagels.

I started making bagels before I started bringing them in, just to get a sense of what I wanted from the flavor profile, from the texture, the size, what works and doesn’t work. By the time I started bringing them in [to Tony’s], I’d probably made ten batches of bagels. By batch four they looked really good, and the texture was about right, and I was just dialing in the size and the texture.

Then I started bringing them in, and that was maybe six months before Tony opened Toscano Brothers. And the Giustos were helping him with bread recipes as well. You know, we had talked about bread forever, but it wasn’t until this space came open that we thought this could really happen.

JB: Your relationship with Tony has really deepened as time has gone by. Have you guys ever considered a collaboration beyond what you’ve done?

AS: We talked about it with the bagels, but it’s just too much work for me. Meanwhile, we’ve already worked together on tons of things.

JB: I guess this is a good time to ask, for our readers’ sake: What do you actually do for a living?

AS: You mean like my day job? (Laughter)

JB: Right! We know your passion, and your calling. What pays the bills?

AS: It’s funny, because until the pandemic I had three distinct jobs, and then I did stuff with Tony. By day I’m a lawyer; I performed as a magician in a theater setting at least once a week; and I worked at the farmer’s market on Saturdays.

The people who see me doing magic have no idea I’m a lawyer; the people who know me as a lawyer don’t know that I do magic. The people at the farmer’s market think I’m some kind of a farmer.

JB: You are a busy dude.

AS: Lawyer is the day job, though. But all of them are really fun. I love it!

JB: So what’s the next step for you?

AS: To me, the bread thing and the pizza thing are always about what else you want to learn. You never master it, you just keep improving.

At some point, I want to make laminated pastries. That would be a really interesting thing to do. Things like croissants, and the sfogliatelle that’s made here. Oh, I make pasta too—I forgot about that!

JB: (Laughter) I’ve eaten your pasta!

AS: That’s right. It’s not bad…

JB: It’s very good.

AS: Thank you, and a quick story about that. I had never really made pasta, and at one point Tony gave me some of his pasta. And he was talking about making it, and I remember him telling me it’s a lot easier making pasta dough than bread dough.

So I was doing this kitchen renovation at home at the time. I knew that during the renovation, which would take six months, I’d only have a countertop, a hotplate and a pot. So I thought: I’m going to learn how to make pasta.

And relative to making bread, becoming competent at pasta is really easy. Making great pasta isn’t, but making a predictably good one is super easy to do. So I started making what I would call laminated pasta, or sheet pasta, which is made with eggs and double zero or all purpose flour.

Then I started making extruded pasta, which is made with semolina and water, and doesn’t usually have egg in it. It’s a totally different thing.

Adam and Tony at Dago Bagel

Adam and Tony take a break from making bagels at Dago Bagel in San Francisco’s North Beach.

JB: So that’s like spaghetti, bucatini…

AS: Spaghetti, bucatini, rigatoni, all the ones they make at Giovanni.

JB: Whereas sheet pasta is fettuccine, lasagna, pappardelle, things like that.

AS: Exactly. Sheet pasta you knead by hand, and the texture is like play-dough. When you make extruded pasta, it’s like wet sand, it’s a totally different thing to work with. You need a machine to make extruded pasta. Sheet pasta you can do with a rolling pin.

So I learned to make pasta, and it turned out to be really fun. Then I ended up giving some to one of the restaurants that goes to the farmer’s market-and started making pasta for him. Now I make pasta on the side.

JB: For the restaurant trade.

AS: Yep.

JB: So Adam, do you have anything coming up that you’d like to talk about?

AS: Expo!

JB: Pizza Expo. Let’s talk about that.

AS: You went to Expo a couple of years ago…

JB: I went to Expo in 2019.

AS: Expo is amazing. We didn’t have it in 2020, because of Covid. There was kind of an abbreviated one last Fall, but it was….really abbreviated. None of the Europeans were there, and the rest of the international crowd wasn’t there.

JB: I remember Tony being concerned that it might not even happen, that it might be cancelled again.

AS: I know. But it’s coming up next week, and there will be exhibitors from all over the world, people attending from all over. Just seeing people from the pizza world is going to be great. I’ve met so many people through Tony that I’ve gotten to know, and become friends with. So there’s a reunion aspect to it, and I love that.

And I’m competing this year.

JB: You’re competing! Talk about burying the lead.

AS: I’m competing. I competed in Parma in 2019, but this will be the first time I’ve competed in Vegas.

JB: What’s your event?

AS: The Pan Division, and I’m super excited about it. I’ve been practicing that pizza a lot in preparation. I came up with the dough for it, but the first dough was unpredictable, so I bagged that.

I’m really happy with where the dough is right now, and I’m just tweaking the toppings. I’ve been consulting with Tony about it, and was in here a couple of weeks ago to make a sample run. And it came out well. I’m pretty excited about that.

JB: I hope you do well. That is really exciting.

AS: Thank you. As long as it tastes good, that’s the key.

JB: Are you nervous about it?

AS: Well….yes and no. I’m always nervous that something might go wrong, but it’s fun.

One of the things that’s most challenging about the competition is working with an oven you haven’t worked with before. That makes an enormous difference. Every oven’s 500º is different from every other oven’s 500º. If it’s a newer oven, or an older oven, or who has baked with it before….there’s a certain amount of luck to it. In Italy I got really lucky, and the oven temperature was good for me.

JB: There’s always an element of luck to competing. I’ll never forget Tony telling me how he somehow poked the peel right through his pizza during a competition.

AS: These things happen. And you don’t know what pizza the judges had right before yours, or if you’re the first person whose pizza the judges are tasting, or fourteenth in line.

All you can do is try to make the best pizza you can make.

JB: Well, I can’t wait to hear how it goes. Good luck in Vegas, Adam.

AS: Thank you.