“We’re looking to be here for the next 20 years,” Johnson said this week from his home in Mountain House, pulling a freshly baked New England-style pie from one of his two stainless steel ovens. “We’re looking to set down roots here.”
If he’s looking to make friends, an invite into his kitchen should do the trick. The air was perfumed with the scent of fresh garlic, cheese, capers and shrimp that studded the just-crisped handmade dough. It’s the kind of food that makes a person want to visit.
But since the well-traveled culinary pro and his family moved to Mountain House in March, it’s Johnson who’s been invited in.
“It’s a friendly community.”
Known as Chef Tomm, Johnson is the main star at local “cooking parties,” during which he teaches guests — actually the hosts — kitchen basics. He selects a menu, divvies up the tasks and helps the very apprentice sous chefs create the meal.
But, he stresses, he’s not one of those chefs who insists food must be a certain way. Johnson emphasizes simple ingredients cooked right — and a customer’s taste is always a priority.
“I always cook for the customers,” he said.
The point is, he said, to get people to be more confident and have more fun in the kitchen.
If you teach them the basics, “then they’re not so afraid,” he said. “(It) encourages them to be more creative.”
He’d someday like to expand into catering — he has experience catering and cooking for large groups — and building a business in the community he now calls home.
“I want to make this my base,” he said. “Probably within a 25-mile radius.”
In addition to his in-person parties, anyone who wants some from-scratch cooking tips can follow Johnson online at www.cheftomm.com. There, in his made-for-the-Web TV series, “Culinary Secrets,” Johnson gives step-by-step instruction in a professional kitchen about how to make good, simple food at home.
“The idea was to share my 25-plus years experience with the world,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s got a wealth of knowledge to share in his more than 20 completed episodes, the most recent of which features hand-pulled Chinese noodles.
He’s had more than 15 years’ experience working in restaurants, and he’s taught for more than 10 years, including at the French Culinary Institute.
In addition to tours on both the West and East coasts of the United States, he has cooked in Mexico, Italy, Thailand and Germany.
That makes his culinary perspective varied, except in one aspect: Johnson always focuses on making stuff from scratch. And that’s not just for things like pasta dough. Johnson said he can make chocolate from cocoa beans, mill his own flour, even craft his own beer, wine and chewing gum. If it can be done from the bare ingredients, he can show you how.
But simplifications, he said, are just fine — as long as they start with quality ingredients and keep family at the center of the process.
“I have three kids and one on the way,” he said, “so shortcuts are definitely welcome.”
Johnson’s roots in food are deep, watered by a family that cooked a lot. Now, he continues the tradition with his wife, also a trained chef, and kids.
“Normally, these guys have their chef hats on and would be helping,” Johnson said from behind his workspace, pointing to his children romping in the family room.
But there’s more to Johnson’s passion than just family. He said both the dinner parties and online instruction are the answer to a question inside his head for quite some time: “How do I reach more people?”
“Cooking is probably one of the most intimate things you can do for a person,” Johnson said. “That makes me excited you can do that for a person.”
Shrimp scampi pizza
This shrimp scampi pizza is a classic East Coast-style pie that depends on quality ingredients.
22 ounces high-gluten flour or bread flour
1 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1¾ cups cool water
1 pound shrimp (16 to 20 per pound) sliced in half
1 pizza dough (either handmade or purchased)
12 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese shredded
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup chopped garlic
5 ounces Parmesan cheese
1 ounce capers
To taste dried basil
To taste dried oregano
To taste salt and pepper
Handful cornmeal mixed with garlic powder
Place the flour, water, oil, sugar, salt and yeast in a bowl and mix until fully incorporated. The dough should pull away from the bowl after about 4 or 5 minutes. Remove from the bowl and divide in half. Roll the dough into a ball, ensuring that the bottom of the ball is sealed. Place the dough on a sheet pan and put a light coat of oil on it; cover it with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. Let the dough rise slowly overnight. The dough is now ready to use.
• Chef’s note: This dough can be made in advance and frozen. Dust in flour and then put it in a Ziploc bag and freeze. When needed, place in the refrigerator the day before, and it will be ready for use.
Cut the garlic in fine dice, placing it in the olive oil. Sprinkle a small amount of cornmeal on the pizza peel or sheet pan. Roll out the dough to the desired size and place on the peel. Paint the oil-garlic mixture evenly on the dough, making sure you leave an inch for a border. Place the shrimp evenly across the pizza. Sprinkle the dough with the Parmesan cheese, just to take the shine off the oil. Sprinkle the capers, a little of the oregano and basil, along with the salt and pepper. Cover the entire pizza with mozzarella cheese. Place in a 500-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 10 minutes until it is golden brown. Remove from oven, cut and serve.
• Chef’s note: If you do not have a pizza stone, use a sheet pan. Remember to preheat the oven if you are using a stone.
— Courtesy of Tomm Johnson