Nineteen years old and about a year out of culinary school, Taylor Petrehn was thrilled to land a position with James Beard award-winning chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts. The husband-and-wife team behind Kansas City's lauded Bluestem had recently been tapped to revamp the menu at Italian bistro Trezo Vino in Leawood, Kansas, where Petrehn would lead the pizza station.

There was only one hiccup: Petrehn had never made a pizza from scratch.

Just six years – and a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Baker – later, it’s hard to believe that Petrehn, who co-owns 1900 Barker Bakery and Cafe in Lawrence, Kansas, had never before baked bread, let alone made pizza dough. Although he lacked experience at the time, he was prepared to do the research and work required to impress the Garrelts – and, in turn, the guests at Trezo Vino.

He started researching traditional Italian Neapolitan pizza and doing R&D to refine the basics: Make simple fermented dough from scratch, top the proofed dough with minimal ingredients such as fresh mozzarella, raw tomatoes, olive oil and fresh basil, and bake the pizza at a very high temperature for a short amount of time. "I became obsessed with pizza," Petrehn says. "I would spend my 40 hours a week at work making pizza, and then I’d go home and read more about pizza online.”

Trezo Vino closed in March 2012, but Petrehn's passion for pizza was just beginning. He was living with his parents in Paola, Kansas, and built his own wood-fired oven in their backyard to continue experimenting with Neapolitan-style pies. He completed the oven in the fall and only had a few weeks to make pizzas before winter temporarily sent him back inside. Petrehn soon moved into an apartment and started baking bread to learn more about dough in general.

"I learned that dough is the key to making good pizza," he says. "Good bread dough and good pizza dough are made the old-fashioned way, with just flour, salt, water and naturally occurring yeast, like a sourdough bacteria. Those are what cultivate flavor, and then you ferment it for a very long time and it starts to make the dough tender, moist and full of flavor. You create a dough that's the backbone of the pizza.”

He devoured every page of Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, a bread-baking guide from award-winning Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. By the time winter turned to spring, Petrehn had a new culinary obsession. “I really fell in love with breadmaking,” he says. “I love pizza, but I really love bread the most.”

Both loves are on display at 1900 Barker, which Petrehn opened with his brother, Reagan, in 2015. Tangy loaves of country sourdough rest alongside creamy oat-porridge bread, each with an airy and delicate open crumb. Buttery croissants, seasonal Danishes and tarts and cinnamon morning buns all complement the shop’s top-tier coffee program.

Much of the grain used at 1900 Barker is grown locally and milled in house, including a variety of organic wheat called Turkey Red sourced from a farm about 2 miles from the bakery. The Petrehn brothers believe that local grain gives their naturally leavened breads a sense of place; this past February, that sense of place was recognized by none other than the James Beard Foundation, with Petrehn being the first-ever Lawrence-based James Beard Award nominee. To get a taste of his talents, try 1900 Barker's Utility Loaf, made with a minimum of 15 percent Turkey Red wheat flour.

Although bread has become Petrehn's focus, he still makes time for his initial inspiration. On Wednesdays from 11:30am until the bakery is sold out, pizzas are made using 1900 Barker's sourdough base for the crust. The bakery isn't equipped with a wood-fired oven like the one Petrehn built in his parents’ backyard, but a steam-tube deck oven (bread bakes between 400ºF to 500ºF, while Neapolitan pizza is baked at around 800ºF for 90 seconds in a wood-fired oven).

“If we tweak the burner to get the oven as hot as possible, we can get it to 550ºF or close to 600ºF,” he says. “That makes our pizzas take 15 minutes to bake rather than 90 seconds, so we have to make our crust so that it won’t dry out too fast in that time. That’s where our dough differs from traditional Neapolitan dough – it has a lot more water in it. But we still get really beautiful blisters on the crust.”

The pizza toppings used at the bakery are seasonal and unique; past pizzas have included a roasted carrot, leek and baby mustard-green pie with cheese and whole-grain mustard cream; a tomatillo and poblano pizza with sweet-corn cream; and one with three cheeses and fermented-chile honey. “We look for ways to flex our creativity and challenge ourselves, and working with seasonal produce is one of them,” Petrehn says.

Just like 1900 Barker's bread, the pizzas have been a huge hit with customers. "The same customers come back almost every week and say, 'Wow, this is the best pizza we’ve ever had,' week after week," Petrehn says. "I don’t know if it’s because each week is really better than the next, or if they’re just really excited to have it."

In years past, Petrehn has hosted dinners at his parents’ home, firing up the oven and preparing pizza for eager guests. He recently bought a home of his own in Lawrence with his new wife, Kailey, and he hopes to eventually build a wood-fired oven in their backyard. For now, you can find his not-so-traditional pies at 1900 Barker, or try your hand at making his pizza recipes at home.

Grilling Pizza at Home

Most home cooks aren’t ambitious enough to build their own wood-fired oven at home, and that’s OK. The closest you can get in terms of heat is making pizzas on a heat-proof stone over a charcoal or gas grill.

Petrehn says the trick to grilling pizzas at home is replicating the way heat moves in a wood-fired oven.

“In a wood-fired oven, you roll the pizza directly onto the stone inside the oven, and there’s a flame that climbs along the ceiling, so it cooks it super hot on top and super hot from the stone on bottom,” he says.

“The problem with a grill is that all of your heat comes from the bottom – from the charcoal underneath your stone. It’s easy to get tons of heat on the bottom, but not a ton of heat on the top, which you need to get that really nice blistery look on the crust. You have to have a thick pizza stone that’s able to withstand the heat coming up from the bottom, and then leave room on the sides of your grill to let the heat climb up around the pizza to get to the top. The dome of your grill's lid – avid pizza grillers often use a Weber kettle with a curved, round dome lid – allows the heat to climb over the top of the pizza.”

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