The Famous Chef Who Gave California Pizza Kitchen Its Original Pies

Many people associate California-style pizza with the widely known California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) restaurant chain, and for good reason: That's where it spread to the masses after being perfected at a handful of eateries in the Golden State, including Spago in Los Angeles — helmed by Wolfgang Puck. As fate would have it, however, it isn't Puck who gets the shout-out here. 

That goes to the now-famous pizza chef Ed LaDou, whose experimental style brought fresh and relatively healthy thin-crust pizzas outside the box and onto dining tables with gusto and panache. After joining the team at Spago in 1981, LaDou created "pizza art" with countless gourmet ingredients, including duck sausage, scallops with roe, baby zucchini flowers, and smoked salmon — with Puck's encouragement. By the time LaDou exited Spago in 1984, he had amassed a whopping library of around 250 pizza recipes.

When two attorneys, both former federal prosecutors and definitely not chefs, decided to launch a more casual eatery in Beverly Hills with the same upscale pizza style, they turned to the pizza-meister himself, chef LaDou. Nobody knew it would morph into an international enterprise recognized for its non-traditional gourmet pizza pies. 

California pizza rises

In 1985, CPK opened its doors with a menu developed, curated, and planned by LaDou. It has since morphed into an international pizza chain with about 200 locations across 11 countries and U.S. territories.

CPK's The Original BBQ Chicken Pizza, created by LaDou, spread like wildfire across the chain's restaurants but also got replicated by countless other professional and home chefs. The menu item features the brand's now-famous BBQ sauce, smoked gouda, fresh cilantro, red onions, and chicken — with the option to add crispy bacon or fresh pineapple.

Other CPK pizzas, both in-store or via countless supermarkets nationwide, showcase ingredients that were no doubt inspired by LaDou's style and ingenuity. The frozen pizzas alone offer varying cheeses, such as Asiago and fontina, as well as unconventional sauces such as creamy garlic and Thai peanut. Crusts also come in a range, including crispy thin, gluten-free cauliflower, and croissant-inspired.

LaDou, who passed away in December 2007 at the age of 52, has been called the godfather of gourmet pizza and a pioneer of the California pizza style. As for his secret, just about anything goes. Whenever he was asked if there's any ingredient that's taboo for a pizza pie, he said, "Anything that doesn't taste good" (via Pizza Marketplace).