Many hands build Flatbread’s new pizza oven

The base weights in at close to 30,000 pounds. The oven about 6,000. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The all-natural ingredient pizzas from Flatbread will bake in a new handmade 36,000-pound wood-fired clay oven when the restaurant and performance space at the airport opens for the season on May 15. A crew of about a dozen some barefoot, some college students, many from Flatbread’s home in Vermont, spent the better part of a week replacing the old oven with a more efficient model developed over almost three decades by American Flatbread’s founder, and co-owner, George Schenk, 61, who was on the job and up to his elbows in clay. Co-owner Jay Gould, who also owns the Vineyard Flatbread restaurant, was clay covered as well as he helped mold the new oven around a burlap covered wooden stick frame that was the form for the oven’s dome.

Standing around a makeshift plywood able, members of the crew, including the Vineyard manager Tina Miller, laughed and joked Friday like kids playing in mud while working straw as a binding element into the clay, by hand. They rolled the mix into soccer-sized balls that were then massaged into place around the frame.

The clay will cure over the next two months. Then the interior framing will be burned out, just in time for the opening. The finished oven will weigh about 6,000 pounds. It sits on a four-foot high, 30,000-pound stone base.

Mr. Schenk, from Vermont’s Mad River Valley, said the new design is a little smaller with a different shape that is more energy efficient. “It burns less wood with a more consistent, hotter fire than the old oven.” He explained that the smoke from burning the kiln-dried hardwood, which is necessary to produce an even temperature in the oven, circulates back around the interior dome of the oven allowing for a secondary burn that results in almost no visible smoke.

The smoke exits out the top of the oven’s only port, the front door, and out of the building via a large steel hood with an exhaust fan that floats above the oven.