In a tent at Art Murmur, pizza chef James Whitehead is hustling. He darts about, frantically tossing dough into the air, saucing pies, and trying to keep up with the steady stream of hungry customers waiting for a slice.
Whitehead, whose precisely groomed handlebar mustache sits above his almost constantly moving mouth, is quiet, for once, as he focuses on meeting the heavy demand for his pizzas. Art Murmur is the busiest he’s been since he started Fist of Flour Pizza Company, and it’s paying off—the Murmur attendees, many of whom have never tried Fist of Flour before, walk away down 23rd street chewing and grunting their approval.
The six-month old Fist of Flour is one of the city’s youngest food truck operations. Founded and run by Oakland resident Whitehead, the company’s digs consist of a school bus (known affectionately as Shorty the Short Bus) with a trailer hitched to the back, and sometimes, a tent that serves as a storefront. The trailer houses a stocky pizza oven and serves as Whitehead’s mobile kitchen.
Sitting on the sunny patio of the Pacific Coast Brewing Company on a Sunday afternoon, Whitehead, 39, talked about his business—occasionally interrupting himself with long, tangential, generally hilarious stories. He described Friday night’s Art Murmur experience as a serious adrenaline rush.
“I didn’t know I could do that,” he said. “I’m like the mom who lifts the car off her crushed child.”
The skin on his hands is cracked and blistered from building pizza ovens, and experiments in cooking—he has the demeanor of an artist, or a craftsman, or a little of each. He’s lived all over California, but spent his twenties and early thirties working in magazine publishing and graphic design in San Francisco. Most Sunday mornings he heads to Alameda Skate Park to board with his buddies.
Though he made his first red sauce at 18, Whitehead said it was just a few years ago that he began to really connect with what he ate. “I just discovered food,” he said. “Hanging out with my good friend Alexeis Filipello [the proprietress of Oakland’s Bar Dogwood] and being taken to fancy restaurants kind of triggered something that was like, ‘Oh, food’s good.’”
Post-epiphany, Whitehead started exploring the Bay Area’s culinary delights, checking out local farmers’ markets and visiting wine country with Nadia Khastagir, his girlfriend of 14 years. But what enticed him the most was learning how to make a really good pizza.
“I’ve loved pizza since I can remember,” said Whitehead. “When I was five years old, I had my birthday party at Pizza and Pipes in Daly City. They had a huge pipe organ and this dude would sit there and play while you ate pizza.”
Using a mix of recipes—everything from the Joy of Cooking to the Cheeseboard Collective’s cookbook—Whitehead started to craft his own pizza dough at home. As a child, Whitehead learned some simple cooking techniques from his father, but unlike many other food truck proprietors, he’s never worked in a restaurant or as a chef. Through trial and error, and years of practice, Whitehead finally came up with what is now the Fist to Flour breed of pie.
Fist of Flour’s pizzas measure about 10-12 inches in diameter, and are topped with red sauce, mozzarella and a variety of toppings. (Vegans can request to skip the cheese and have a basil-infused olive oil base instead.) Whitehead usually offers two options, one meat and one vegetarian, but at Art Murmur he offered three. Customers chose between the Pasilla Mia, with pepperoni pasilla and basil; the Fungi Classico, with mushrooms, garlic and basil; and the Cheezini, with cheddar, zucchini and sun dried tomatoes.
While Whitehead sticks with classic Italian flavors for the most part, he’s got tricks up his sleeve—he recently made a pizza laced with spinach, spicy cauliflower and Tandoori chicken for a Bollywood-themed party. Fist of Flour’s ingredients are all sourced locally, including the cured meat, which he gets from small operations like Genoa deli in Temescal. Whitehead uses herbs from his garden for a fresh addition to many of his pies.
Whitehead points to a singular moment when his hobby of making pizza at home turned into his dream for a small business. About a year and a half ago, he bumped into the Pizza Politana cart at 8th and Clay in downtown Oakland.
“I thought, ‘Wow, pizza on the street,’” Whitehead said. “That triggered the whole thing—that was the seed that got planted in my brain. I went home and started looking for flatbed trucks.”
Fortuitously, Khastagir turned him on to a guest teacher at the Institute for Mosaic Art—one weekend only, teaching people how to make pizza ovens. Whitehead made two—one for his home, and one for his trailer. He constructed them out of darjit, a recycled compound of china clay and various paper pulps. When combined with cement, the clay has a nice sculptural quality, and the resulting oven fires pizza at around 1,000 degrees. Whitehead uses almond wood in his ovens, which he says is environmentally sustainable and plentiful in Northern California.
After installing the pizza oven inside a large metal trailer, Whitehead invested in the school bus—a ’91 model with just 23,000 miles on it that needed a hefty amount of work. The inside was torn apart, the fuel line leaked constantly, and the tires were completely bald. A cool $5,000 later, Whitehead’s bus is as close to new as a 20-year-old vehicle can be.
Today, the Fist of Flour operation is finally “legit,” Whitehead said. He does his prep work out of the kitchen at LaPlacita, a center that provides support for small food businesses. Everything is up to code, he’s taken the required food safety classes, and he’s slowly learning the city’s permit system.
Fist of Flour is restricted by some of Oakland’s laws regarding food sales—for example, because the pizza trailer is not an enclosed space, Whitehead can’t set up on the street and sell. So far, he offers private catering (providing extras for these events, like chocolate-stuffed dessert calzones), he works the Laurel Community Farmer’s Market most Saturdays, and he is now moving into larger permitted events, like Art Murmur. Some days, Whitehead will blast his Facebook fans and mailing lists, telling them to send in their pizza orders via text—then, they can come pick up their custom-made pies from a predetermined location.
Whitehead is hoping to expand the kind of business he does by getting some of Oakland’s laws relaxed, and he has banded together with other food vendors in hopes of enacting change. He said he believes the Oakland City Council is open to their ideas.
“Rebecca Kaplan is behind the whole small food movement,” Whitehead said. “And, who really in City Council doesn’t want small businesses to succeed?”
For now, Whitehead says, his goal is to keep tackling larger events and sell more pies. Art Murmur marked not only the busiest, but the most lucrative night of Whitehead’s pizza-selling career, and he views it as a sign of good things to come.
”Now it’s real,” Whitehead said. “We’ve been flying at full speed for the last six months. I’m kind of dizzy.”
To learn where you can find Fist of Flour next, check out the company’s web site at: Wheresthefist.com/wordpress.