Hold the halibut, please


Ask Larry Flax what goes well on pizza and you'll get a litany. Ask him what doesn't, and the list is shorter.

"Halibut," says the co-founder of California Pizza Kitchen, wincing like a kid facing a plate of spinach. "And most other fish," he quickly adds.

If only he'd listened to his culinary instincts early on. "I'm a mayonnaise man. And I'd always thought that egg salad would taste great on pizza," he reminisces with a half-pie grin.

Customers in his first restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., didn't quite agree. When Mr. Flax slathered pizzas with his favorite mayo mixture, they sent it back. "I learned that egg salad was good when fresh, but if you let it sit around too long...."

Since then, dishes like Barbecue Pizza and Oriental Chicken Salad have had the opposite effect, inspiring customers to prod Flax for his recipes.

Flax and CPK co-founder Rick Rosenfield respond to those curious customers in "California Pizza Kitchen Pasta, Salads, Soups, and Sides" (William Morrow, $19.95). Their first book, "The California Pizza Kitchen Cookbook," also takes an "anything goes" approach to wood-fired pizzas.

"We tried to pick things that weren't so complicated ... and would be easier to make at home," says Flax.

Take the BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad. Flax mixes the popular Mexican vegetable, jicama, which he says tastes like a blend of radish and apple, with Monterey Jack cheese, black beans, tortilla strips, corn, and more. He flavors it with a zesty barbecue sauce and cool ranch dressing. "I was just sort of playing," he says of the mix.

The restaurateur chose to follow his knack for sniffing out food trends after he and Mr. Rosenfield both bailed out of their law practice. The legal partners decided to swap messy courtroom battles for a cluttered kitchen and opened the Beverly Hills CPK restaurant in 1985.

Their aim was to serve designer pizzas in the spirit of California gourmet chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck, but at prices the masses could afford. They have since found that what people want is not necessarily gourmet pizzas, but crust topped with things everyone craves - like bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Pastas and appetizers were added shortly after their restaurant opened.

His secret to cooking up dishes people will come back for? "Just play with food ... combine flavors you like," he says. Flax tinkers with different concoctions in his 1,000-square-foot kitchen in Beverly Hills, which has several ovens, three dishwashers, as well as a fireplace.

"The recipes in both books show you that you can have fun with pizza and pasta," says Flax. Munching on Spinach-Artichoke Dip, he reminisces about his early years behind the stove.

"My mother hated to cook," he recalls. "But I love to eat." So strong was her desire to avoid pots and pans that his mom signed the family up to taste-test Swanson's Frozen TV Dinners. After peeling aluminum foil from countless frozen chicken dishes, Flax's craving for home cooking won out.

He stepped up to the family stove at age 12, preparing the occasional meal and even a Thanksgiving feast. "I took Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing Mix, added hot and mild Italian sausage, apples, onions, celery, carrots, and made my own turkey stuffing," he recalls.

In college, he became a "hamburger freak," he says. Back then, "I never liked pizza, never made pizza, never ate pizza." A pizza joint near Vancouver, Wash., changed his mind, and his palate.

There he ate "the first pizza I ever really liked," topped with bacon and tomato. That, and his mayo obsession, inspired his BLT pizza. "I didn't know what I was doing when I got started," Flax says. "If I did, I wouldn't be here today."

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