Writing for the Connexion once again, interviewing those everyday people who make up the “real” france. this month we talk to the errant pizzailos chefs who cook up fresh pizza to go every night in the back of their cramped, hot vans.
THE MAN IN THE VAN
You can buy pretty much any food out the back of a van nowadays. Chips, hot dogs, kebabs, even tartiflette. However the nation’s number one seller is Pizza. France’s first camion pizza belonged to Monsieur Jean Meritan and opened for business in 1962 in Marseilles. Now there are hundreds of pizza vans across France. Every town or village has at least one. Recently, The Connexion went to meet one of France’s mobile pizzailos: Rudolf Cocher, who cooks up pizza to go, five nights a week, in and around Bourges in the Cher (18). It might look easy, but life can be tough for the « man in the van »
How long have you been the man in the van?
I started in October 2002. I back came to France after a stint as a chef in the Caribbean. I needed a job. I met a man selling his pizza van. 20,000 Euros later and lighter, I was running my own mobile pizza business.
Is it a profitable business?
In a good month I clear about 1500 Euros. Wages in catering are lousy. I make as much working here as I would in a restaurant, but I don’t like being stuck in a kitchen, literally slaving over a hot stove, for a patron. I prefer life in my van. Out here, I am my own boss and I like chatting with the punters. This is very important. No matter how good your pizzas, if you don’t have what the French call le tchatche (the gift of the gab), the punters will never come back.
Personality obviously matters. What other skills or qualities do you need in this job?
You’ve got to be motivated in this game. Whatever the weather, you’ve got to be there, and always service with a smile. Summer is the worst time. Temperatures in the van get as high as 45°c. I would also add, that it helps to know how to make pizza.
Is there any specific professional training for this job?
People think its easy to knock up pizzas. During the late nineties, France had a pizza van explosion as people put their savings or redundancy payments into what they thought was an easy business. A lot of them went under. There is no specific training, but you’ll find that the better pizzailos have all trained as bakers or pasty chefs, and many have already worked in restaurants. I’d also advise a crash course in business skills.
Every evening you cook up at a different pitch. What makes a good pitch and how do you get one? Do you need any special permission from the local authorities?
Finding a good pitch is very much trial and error. It takes roughly four months to work out the viability of a new site. As far as permission is concerned, that all depends on who owns the land and the owner’s goodwill. If the site is council-owned, you have to seek written authorisation from the local « mairie ».
Quite a few of the places you cook up are villages, deep in the countryside. Was this a conscious choice, or is it simply that competition is too tough in town?
This was a conscious choice, and I have to add, an astute business decision, taking pizza to those small villages where there was none. In many of the villages I work, there is no café, perhaps no épicerie or even boulangerie. When my van rolls into town once a week, it’s a bit of a party atmosphere. Let’s face it, Pizza is fun food.
A Pizza isn‘t a necessity. A pizza is a treat. For some people it’s a luxury. It’s party food. It’s fun food. I have to sell fun pizzas. At the moment, I’m working on a foie gras and fig pizza for my Christmas menu
So, how do you make up your pizzas ? How do you decide what to put on your menu ?
Well, you must have the classics : four seasons ; four cheese ; Regina ; Romana ; Napolitano and Calzone. These are very popular with the ladies. Men prefer meatier and spicier toppings like Merguez or Chorizo. After that, it depends on current tastes and trends. You have to go to pizzerias and find the pizza « buzz » of the moment. There is also a regional factor in all of this. Down here, we are deep in the Berry, that means goat cheese, which is an integral part of the « Berrichon » pizza. Every region has its own pizza. It takes three years to work out a successful and viable menu.
What makes a good pizza ?
Fresh toppings, a good dough and love.
BOBBY - THE MAN WHO MAKES THE VANS
Meet Bobby. Ex mobile pizzailo. After eight years of rustling up Reginas and knocking out Napolitanos, Bobby found he could make more dough, converting vans than conjouring up pizzas.
How much is a pizza van, and where do you buy them?
On the Internet. There are plenty of companies making ready-to-use vans. Not just pizza vans, but mobile shops too. You can pay anywhere between 35000€ to 60000€ for a new van.
What about your vans?
It depends on what you want. I sold my last van on the Internet for 27000€. I bought the original van second hand for 7000€ and then fitted it out to the suit the client. I try to keep prices down by finding as many elements as possible at professional auctions or brocantes. I’ve done three vans so far. When I started out in the pizza business, I converted my own van. I think that having worked in a van for eight years, I’m perhaps the person most qualified to make them
What’s the most difficult part of van conversion ?
Cutting out the serving hatch, and of course, installing the oven. The oven is the most expensive and heaviest part of the van, it can weigh over 450 kilos The best pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven. You can get a new one for just under 3000€ though a second hand one will cost much less. Future van owners should also be very conscious of stringent hygiene regulations – every van should have adequate refrigeration, clean and independent water supply, large, wipe clean, work surfaces and separate storage for all ingredients.
How long does a conversion take?
About two to three months
What are the best vans?
Transit vans are too small; you’re best with a box van. It has a stronger chassis and more room.
French yields up very few Pizza expressions. He or she who cooks the pizzas is referred to as a Pizzaiolo, and they slave over a hot stove or travailler comme un forçat à la cuisine, at your local, friendly ,pizza parlour or Pizzeria., where you can commander une pizza – order a pizza, to eat on the premises or grab a takeaway – vente à emporter. If you don’t fancy eating out, you can opt for a home pizza delivery, livraison à domicile, from a spotty youth on a scooter, who, in return for his services may ask for a tip – pourboire, and offer you a fistful of hot sauce – sauce piquante. The pizza dough – pâte à pizza is no more than flour and water. The Pizzaiolo makes it special by adding olive oil or huile d’olive and a pinch or pincée of levure – yeast
Some French pizza figures to quote at your next pizza party. In 2010, the French chomped their way through 10 tonnes of pizza, an average of 8 kilos of pizza per person. This makes the French Europe’s largest pizza consumers. There are 13000 pizzerias in France where the average pizza retails for 11.80€; though only 18% of the price actually goes into making the pizza.