Hopper Brings Passion For Pizza Making To Oven Manufacturer Fiero Forni

Forza Forni Peter de Jong Chef Mark Hopper
(L-R) In the FORZA FORNI Test Kitchen: Founder & CEO Peter de Jong with Chef Mark Hopper, Culinary Director (Photo: Kaarsten Harris)

Among the hidden gems in the Metro New York foodservice community is the knowledge of Peter de Jong. He may not be a household name but for pizza professionals across the globe, his knowledge is simply unmatched.

His vision has led to the growth of Fiero Forni into a global leader and supplier of authentic Italian ovens for commercial, mobile, and residential use. de Jong understands that pizza making is an art form and as such sees a responsibility to help create an educational track to ensure that those skills are readily available.

With that mission in mind, the Brewster, NY based Fiero Forni has hired one of the nation’s leading pizza experts: executive chef Mark Hopper as Culinary Director. Hopper has a diverse background in fine and casual dining, predominantly with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG) as Executive Chef of Casual Dining, Chef de Cuisine of Bouchon Bistro and Sous Chef of the famed French Laundry. Mark also founded and owned Pizzeria Vignette, recognized as one of most popular Neapolitan pizzerias in California’s Bay Area.

Chef Hopper’s role at Fiero Forni was created to support all its clients by establishing a full-service consulting program for commercial clients worldwide and an Authentic Education program. Hopper has taken up residence hosted Fiero Forni’s headquarters test kitchen offering classes and demonstrations for commercial, entrepreneurial, and residential clientele from all over the world.

Restaurants are now seeking to maintain the increased Takeout & Delivery sales volume that are through the pandemic. At the same time, they are welcoming back in-dining room guests at increased numbers as capacity limits are in many cases eliminated. With that in mind, we sought the guidance of Chef Hopper on how to balance the challenges of the “new normal”


So what was it that actually attracted you to the opportunity at Fiero Forni?

I wanted to come back to New York after 27 years living out west and be in a kitchen at home. When there is a party at someone’s home it always ends up in the kitchen. This allows me to really use all the tools I knew this is where I wanted to be. I knew what I could bring to the table even though I’d never done it. Even though I never stepped foot in this building. The same way as with The French Laundry. I did enough research, I communicated with Peter de Jong (the founder) and the rest of the team here.

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I knew about Fiero Forni because I was always trying to find out what was going on with oven technology, and mixers and new trends. As Fiero Forni was always pushing and innovating the industry So I saw it as an opportunity to again grow – to be in a position to help others. It was a beautiful experience I met some amazing people and still to this day they are some of my best friends. I just think at this stage in my life and my career it was the perfect move when the world was not so much in a perfect place. It allowed me to really do what I was meant to do.

How does your vision match up with Fiero Forni’s?

It matches seamlessly. I think it’s a great fit, organically we came to that conclusion without even speaking about it. Peter wanted more than a pizza guy. Our ovens, equipment and gear are accessible and functional for all sorts of cooking and being creative. And I’m well-traveled enough to speak to at a high level to our clients. I could be the best pizza guy in the world but if I’ve only had experience at one place for 12 years and never moved around and never saw anything else I would not have the experience that I have. This is where your life experience and your career knowledge built over 35 years or whatever that crazy number is, really comes into play. And I think if someone out there makes an investment in their business with buying one of our ovens, and basically an investment in us – on the sidecar is an investment in me.

I’m honored that my background is valid, and that people want to ask questions. Not that what I say rules but I’m going to give it to you straight the same way many gave it to me straight.

This leads perfectly to the next question. Teaching. Why is education so important in understanding pizza?

Well education is important no matter what because when somebody comes forward, signs up and there is a tuition expense involved they are almost kind of admitting they don’t know which is really hard for people to do. And there are those that really do know and want to know more.

I teach from a little bit of a left field angle. I’m convinced that everybody has their own style, their own way. Just the same way that we hopefully as adults get dressed by ourselves you may try on two or three outfits and start with one idea, but you say this time just not feeling that one. It’s the same thing with food. You have the idea; you just have to be able to dig deep and maybe even be faced with ‘I can’t believe I wore that all those pictures’ lol. So, I always leave this with people when they come in – you’ll figure it out, but you’ll never be able to figure it all out because if you do then there’s no reason to come back the next day. But you figure enough of it out to be energized and engaged to come back the next day.

I see multiple people come into our test kitchen every day. Everybody does it differently and no one is any better than the next. Same correlation about how we dress. We all have a different style. And a different voice. Imagine that. Everyone in the world has a different sounding voice. You have your inner pizza voice. You just gotta find it.

I really enjoy teaching because I know that I have a niche for it. I love to do it so it doesn’t come off like oh I have this fancy resume and I’ve been here and I’ve been there. It doesn’t matter. And pizza is far more important in the world right now than a lot of things. Pizza probably got a lot of people through this freaking pandemic. I mean the pizza business thrived during all this. A lot of restaurants had to pivot because they realized the importance of takeout, pick-up, and delivery. And they had more customers ordering more takeout than ever. Out of necessity they had to dig a little deeper. And that is probably not going away.

The main thing with teaching as far as pizza, and Fiero Forni and myself – I look at it as we’re all under the same pizza tent. If you’re making good pizza in Connecticut, and I’m making good pizza in Arizona, and this guy is making good pizza in California, and the other guy is making good pizza in New York that tent is moving along and we’re moving forward with the industry and that’s going to keep us and everybody sustainable, thriving, hopefully profitable, happy, healthy.

