Mark Tomczak, owner and chef of FRESH Wood Fired Pizza, is comfortable firing both pizza and pottery. As one of 11 children, his passion for cooking came from learning how to feed a crowd while working with his mom in the kitchen. Little did he know that what started out as an interest would later in life turn into a career.
Mountain Xpress: Tell me about your professional background.
Mark Tomczak: I have a master’s in fine arts and studied ceramics. I was also a core student at the Penland School of Arts and Crafts, and then went on to open a studio and gallery, Muddy Creek, along with my wife, Courtney. When the economy took a turn for the worse, I started thinking about other ways to make money. When it comes to art, function is very important to me — I think about the relationship of food and art. And over the course of the years, I’ve worked as an assistant chef at a variety of high-end restaurants. I always enjoyed it. I thought it would be pretty cool to have a restaurant where I could actually showcase how art and food intertwine.
So, you have two locations – FRESH Wood Fired Pizza in Black Mountain and FRESH West in the River Arts District. Do you actively cook at your restaurants?
Not so much. I rely on my wonderful staff. For example, Chester Oland runs FRESH West. We talk, communicate and figure it out together, but I trust him and the staff to pull it off. However, I’m always at one place or the other fixing stuff and checking in. We have a lot of fun together. Every year, we have a staff retreat and we close both locations for five or six days, usually in January. I rent a big house, and we just cook, relax, fish, enjoy the surf, tell stories, laugh and have fun. We’ve been to places like Captiva, Fla., and Oak Island, N.C. It’s a blast.
Do you have kids?
I have two daughters, 16 and 14. You can often find them busing tables.
What are some of your top sellers at FRESH?
Scarface (Italian cured meats with a red sauce); Alaskan (smoked salmon, red onions and mozzarella with a dill and caper sauce); the Veggie Delight and Baby Blue (a white pizza with blue cheese, red onion, pear and walnuts.)
Why wood-fired pizza?
Why not? It’s returning to our roots really. Our oven burns only wood as the sole source of heat just like it did nearly 1,200 years ago in Naples, Italy. Plus, my interest in kilns and heat — well, that’s pretty obvious. I like shaping things, whether pieces of clay into functional pieces or flour into dough.
How did you learn to make pizza?
Trial and error, really. I also love the book by Peter Reinhart, Artisan Breads Every Day. I just love cooking.
Tell me about the oven at FRESH West.
When I bought the business, it was already a pizza place — Pizza Pura — so there really was not much to do in the way of renovations, etc. The exterior of the oven is covered with a mosaic of Italian granite. It takes about 4 minutes to cook a pizza at about 800 degrees. It is pretty impressive.
What’s your main key to success?
Don’t skimp on ingredients. Use whole-milk mozzarella, buy local when you can and just get really good stuff.
Last meal request?
Something really gut-rotting — probably a hot Schezuan dish.
FRESH Wood Fired Pizza is at 100 S. Ridgeway Ave., Black Mountain. FRESH West is at 342 Depot St., Asheville.