Be kind to yourself / make time for yourself — zooming out this is about balance to me. I’ve always been an all in or nothing kind of person. Balance in my life is a forever learning process. I can’t be my best for others if I’m not being my best to/for myself. There have been times where I’ve tried to do too much and the overall product and essence of what I’m doing is lost and compromised.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Galper.
Larry Galper is the chef and founder of Nola Love Pizza; a community-centered movement he started as a response to Covid in which he donates his delicious pizzas to first responders and all those in need in New Orleans, spreading love along the way. Since March 2020, he’s made and delivered almost 4000 pizzas paid for by donations from all over the world. As he continues donating pizzas to his community he is in the process of opening up a brick and mortar home for Nola Love Pizza and changing the restaurant business model for the better.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’m the first American born in my family who came here from the former Soviet Union in the late 70’s. Growing up, I watched my parents and extended family personify the American Dream. They arrived in New York with little money and were not able to speak English. All they brought with them was what little belongings they had, my older brother, and a relentless work ethic.
I was born in Staten Island, NY and mostly raised in the suburbs of northern New Jersey just outside New York City with a two year stint in Tokyo in my early teen years. My mother worked at a chocolate store in Manhattan and my father worked his way up the corporate ladder going from fetching coffees for executives to ultimately becoming one himself. Over time, my mother ended up taking over the chocolate store in which she worked. I have early memories of going to work with my mother watching her mold chocolate into these cool shapes for corporate customers and making chocolate covered pretzels and potato chips (which were addicting). Many of my earliest memories are connected to food, from weekend trips to see my grandmother in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and fawning over her homemade Napoleon cake to watching patiently as my mother would make “peroshkee” (Ukrainian potato knishes). I have vivid memories of trying new foods with my father and the facial expressions he would make when something new to him was so delicious. My older brother would let me tag along with his friends as they regularly surveyed different Italian delis throughout suburban New Jersey comparing “Italian heroes.” All the women in my family are great home cooks. I was so fortunate to grow up in a family where a home cooked meal was the norm 5 or 6 nights out of the week. We were curious eaters and early on in my childhood I was exposed to cuisines from all over the world. This was especially true when my parents and I lived in Tokyo for 2 years when I was 12 years old. I remember my first time eating naan bread at an Indian restaurant in Tokyo called Moti like it was yesterday. We traveled and ate our way throughout southeast Asia Singapore to Malaysia and mainland China. All of this, without question, shaped how I view food and approach my cooking today.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
OMG, I can’t wait for you to watch this…So when The New Orleans Saints released their 2020 schedule going into a COVID football season they did it in a way that explains why The Saints are such a beloved organization and New Orleans is such an incredibly special place. PLEASE watch this. I dare you not to cry! This video got me so emotional but driven and motivated to show up for this amazing city and show it all the love back that it had shown me in the short amount of time since I had settled there. I would satch it every morning.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/aa93cf3a4644acca104bfd7ac6e67832
Additionally, I recently binged “The Playbook” on Netflix. Each episode features a different coach in professional sports and lessons they use to guide their coaching that translate in life as well. The first episode features the NBA’s Doc Rivers and I was so moved by a part where he talks about spreading the idea of “ubuntu” to inspire his players when he was leading the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship season.
Ubuntu has been described as meaning , “I am, because you are”. In fact, the word ubuntu is part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which literally means that a person is a person through other people. Doc goes on to say in the episode that under the practice of ubuntu, “I’m at my best when you’re at your best.” Essentially, we’re all in this together. THAT belief has been a major take away for me as a result of the pandemic and how I want to see myself and all of us show up in response. Ubuntu is a philosophy I want part of the fabric of Nola Love Pizza. I’ve seen first hand how energy and moods can shift when we’re all helping and caring about each other. I love this episode, I strongly recommend others to check it out.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Prior to moving to New Orleans in June of 2019, I was living in Los Angeles for 15 years. I was a talent agent and manager representing actors, writers, directors, touring artists, etc…for television and film. It was a great experience with some awesome perks but after 14 years I had reached my boiling point. It just wasn’t for me anymore. My love for food had made its way to the forefront of my thoughts and focus. After 14 years in entertainment, I hit the restart button on my career going to culinary school and working in two restaurants at the ripe age of 36.
