“What many bakers don’t realize is that good wheat can make bad bread. The magic of bread baking is in the manipulation and the fermentation. What has been lost…is this method.”

This quote by legendary French baker Lionel Poilane is one that Mark Hopper, chef and owner of Vignette Pizzeria in Sebastapol, California, refers to often. And that’s because Poilane’s signature four-pound miches and Hopper’s light, but flavor-packed pies have something in common: a sourdough starter.

While pizza-making can be a little labor-intensive (time-intensive, too, when you factor in proofing), using a sourdough starter changes up the game even more. How so? Well, starters can be unpredictable. Like us, they’re living things, and therefore, highly susceptible and sensitive to their environment. But once you get the hang of your starter — since they’re all unique, they all behave differently — it becomes something, not unlike a child or pet, that you nurture and “feed.” With diligence, it can last for years.

I met Hopper last fall, shortly after Vignette opened in the Barlow, a thoughtfully curated cluster of food and drink purveyors in the heart of Sonoma County. After a quick tour of the space and his “dough room” — a nook where he keeps his sourdough starter, dough and meticulous notes documenting his starter’s behavior — I sat down to try a Margherita pie.

It looked beautiful. The crust was thin, pleasingly speckled and lightly dressed with bright sauce and dots of creamy cheese. But the taste, the taste. Upon first bite, I discovered the magic a sourdough starter brings to pizza. Yes, there was a really subtle tang to each bite, but more interestingly, the crust tasted like something. It had flavor. So instead of discarding the “bones” or dipping them in ranch (yes, I said ranch), I ate the whole pie, crust and all. And when I left, I didn’t feel lead-bellied. I felt wonderful.

Recently, I sat down with Hopper at Vignette, to chat about getting hired and fired (and rehired) by Thomas Keller, why he left fine dining for pizza, and why sourdough rules (especially if you’re gluten-sensitive).

Mark Hopper prepping the dough at Vignette Pizzeria (Photo credit: Vignette Pizzeria)
Mark Hopper prepping the dough at Vignette Pizzeria. (Photo: Vignette Pizzeria.)

How did you get into cooking?
I was born in Yonkers, New York. My grandparents are from Italy, so they grew vegetables, had a well for water and made pasta. I understood the importance of food at such a young age. After attending Newbury College, I found my way back to the city, trailing and staging. Eventually I made it to California and became the banquet director of the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco. That’s where I met Ken Oringer. He took me to French Laundry in ’94 or ’95, and that meal — I didn’t know Thomas Keller, but it was the biggest wake-up call. I was cooking for a long time, but this guy was on a whole different planet. He was sweeping, mopping the floor, doing things from start to finish. I wanted to work like that.

I know you worked for Thomas for many years. How did that come about?
Ken went back to Boston, so I kept my eye on French Laundry. I got hired on October 16, 1996. I was on and off with Thomas for 12 years. I left one time after a year, went back, got fired, and hired again. I left for good in 2012.

What were your biggest takeaways from working with Keller?
I learned how to think about everything at a high level. He doesn’t stop at the first opportunity, and he doesn’t work on impulse. He’s constantly self-evaluating, sprinkled with a good amount of humility. He’s gracious. He taught me you can always do more, to never be complacent or back up. Because at the end of the day, it’s a performance-based business, like sports.

Each pizza at Vignette Pizzeria begins with a sourdough starter. (Photo credit: Vignette Pizzeria)
Each pizza at Vignette Pizzeria begins with a sourdough starter. (Photo courtesy of Vignette Pizzeria.)

So why did you ditch fine dining for pizza?
I have always loved pizza. It’s my favorite food. And growing up, Friday night was pizza night. And for many years in Vegas [during his tenure at Bouchon], Friday was pizza night for our staff meal. When I got hired to be the chef de cuisine of Farmshop Marin, pizza was to be offered. So I got to put the program together. And at some point, I realized I wanted to do this on my own, bake pizza. I fell in love with the whole process — there’s repetition, and you want the next one to be better than the last. It also allowed me to create an environment where I could use all my tools — focus on the food, improve it constantly, while running a business, like Keller.

And why sourdough?
The challenge. It goes back to the Keller thing, always wanting to be challenged. When you create your own starter, it’s unique. Mine is going on three years. We feed it multiple times per day and don’t have a fridge. Because once you put that dough in the fridge, it’s over. There’s no chemical reaction, nothing interesting happening. Starters have a life span, so there are times it’s perfect and times when it’s a tiny bit underdone. You have to constantly adjust it.

The Mo features dough, sauce, garlic, oregano (no cheese). (Photo credit: Vignette Pizzeria)
The Mo features dough, sauce, garlic, oregano (no cheese). (Photo courtesy of Vignette Pizzeria.)

Besides the process, how is sourdough pizza different from the pizzas most of us are used to?
Well, there’s more flavor. It’s not neutral. And it’s far more easily digestible. That’s why a lot of people with gluten sensitivity can have sourdough. And I feel it’s good for you. I never really liked pizza with a lot of yeast. You have to drink a ton of water to get through it. Then you don’t feel good. And if people don’t feel good, they correlate that with something they ate. I’m not saying other pizzas are bad, but I think mine have more character. The style that I do is minimally topped and is all about the dough, which has an unpredictable mouthfeel. With other pizzas you sort of know what you’re getting — it’s predetermined. Very, very few Americans ever say, “Wow, this dough is amazing!” That’s why my favorite pizza here is the Mo. It’s just dough, sauce, garlic, oregano. That’s the baseline.