All those things allow us again to come back for what we all want – we all want the opportunity to come back the next day and improve on what we learned. And that’s the good thing about pizza. If you make a bad pizza, so what. Throw it away and make another one. Or somebody will eat it. But it’s a learning moment, it’s a teaching moment. And the greatest gift of teaching is that you learn so much about yourself it’s insane.

Talk a little about Fiero Forni Authentic Education and the last class you led on starting a mobile pizza business.

Classes are a really good way to connect with people. They paid to be here because they wanted to learn. I mean when you think about the world of pizza, it’s such a simple food. Basically flour, water, salt and yeast. But the variable is endless.

The class was great. It was perfect timing because as we are heading into spring the weather is going to get better and better and people are going to be outside anyway. I mean if there are going to be 100 weddings, 99 of them are going to be outdoors and the one that isn’t it’s because of rain.

People are getting more into on-site catering. Anybody can do it if they really want to do it – restaurant owners who want a mobile option, entrepreneurs and caterers wanting to start or expand their business. We have clients that are accountants during the day that have purchased mobile ovens and come back for some training. Gym teachers, etc.

We positioned the curriculum as three things: a point of reference, a refresher course, and a baseline – not just on baking pizza but on running a mobile pizza business. When you teach you must give people some conclusion, you can’t just give them the math problem and never show how to get to the answer.

The group at our first class was a nice diverse group. We had some people that were in the restaurant business looking to hone their skills and some just starting out.

We reviewed basic nuts and bolts. It was a great class to kind of get outside the box and show the possibilities. Ironically, a lot of people asked me about cooking school and my answer was that I wouldn’t really go to cooking school, I would go to business school.

You know you can always learn how to cook by working. Chef Thomas Keller, who I worked for, never went to cooking school. I went to cooking school when I was very young, graduating at 19. At 19 years old I had an associates degree in culinary arts. Yeah, I know that means something, but did I need that experience? Maybe for the age and the growth and to have that college life for a little bit. But I could have gone to Europe for the same amount of time and probably would have come back with a few better tools and a different life experience.

Mobile catering is a totally different animal because you’re invited to someone’s celebration or event. They’re not coming to you. You’re not standing at your restaurant in front of your pizza oven at 5:00 waiting for service to start and the people come. There is a sense of a good feeling with that. But if it’s 6:00 and you’re still standing at your oven and there’s nobody there, that’s not such a good feeling. So catering is about learning those idiosyncrasies and the talent of how to roll up to somebody’s backyard and serve strangers at their daughter’s seventh birthday party with a hundred kids running around. Or a wedding or bridal shower or whatever.

Learning how to navigate the nuances of dealing with the public and a client who is paying you for a service. It was a great experience. The class was so popular we had to schedule an additional one that sold out.

The group was really good. They were from all over the country. From the Northeast to the Midwest. Over the two days they had a chance to interact and bond and learn from each other and share ideas. And when they weren’t sure we helped and comforted them and made them feel like hey this is going to be cool. In our Authentic Education classes you’re going to have fun and learn a lot. You’re going to get outside, and make a lot of pizza, and meet some new people.

I keep in touch with several of them. We text back and forth with questions and answers. They also speak to each other. The tools and the confidence they learned on the first day helped them get right to work the second day.

We took the time to understand their goals and their vision. One couple who is starting their business with a pizza trailer transformed overnight. The first day they were concerned that they really weren’t getting it and were unsure of themselves. This was such a new venture for them. But once we got them outside and they were relaxed they got in a groove and started making great pizza. They gained confidence. She became a pizzaioli and he working the fire overnight. She wasn’t trying to mimic anybody, she found her own style and was being herself. She was making great pizza within 24 hours. They were her.

I told her that she should be really proud of that and kept telling her how proud I was of her.

As I said when you teach you learn a lot about yourself but more importantly you are fulfilling the need of why they signed up in the first place. Did we meet their expectations? Did we go above and beyond?

Whether anyone purchases an oven or not is irrelevant. It’s the experience that is going to resonate with them and help them with their journey. And maybe they’ll go somewhere and see a wood fire oven and be like ‘hey do you need a hand!’. And maybe they’ll tell that story to someone else and then that person winds up buying an oven and starting their business.

Again whether the pizzas are being made inside or outside, by someone with a lot of experience or no experience at all – this is what keeps our industry moving in a positive direction. And the food industry and hospitality needs a positive direction more than ever.

At this point you could probably write a book of advice to restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. What would it say?

Well – I actually wouldn’t offer advice. I would offer an experience or story. Advice is either taken or not. Either liked or disliked. But everybody likes a story. I was very blessed. Lucky to be with the right people at the right time. With the right goals in mind. So again, my position here at Fiero Forni is a combination of my experience that allows me to speak at a high level to everyone and every business that comes through our test kitchen door. I’m humbly saying that I pretty much have done it and now I’m actually in a greater position because I’m crossing paths with so many different types of businesses from stadiums and street corner slice houses to people that have way more experience with pizza than I do. They share their successes and challenges with me, and I share mine with them. And people that have no experience at all but have all the desire in the world – which to me is just as good, or maybe even better because it reminds me of me at The French Laundry. Maybe I didn’t belong there, but I wanted to be in there. I wanted to be there. It wasn’t so much what I did, it was how I did it and that allowed me to really be me. All I ever really wanted was an opportunity to go at it again the next day.

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