Catching up with Juan G. Perez
Born and raised in Colombia, it is doubtful Juan Perez would have pictured himself as a pizzaiolo at one of Boston’s premier pizza restaurants. And yet, here he is, an accomplished executive chef at Posto in Boston, Massachusetts and one of Instagram’s most popular pizzaioli. We recently chatted with Juan to find out a little more about his non-so-conventional journey into the art of pizza and his rise on social media.
What brought you to Boston and how did you end up working in the restaurant industry?
Well, I had had some family who had spent time in Boston and my brother was living here already, so it was somewhat familiar to me. When I finished high school, I was considering what to do next but I wasn’t able to settle on anything specific. A couple friends of mine happened to be in the middle of an extended stay in Boston and they said I should come for a visit. I figured it would be a good experience; it was the right time in my life for a little adventure.
I didn’t have a job lined up when I arrived, so I took the first thing I could find: a spot at a grocery store. One day, I bumped into an old friend of mine while I was taking out the trash in the alley behind the store—which was a crazy coincidence!— and he told me about a dishwasher job at a restaurant nearby. I started there and over the next years I sort of bounced around a couple different food joints and restaurants and eventually ended up at California Pizza Kitchen. That was my gateway into pizza, and from that point on time was my teacher: I just tried to learn more everyday about pizza making.
How did you end up actually working on a pizza line?
I started at the bottom at CPK: a dishwasher. It was entry level stuff, but the place was always extremely busy so I would finish up my tasks quickly so I could help on the line. One of the pizza chef’s would always bring me over to help and show me some of the basics. I loved the responsibility. One day, someone was out so the manager asked me to fill in on the pizza team. That is how it started and I learned a lot. When I heard that Posto was looking for pizza chefs, I applied and got the job. I was part of a team with a few other pizza chefs.
Everything at Posto was new because it had only opened a few months before I arrived. The kitchen, the oven, all of it. I had been cooking on a gas oven before and here was this huge wood-fire oven with a massive flame. Four months into the job, I was the only pizzaiolo left. By that time I had a good amount of experience, the restaurant got VPN certified, and we received a lot of publicity. From there things only got better and in 2016 I became the executive chef.
There must be quite a difference between CPK and a restaurant like Posts. How was that shift for you?
California Pizza Kitchen is obviously a big chain and operates more like a corporation. The work there is very rigid. There are exact recipes and exact steps to follow. You can feel that costs and profits are the main criteria. There is no room for creativity and it is very machine like: every pizza is exactly the same at all the CPK’s across the world. It makes sense, and I am grateful for what I learned, but it is not really my style.
I personally love that none of my pizzas look exactly the same. The ingredients are always fresh and different. I am always looking to improve. I try different styles and get creative. There is more room for that at Posto, and it is more of a family. I love that.
Of course, Posto is VPN certified so there is a standard to follow but I still have the flexibility to try new things and create unique pizzas along with the classics. Posto has reached a level of name recognition that the focus for me is just on making the best product possible and the profits will take care of themselves.
You are quite popular on Instagram! How did it get started?
So, I have actually had the Instagram page up for 7 or 8 years. In the last couple years I started taking it a little more seriously. I took more “professional” photos, shared some tricks and stunts that were a little more eye-catching. People just seemed to really enjoy them.
It has actually been really crazy. I started this year with 5,000 followers and I gained 40,000 in the last 11 months or so. Between quarantines and shutdowns, I guess people have been on social media more than ever. But, I think it has just been such a difficult year for everyone that I am glad if the content I put out has kept people entertained. It can be hard to keep up sometimes, but I enjoy it and people have started even making requests to see certain things. If I can make people happy and have fun doing it, it is a win win.
What do you enjoy about being so active on Instagram?
So, like I said, I love to be creative with my pizza making. One thing I love is that now that some of my photos are shared across social media, I will get feedback from people saying “I could tell this was your pizza just from the photo!” That makes me really proud.
I also have seen that some of the stuff I put out is actually helpful to people. I didn’t make the page to teach anyone anything, but people seem to learn from it. People will comment asking for a slow mo of this, or another shot of that. In fact, I even know some people in Colombia who opened their own little pizza business because they were inspired by my page. I think that is fantastic. It all happens very naturally now and as long as it is enjoyable for me and positive for others, I am excited to see how it will grow in the future!