California Pizza Kitchen is famous for their barbecue chicken pizza, an invention of the mid-1980s Los Angeles that was slowly realizing that food need neither be flavorless and green nor a slavish rendition of French and Northern Italian dishes. CPK has certainly come a long way since they opened their first location in Beverly Hills in 1985. The restaurant is in 11 countries, with the stated aim of making California pizza on the map, as predominantly as pies from Chicago and New York. Their "California twist on global flavors" has done well, and over the years, the restaurant's menu has become pretty expansive, boasting everything from the pizzas, to avocado eggrolls, to salads, to ... quinoa?
Lately, CPK has been working some new foods and styles in with their tried and true dishes. They've added a new, "healthy" section to the menu that they're calling New Adventures. These new dishes incorporate trendy foods, like corn succotash and chimichurri sauce. I spoke with VP of Culinary Development Brian Sullivan and Erin Murphy, Director of Public Relations, about the changes to the menu and the future of the restaurant.
Eliza: How did the BBQ Chicken Pizza come about? Was it something everyone did anyway and CPK monetized it?
Erin: We thought of the crust as our canvas and we could paint it with anything we wanted. I think Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck might have been the only other people at the time doing really exotic things with pizza - rabbit sausage and caviar as toppings. We wanted to make pizzas with familiar flavors that appealed to the masses, familiar flavors but with our California twist.
Eliza: Was it a specific comment about NY pizza?
Erin: I think a bit, yes. I think it goes back to California and it being known for its creativity, stepping outside the box, thinking differently. We were getting away from the norm and moving towards the more innovative. Back then, pizza had a "norm" - sausage, onion, pepperoni, etc.
Eliza: How does California and being based out of California influence the menu and the changes to the menu?
Brian: California is such a creative state. So many companies here are innovative, it's a progressive state. It's also associated, to me, with freshness, and health, and quality, and I think all of those attributes contribute to our menu, and especially our New Adventures menu. We're really focused on full flavored dishes. We're focused on unique and high quality ingredients and preparations that are unique to us.
Eliza: When you've opened restaurants in other states, do you think you're introducing a taste of California to those places? Are there specific foods and ingredients on the menu that you would say are inspired by or especially indicative of a California food culture?
Brian: We do, especially when you look at the scope of our restaurants across the country. We're in so many states, and I think that a lot of what we do can be unique to a lot of people. For example, quinoa -- quinoa is pretty trendy, and I think that a lot of people still don't know what quinoa is. It's a way for us to introduce something that we feel is a little bit unexpected. The way that we prepare that salad, with asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted pine nuts, all of that kind of reflects a California lifestyle, to me. I also think that when you go into our restaurants, that reflects California.
Eliza: So, what influences the addition of quinoa and other fad food ingredients to the menu?
Brian: We're flavor first. Everything we do from the development side has to represent amazing flavor and deliciousness. I think it's just being in tune with what's happening in the culinary world -- you hear about quinoa, you can buy it in the markets now, in most markets, you see it in bread, you see different applications, but I think it's something fresh. We looked at a number of different grains. But quinoa to us, we just loved the flavor of it, it's slightly nutty, and it's got a great texture, and we fell in love with it. That's the approach that we take with anything, it's got to taste great, no matter how big of a superfood.
Eliza: Speaking of superfoods, how do you factor healthy food and health crazes into the menu? Do you accommodate those, or are you going for strictly flavor? Has health always been a concern at CPK, or is it more a motivation now than it was in the past?
Brian: I think it's both. You have to define healthy...are we talking healthy in terms of balance in a dish, is it health relating to salt content, health relating to saturated fat content? Is it calories? With New Adventures, we definitely had calories in mind when we developed these dishes, we had a target - we wanted to be in that 600 calorie count range. So then for us it's trying to create food that's healthy, from the calorie standpoint, and also healthy from the standpoint of the ingredients that we're putting into it, using greens and using fresh vegetables and not as much oil, not as much butter, maybe a little bit lighter on the cheese, just to keep things in balance and keep the calorie count down.
Erin: We create for flavor first. Always have. But certainly through the years, especially the last ten or so years, the attitude of the general population has shifted and people are more cognizant of what they're eating. When we are creating new items, we always have the ingredients and the nutrition in each, in mind. But while we design some items to be lighter, we still design some to be decadent.
Eliza: What direction do you think the restaurant is headed in, in terms of balancing the appeal of CPK's original menu and bringing in these new ideas?
Brian: Pizza's in our middle name. We're always going to be pizza focused. I think over the years our menu kind of expanded out to the point where we were a little bit heavy, in terms of the items on our menu, and a little bit spread out, in terms of the offerings that we had, so we're going to focus back in on really offering items that are unique to us, craveable, and items that reflect authentic California. We can maintain California authenticity and still incorporate global ideas and flavors. We're just beginning to go through this process in the last year, we're really focused on it: it starts with New Adventures and then we're going to begin to do some work in other categories.
Eliza: What kind of new work do you think is coming?
Brian: I can tell you that pizzas are going to be our focus, and I really can't say anything more at the moment, but you're going to hear more in the next six to nine months.
Eliza: CPK really put California cuisine on the map, since there are locations all over, and pizza, but not New York pizza. What's changed in terms of your mission since you started? When you launched did you think you'd appeal to people outside of California? Was that your goal?
Brian: I think the goal was always really that California style pizza would be global, and that CPK would own California style pizza, and that it would hold in the same breath as New York style or Chicago style, whatever defines those styles of pizzas, that California Pizza Kitchen would define California pizza. We want to conquer the world. We want to have a California Pizza Kitchen in Rome. The first two [branches] were here in California, and then it went to Atlanta and then to Hawaii.
Eliza: Is the Barbecue Chicken Pizza still a top seller? Are there other "Most Popular" menu items?
Brian: It certainly is. It's actually still the number one seller in the entire pizza category. Our avocado club eggrolls do very, very well, the original barbecue chicken chop salad and roasted veggie salad are big sellers in our salad section. Pizzas are still the crux of our business, but the other categories do very well.
Eliza: Do you have a favorite from the New Adventures menu?
Brian: I do. My favorite is the fire-roasted Chile Relleno. It's so full flavored, and the fact that it's not deep fried and battered -- this is where the health part comes in - a typical chile relleno is stuffed with cheese and deep fried, this one brings this elements of chile relleno, but the fact that it's fire roasted and comes in under 400 calories is amazing.