After 20 years as executive chef at Free State Brewing Co., Rick Martin set out on his own. In 2014, he opened Limestone Pizza in Lawrence, Kansas, with baker Mike Humphrey, serving Neapolitan-style pizzas made with Kansas flour baked in a 20,000-pound wood-fired oven.
Martin, who studied biology at the University of Kansas, is also the culinary director at Eudora High School, teaching the next generation of chefs and bakers. We caught up with him to talk about his 900-degree oven, pho and when he'll open another restaurant.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? You know, I would probably have to say tomatoes. I mean, there’s just so much you can do with tomatoes. And I love to grow 'em and I love to eat 'em and it’s just a fantastic ingredient.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? Yeah, it’s called 900 degrees [laughs]. And I say that completely legitimately. I love to teach flavor development and the Maillard reaction and what happens to food when you start to caramelize sugars, and there's just no better way to do it than in our wood-fired oven. It takes any ingredient to a completely different level, and the great thing about it is not very many other people can do the same thing and that’s what makes the restaurant experience unique: not only get those flavors around our pizza but some of our appetizers. You know, everybody does roasted shishitos these days but man, at 900 degrees, they’re just completely different, and that makes it unique.
What's your perfect day of eating in Lawrence? I’d probably say breakfast in my own kitchen because I’ve got two small children, but I’ll say – I wish my favorite ramen place served breakfast. Let’s say The Levee Café for breakfast. There’s so many choices – this is impossible! I love Ramen Bowls, it’s definitely a go-to for lunch. My favorite family spot right now is Nagoya, our little neighborhood Japanese restaurant, run by a couple who take care of our kids when we go in there, and the food is spectacular and it's our favorite little dinner place. Can’t deny that one.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? We’re certainly seeing more chef-owned restaurants still, which is great. I think that’s a trend that’s going to keep our restaurant culture thriving and keep us separate from the chain restaurants. Independent restaurants need to be owned by the people that are creating the flavors, and that’s just a really big deal. At least here in Lawrence, we’re still experiencing a lot of collaboration and exchanging of ideas and working together, and that’s something that didn’t used to happen. And that’s become really, really strong in the last year or two with all of our restaurants kind of pulling together to do better for the community as a group. What we’re realizing is we get a larger market from out of town the more we make Lawrence a food destination, and that’s only going to get larger from us working together to market together.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? I would love to see more breakfast options that are unusual. I wish there were more Mexican restaurants that were open for breakfast, because there are a lot of Mexican soups and things that are great breakfast, and you just don’t see it a lot. Same thing with pho. Pho is really eaten as a breakfast dish in Vietnam, and you don’t see a lot of Vietnamese restaurants opening for breakfast. I would do it all the time. Same thing with sushi [laughs]. I love sushi for breakfast; it keeps you feeling clean all day long. So more interesting breakfast options besides the standard bacon and egg joints – that would be great.
Who are Lawrence chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? All of them! It really is great, seeing what everybody’s doing. I love what Ken Baker’s doing over at Lawrence Beer Co. TK Peterson at Merchants, he’s awesome. It’s sad to see Vaughn Good go and move on to Kansas City, because he made probably my favorite food in town. Lee Meisel at Leeway Franks, incredible talent – making hot dogs but doing it right. That’s so admirable that he’s doing what he loves to do, and the guy can make some crazy good food, and he’s kinda specializing in what he does best, and it’s a great thing.
What's your favorite comfort food? I would have to say real pasta. Pasta to me has to be fresh, and my favorite comfort food in Lawrence is the spaghetti and meatballs at 715. I would eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s so delicious – fresh pasta made by hand. That would be it.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? [For pizza,] get the dough right and make sure you take your time with the maturation process and leave it really wet. Your dough needs to be wet; you can always dry it out once you’ve got it on the board and you’re shaping the pizza dough. But don’t dry it out in the mixing process. You want dough to be really sloppy and wet until you’re ready to make your individual dough. That’s the mistake I see people make most often; the dough’s too dry and it’s fighting back and they can’t make it do what they want.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? Eggplant’s in season, and eggplant sliced thin at 900 degrees is pretty damn intriguing. It really surprises people, especially people who think that they don’t like eggplant because they’ve never had it made properly. But for those of us in the know, we’re aware that eggplant has to be cooked properly, and when you do it on a pizza it’s really unbelievable, and now that eggplant’s in season it’s really fun to play around with.
What are your future plans? I’m still teaching the advanced culinary program for the high school here. That’s something that’s really important to me; we need to keep incubating young talent to fill our employment pool in all the restaurants. We need all the help that we can get. Definitely working on a new concept – it’s still too early to say anything more on that but you’ll be seeing something new from Rick Martin hopefully pretty soon. And it won’t be pizza!
Limestone Pizza, 814 Massachusetts St., Lawrence, Kansas, 785.856.2825, limestonepkb.com