I visited New Orleans for the first time in my life 6 weeks before I moved there. I hit the ground running working as a line cook at Peche before landing at Jewel of the South working for chef Philip Whitmarsh. Chef Phil is not just an amazing chef, but an incredibly thoughtful and supportive mentor. I worked at Jewel Of The South for the 8 months leading up to pandemic. I remember driving to work and receiving a message sent to the whole restaurant staff saying they were shutting it all down. No one had a clue what was to come.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
When the shut downs began and I lost my job I found myself just needing to keep cooking and feeding people. It’s what I came to New Orleans to do, and damn it I wasn’t going to stop. Since culinary school, I’ve always loved making pizzas so to pass the time and lift spirits (including my own) I would make a pizza each day and raffle it off on my Instagram account stories, asking funny riddles or trivia about the city and then would reward the first to answer correctly with a pizza. I would capture that delivery on Instagram and it took off from there. It became competitive amongst my friends both in New Orleans and back in LA and NY. People from out of state who won would just say, “bring my pizza to someone who needs it.”
One day a former colleague of mine from Jewel of the South who had won one of my pizzas told her friend (unbeknownst to me) that I was going to start selling them. At this time in New Orleans all the restaurants were closed. There was no where to get a quality freshly made pizza. I decided to start selling them so that I could pay for the daily contest. The first purchase was from my former chef, Phil, who told me, “bring my two pizzas to someone who needs them or deserves them.” About a week prior to all of this, a local produce vendor, Louisiana Fresh, had been giving their surplus inventory to everyone in the service industry who had lost their jobs. I was so moved by this generosity that I decided to match Phil’s 2 pizzas with another 2 and surprise LA Fresh with a pizza lunch for their staff to say thank you. After capturing this moment on social media in an effort to encourage others to spread love to their/our community…Nola Love Pizza was born. This was the first of many “aha moments” to come.
The next “aha moment” was a night delivery I made to Tulane Medical Hospital…A nurse friend of mine heard about what I had been doing and reached out asking, “Is 11pm too late for you to deliver pizzas to nurses? The night shift is always forgotten cause most of the food donations come during lunch time…” I was so excited to do this and together we delivered these pizzas and captured this moment on social media. The next couple months donations came pouring in from all over the country. People were asking me to keep feeding nurses, urgent cares, musicians, out of work hospitality workers, first responders, USPS workers, essential workers, and anyone and everyone in need. It was incredible. I woke up every day and just made as many pizzas as possible to show the love for all our frontliners. I had found my calling. I had found my purpose. I created a website. Each delivery I would connect the donor to the recipients. This was very important to me for two reasons. Firstly, if someone donates money I want them to see where it’s going. Secondly, I wanted them to have the ability to share what they had done in their circles and inspire others to do the same.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
See above…the answer bleeds into this one too!
How are things going with this new initiative?
Things are going so well! Since March 26th Nola Love Pizza has delivered almost 4000 pizzas to the New Orleans community. It’s been the most fulfilling and purposeful experience of my life. I’ve now started popping up regularly in some of my favorite bars and spots in the city while I am in search of a brick and mortar location. Part of the proceeds from the popups go towards my weekly deliveries to The New Orleans Musicians Clinic and a weekly pizza party lunch to Son Of A Saint.
The ultimate goal is to open up a brick and mortar location honoring how Nola Love Pizza came to be. The idea is to build a neighborhood pizza shop that is like the Toms or Bombas of pizza joints…We will partner with local non-profits and just always be on the lookout for pockets of the community that need some extra love and attention. That’s what Nola Love Pizza is all about. I’ve been amazed by the response of chefs and restaurants in New Orleans during the pandemic. So many amazing people stepped up to provide meals to those in need while still trying to keep their own businesses afloat. I can’t help but think, ‘If we can show up for our community when the chips are down, shouldn’t we be making this the new normal?”
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
First and foremost, my family. I’m everything I am because of them. There aren’t words enough to ever accurately articulate this. The work ethic they instilled in me. The lessons I learned through osmosis watching them work hard to make the American Dream our family’s reality. It has forever set my bar and the standards at which I hold my work at so high. They have shown me that literally anything is possible if you want it badly enough and if you’re willing to just grind and put in the work.
