Duncan Aiken has loved pizza his whole life, though pizza, as he has found out, can be a harsh mistress. It took years to develop a recipe for the kind of crust he favors, years of studying, traveling, working and, of course, eating.
Duncan Aiken is owner of Skunx Chef Pub, a new restaurant at 2158 Young Ave., in Cooper-Young. Some of Aiken’s specialties include Mama Luc Pizza, Chef Sarah Jo’s Crab Cakes and blueberry cheesecake. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Aiken recently took over Lou’s Pizza Pie in Cooper-Young as managing operator after closing his Overton Park Pizze Stone in Midtown in August 2010. The new name is – or will be; recently the sign hadn’t changed yet – Skunx Chef’s Pub, a reference both to his nickname and to the fact that he wants the place to be a late-night gathering spot for chefs.
Aiken has a long relationship with what he calls the “old-school savages” of local cooking. Though he’s only 40, he has a long history in the restaurant community, going back to when he was 15 and started working at Guy Pacaud’s old La Patisserie. (A diminutive Frenchman who supplied bread to many restaurants as well as running La Patisserie, Pacaud died in an automobile accident in 1998, aged 55.) At La Patisserie, Aiken rubbed shoulders with such prominent or emerging chefs as Jose Gutierrez, Richard Farmer and Gene Bjorklund.
“I was a waiter for a while,” said Aiken, “but I was so terrible that they put me in the kitchen. That’s where I started by cooking education.”
(Photos: Lance Murphey)
(Photos: Lance Murphey)
(Photos: Lance Murphey)
Aiken was born in Brownsville, Texas. His father was in the cotton business, so it’s natural that the family moved to Memphis, the heart of cotton trading, when Aiken was 6. His father traveled frequently to South America, lending the family an air of international exoticism.
“My mother always cooked,” said Aiken. “I grew up watching Julia Child. I thought her show was funny. My mom would call me from work to make sure I wasn’t cooking.”
Aiken attended Christian Brothers High School and the University of Memphis, but his education extended to Lorenzo de Medici’s cooking school in Florence, Italy.
“Even though I studied in Italy,” he said, “later I found out that I liked the pizza better in France. The French use more salt. It’s a misconception that people have that salt kills yeast, but that’s if you use too much. Salt warms the dough and helps it brown. That’s why Italian bread is so blond, because the Italians don’t use much salt.”
Working with Pacaud also influenced Aiken’s search for the ideal formula for pizza dough.
“When I worked with Guy, of course we had good French bread. And in doing my own research, I found that the less oil you use, the better it is. A nice French bread dough is the style I prefer for my pizzas.”
Aiken worked all over town, from being the night chef at Mantia’s to running the kitchen at Café Palladio to waiting tables and cooking at Café Society. Always, though, he wanted his own restaurant. That turned out to be Overton Park Pizze Stone, which opened in June 2009 where Marena’s had been for years and then, more briefly, Roustica.
“Of course,” he said, “that has always been my passion. It was time for me to work for myself, to be No. 1, not No. 2. I was just too old for that. So I gathered the money and took a chance. It went well, but I didn’t like the terms of the lease. I liked being off the beaten track, but that wasn’t a good location. We had minimal problems with customer satisfaction.”
That sentence implies that there were some problems with customer satisfaction.
“Well, I can be a prima donna sometimes, but we are a service industry, and we have to give customers what they want.”
The real problem was with a city project to improve drainage in the Evergreen neighborhood.
“The city tore up the street for six months,” he said. “Business went down 50 percent. I paid my staff and paid my taxes and closed the doors. I didn’t go out of business, I closed the business, and I didn’t feel guilty until later on.”
Aiken looked for a space Downtown, but rents were too high.
“I had had a recent break-up,” he said, “and I was offered a job teaching at the Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon. I put all my equipment on craigslist, but then the owner here” – at Lou’s – “wanted to sell his business, and I offered to run it. I’m not the owner. We have a management agreement.”
Aiken envisions Skunx as a place “where chefs can hang out late night and they can be who they are. We’re all a little eccentric.”
He doesn’t want an extensive menu, focusing on pizzas, fresh pastas and blackboard specials. “If you keep too much stuff on the menu, then you have to keep so much inventory, and that leads to wasted food. That’s not the French way, not the way I was trained. Keep things simple.”
Aiken likes the Cooper-Young neighborhood for this newest venture.
“I love it here,” he said. “All the other restaurants have been very supportive. We all work together and help each other out. It’s really becoming a destination. Once we get our wine license, I’d like to do wine dinners and feature other chefs. We all know that times are tough. It’s a good way of giving back.”