Chef Brent Gunnels, Shane Burton and Savannah Bennett are preparing for their first “service” of the season for their pop-up pizza party, Cult of Pi, which will be held on Pi Day.
Starting on March 14, new and old members alike are invited to reserve a seat for the opportunity to congregate around Gunnels’ backyard brick and stone pizza oven and take Sunday communion together with a glass of wine and a slice or two of handcrafted pizza.
From chefs to pizzaiolos to baristas, these talented individuals are pushing boundaries either in kitchens of their own or under the direction…
“For me, there is a certain romance to the lighting of the pizza oven, the milling of tomatoes for the sauce and just letting the fresh ingredients on a pizza really shine, that continues to draws me back to making pies,” says Gunnels.
For Gunnels, who launched Cult of Pi with his friends last fall, these dinners are a way to build a community of followers, for what he hopes to eventually turn into a pizza restaurant. They currently run these events out of their own pockets, combined with donations from their members. “Our ultimate goal with Cult of Pi isn't financial profit, it is sharing our love of food, wine, technique, and Pi(e),” it reads on the Cult of Pi website.
From a business model perspective, the partners have set up Cult of Pi as a religious organization. This allows them the ability to accept donations, similar to a church or a convent, and gives them a platform to host these weekly Sunday pizza dinners. Eventually, they plan to offer donation-based cooking classes on Old World food preparation methods like fermenting dough and cooking over an open flame.
Gunnels and Burton have been kicking around the idea for Cult of Pi for at least a year or two. Plans finally crystallized when Gunnels moved into a new apartment on the Westside that already had a handmade pizza oven in the backyard. That’s when they knew they had finally found the location to make Cult of Pi a reality.
So, how does it work? First, go and reserve your spot(s) for the Sunday that you would like to attend on the Cult of Pi website. Then, existing members of Cult of Pi, or those who have attended “services” before, are asked to bring wine to share with the group of 10 people to drink during the dinner. New members, or those who have never been before, are asked to bring toppings for pizzas that will also be shared among the group of diners.
Gunnels encourages guests to be as creative as they want with the pizza toppings, but to remember that what they bring is what they will eat. All members are also asked to make a small donation that will go to help buy enough ingredients to host the next pie-making party.
In that way, Cult of Pi dinners combine "pay-it-forward" and "stone soup" concepts. The donation is a way to pay it forward for another group to enjoy a meal, and everyone attending brings something to contribute.
On Sundays, the doors to Gunnels’ apartment open at 3:14pm, and guests are encouraged to come early and help prep the meal in Gunnels’ home kitchen, including cutting vegetables and proteins, picking fresh herbs, lighting the pizza oven or setting the table.
Communion among all guests will start at 5:13pm with a communal drink of the day, before moving on to “services,” which start at 5:39pm. A rotating array of seasonal vegetables and proteins are cooked in the pizza oven first and served family-style at the table, as the first bottles of wine are opened. “From there we start creating pizzas, and we only stop when we're out of dough,” says Gunnels.
Pizza, no matter how you slice it, has always played a big part of Gunnels’ culinary experiences.
A hairdresser by trade, Gunnels would help out in restaurant kitchens as a side hustle to earn extra dough. Eventually, he made his way to New York City, and found his first real kitchen job working at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn making traditional New York-style pizzas and selling them whole or by the slice.
When he finally landed back in Kansas City after spending time in Europe, Gunnels got a job making New York-style pizza at d’Bronx on 39th Street. From there, he branched out and helped to open Il Lazzarone in the River Market. There, he learned how to make Neapolitan-style pizza, perfecting the dough and learning to work with an Italian-made Acunto pizza oven.
After so many years of making pizza, he was ready to learn more about his own culinary voice, so he decided to take an executive chef position at Julep. “At this point, I knew that cooking is what I really wanted to do, but I just wasn’t confident in my culinary skills, so I started reading every cookbook I could get my hands on, and watching You Tube videos to pick up techniques,” he explains. “I was very driven and wanted to learn as much as I could.”
Then, Gunnels took a job as the chef de cuisine at Freshwater, working closely with chef-owner Calvin Davis. It was during this time that he was focused on flavor mapping, fermenting and preservation. He learned how to balance the sweet, salty, spicy, sour, bitter and umami flavors in each dish. The skill he was honing was clearly represented in the plates he and Davis worked on together during his time at Freshwater.
At the end of last year, Gunnels left Freshwater to focus, not only on getting Cult of Pi off the ground, but also to work on his new CBD coffee shop, Tree Haus Café, or THC for short. He and Burton are also working together on this project and have already secured a storefront located next to the new Ragazza Italian restaurant on the corner of 43rd and Main Street.
Tree Haus Café is expected to open by early summer, offering a full coffee bar plus coffee drinks infused with CBD or cannabidiol, a growing trend in the beverage industry that can help mellow out your typical cup of joe.
Cult of Pi, pi.church