Secondly, when I decided to leave entertainment to become a cook I won the lottery twice in terms of landing jobs working for chefs who truly embraced mentoring me. The first time was at Hatchet Hall working for Brian Dunsmoor, Martin Draluck, and Manuel Mendoza (they had a strict “don’t call me chef” policy in that kitchen, ha). These guys were so patient and generous with their time and experience. I learned so much and it helped me advance my skills and confidence working in a kitchen quickly when I was just starting out.
When I moved to New Orleans, lightning struck again for me when I worked for Chef Philip Whitmarsh at Jewel Of The South. Again, I landed a gig working for someone who in addition to being endlessly talented, absolutely embraced teaching and mentoring. Phil taught and continues to teach me so much; and remember, Phil was the first person to purchase my pizzas and request that they be donated to someone deserving or in need…which sparked this entire movement. To this day we are friends, and I hope to know Phil a very very long time. He’s always got my back and I would do anything for him and the boys at Hatchet Hall. For life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Honestly, it’s hard to pick just one…there have been so many moments that have brought me to happy and grateful tears. Here are two very impactful ones that come to mind.
On Wednesdays I partner with the New Orleans Musicians Clinic to deliver pizzas to musicians throughout the city. Every week I’m given a different route in the city and I make my pizzas and deliver them for lunch. The recipients are people of all ages that work or have worked in various aspects of the local music scene. One day I arrived at the first stop on my route but the woman wasn’t home. After calling her she told me that she was stuck at a hospital appointment downtown (I was outside her home in the other part of town). I told her that I would make the rest of my deliveries and circle back to her last, but when I returned to her home she was still stuck at the appointment waiting for a bus to get back home. I remember thinking in that moment this is an opportunity to show up for someone beyond pizza. I told her, “I’ll come pick you up and take you home. You’re getting this pizza and I don’t want you to have to wait in the heat for the bus.” We ended up talking a bunch on the ride and I learned that she was one of the head talent bookers for Jazz Fest in the 80’s. She had fallen ill and the amazing people at the Musicians’ Clinic had been taking care of her. It was then I realized that Nola Love Pizza was about way more than making pizzas. Zooming out, it’s about showing up for the community, showing love, letting others know we got their backs and hopefully inspiring others to do the same in their own ways. We are still in touch to this day and I’ve delivered pizzas to her several times since.
Before moving to New Orleans I watched and read everything under the sun about prominent chefs in New Orleans. I’m an avid consumer of food and travel content…so of course one of the chefs I was well aware of was Nina Compton (Compere Lapin, Bywater American Bistro, Top Chef). It’s funny how small this world is, especially how small the city of New Orleans is. I had the opportunity to stage for Nina at Compere Lapin when I first moved to town. Whenever I go in for a stage, I always go back to something I was taught growing up by my family…never show up to someone’s home empty handed. So why should a stage be any different? Every time I would stage I would bake something I love to offer to the chef and the cooks. In the Fall of 2019, I showed up to Chef Nina’s kitchen with a cornbread that I learned to make in LA when I was cooking at Hatchet Hall. I didn’t get the gig at Compere, and funny enough, ended up working at Jewel Of The South with 3 other cooks who had worked over just prior to arriving at Jewel…including my Chef Philip Whitmarsh who was Nina’s top sous chef. I saw Nina often when she would come into Jewel on her days off now and then and she always remembered me by name. I couldn’t believe it because I had only met her once! I later learned that it was that cornbread that she remembered when out of nowhere almost a year later she had texted me about the cornbread recipe. When I received her text I asked if I could make a bunch of pizzas to bring to her and her staff for a family meal (industry term for staff meal they open for service).. She said, “Of course!” and I showed up with the pizzas and with the cornbread as well and she took this picture spreading my message to her massive audience. If someone told me a year ago I would be making a family meal for Nina Compton and her staff in a year I would have said they were crazy. She’s been so supportive of what I am doing with Nola Love Pizza and continues to check on me and offer support and advice.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be kind to yourself / make time for yourself — zooming out this is about balance to me. I’ve always been an all in or nothing kind of person. Balance in my life is a forever learning process. I can’t be my best for others if I’m not being my best to/for myself. There have been times where I’ve tried to do too much and the overall product and essence of what I’m doing is lost and compromised.
