Since 2002, Michael Gerard has not only been designing and building wood-burning ovens and churrasqueiras for his company, Wildwood, he’s been teaching cooking, too. But he took a roundabout way to create his dream job. The Eagle Rock native began his professional life as electrical engineer and contractor who specialized in TV studios and worked for E! Entertainment, designing and building many of its studios. His passion for cooking, which developed in his mother’s kitchen, took over as he searched for the perfect outdoor wood-burning oven.
First he started making and selling ovens out of his Eagle Rock shop, and gradually he added cooking classes, including pizza-making classes coming up soon. Fascinated with traditional cooking methods and consumed with the quest for great ingredients, he now spends his life around food. We talked to Michael about his work and his love of cooking and pizza-making.
How did you morph from electrical engineer to oven builder?
I always knew I wanted a wood-fired oven in my outdoor kitchen, so when it came time to get one I did some research. I looked at what the Italians were doing, and I noticed that a lot of the shapes were crude. Most of the designs hadn’t changed since World War II. So I brought in a friend, a Greek designer, and we started playing around with more modern designs. After doing some heat-flow testing, we found out that fire rolls around in a certain kind of shape. With this knowledge, using computer programs and my engineering skills, we figured that a dome shape worked much better. I saw an opportunity for a “Made in USA” design and took it! Now, if someone wants a real, wood-fired pizza oven, they don’t have to order it from Italy.
You’re also a cooking teacher. Has cooking always been a passion?
Yes. I remember being about 9 years old and being in the kitchen with my mom. As a tall kid, I could reach the stove and the counters, so she would let me make my own omelets and scrambles—I just loved it. Being one of nine kids, I also realized that if you weren’t there when dinner was ready, there wouldn’t be anything left for you! I figured if I was in the kitchen with mom, I could get a taste of the beautiful beef roast or anything else she was making before anyone else.
Did you receive any kind of formal training to learn how to make pizza?
No, I’m self-taught. But I did extensive research on exactly what constitutes an authentic, Neapolitan pizza, and I’ve spent years working on the technique.
The farm-to-table movement is all the rage. Do you incorporate that into your classes?
Absolutely! I was inspired by the Slow Food Movement when I first started cooking. Using locally sourced ingredients and putting the focus on amazing produce and meats was something I’ve always emphasized.
How has Southern California served as the center of your business?
It’s been ideal, since we’re generally the pioneers for a lot of good-living movements–healthy eating, non-smoking, etc. The climate is also a key factor, since a lot of my business revolves around the outdoor cooking lifestyle (in this weather you want to be outdoors 90% of the year). Also, being in an area that embraces creativity continues to inspire me.
Lastly, if you have a free day around here, how would you spend it?
I’d go to a farmers’ market, check out a new restaurant… just generally explore what’s going on in the local food scene. Last weekend I was in the mood for a good hot dog so I went over to Slaw Dogs in Pasadena for the first time. Food definitely has to be involved in what I’d consider to be a good day off.
Wildwood Outdoor Test Kitchen is located at 5020 Eagle Rock Blvd. in Eagle Rock, 323.255.6578. The kitchen is available for private events (complete with pizza, tapas and/or churrasco). Wildwood offers many cooking classes as well–call or check its website for details.