- “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end” — John Lennon. I love this quote. My 17 year old nephew actually put it on my radar recently. I think it’s genius and to me it’s about trust and faith in the process and the journey. There are so many times things don’t work out or the inevitable setbacks surface and I’ll think, ‘this is it, I’m done,’ or ‘how can this be? I did everything correctly, this shouldn’t be the outcome…’ This quote reminds me to keep moving forward.
- Don’t take things personally — this is a challenging one for me and a lot of others I’m sure. There have been times where I’ve felt let down by others and I immediately turn inwards questioning what’s wrong with me…which isn’t a bad thing but when it’s done exclusively it can be. Everyone is going through their own stuff. Unless you’re a mind reader you can never know why people react or do the things they do. If you internalize EVERYTHING you will lead yourself down a very slippery slope.
- LEAVE YOUR PHONE AT HOME WHEN YOU WALK YOUR DOG IN THE MORNING! I only recently started doing this and it’s a game changer. Working with dough constantly I’m up pretty early every morning to get a head start on proofing times. My routine involves eating breakfast and taking Jasper (my dog) for a walk to get a coffee at Mojo down the block. Those moments off the “smart phone grid” are priceless. It’s a good practice for me. I think everyone should have an hour (at least) in their day where their phone is physically not near them.
- If you have to force it too much, it probably ain’t right…for example, I don’t have a 5th thing to add to this question so I’m going to stop right here!
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
Cooking is my yoga. Especially making pizza and working with dough in a climate like New Orleans…the humidity is challenging when it comes to working with dough. It requires my full attention and focus and I absolutely love doing it. My cooking provides me with long stretches of breaks that give me fulfillment and purpose. I get to wake up and do something I am absolutely in love with doing. Find that for yourself! Lean into it hard. Find a way that doing what you love can help others. Trust me. I’m living proof that this is a great strategy, not just now, but will be so for me always moving forward.
When I cook, I have a strict no news or TV at all practice. It’s music ONLY. Lots of classic rock, local jazz and funk bands, and lots of Lenny Kravitz…especially the song, “Let Love Rule”.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Great influence!? Me? That’s way too generous but I hope one day it’s true because I love this question and it’s a very easy one to answer for Nola Love Pizza…it immediately reminds me of when I was writing my mission statement and discovering for myself in the process what this pizza movement is really about…
Throughout this experience I would say “LOVE is the new pandemic, let’s spread that!”. I came to realize as I was writing my mission statement, challenging myself to zoom further and further out at what I was doing, that this is about way more than COVID, donating pizzas, feeding people, etc…it’s about making LOVE the new pandemic. The biggest victory for Nola Love Pizza isn’t quantified in the number of pizzas delivered and donations received. The biggest victory would be someone writing to me one day to say something along the lines of, “I saw what you’re doing and while I don’t cook I have this other talent to share and I’ve now begun doing my version of Nola Love Pizza in my community.” THAT is the movement I want to inspire. I’ve seen so many amazing people show up for their communities during this year in response to the pandemic. How cool would it be if moving forward we continue doing this instead of waiting for the chips to fall to react? What if showing up like THIS is the new normal?
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Anthony Bourdain if he were still with us 🙁
It’s hard to just pick one!
Outside of New Orleans there are two people that come to mind because their message and actions are inspirational for Nola Love Pizza.
- Lenny Kravitz — “Let Love Rule” is the anthem and north star for my movement. Like I said before, when LOVE is guiding my decision making and actions I know everything will happen as it should and good things will happen for all.
- Chef Jose Andres — what he has done with the World Central Kitchen is absolutely incredible and I think should be part of every hospitality business model moving forward. Feeding people is such a tangible and fundamental way to show love and support a community.
Within New Orleans, it would be a dream to make pizzas for the New Orleans Saints. What that organization does for New Orleans and what it means to the city is beyond words.
How can our readers follow you online?
Please check out my website — www.nolalovepizza.com
You can follow my journey and donation destinations at @lagalps82 & @nolalovepizza on Instagram