In his former gig as executive chef at the Governor’s Mansion, Jay Baxter cooked for an elite few — Mike Beebe (who likes BLT’s and PBJ’s), Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Neil Armstrong, Joe Jackson (father of Michael and Janet) and the presidents of African nations. But now Baxter cooks for anyone with $3.50 and a healthy lactose tolerance. “I just got the bug. I missed the creativity,” Baxter said, of leaving the Mansion to control his own 150 square feet of the River Market. Jay’s Pizza opened on November 15, and since then, business has been great. There’s pizza by the slice, a pizza of the day (today’s is ham and arugula) and specialty whole pies. The Four Seasons (mushrooms, ham, olives and artichokes) and the spinach and feta have proven popular pies thus far.
According to Baxter, the toughest part of pizza-making is getting the dough right. “It’s all about the amount of humidity and the timing,” he said. “It’s an exact science.” That challenge is part of why he went with pizza. The other reason is that Baxter loves everything Italian. He’s been to Italy six times. “It’s the only place I go…maybe that’s why I make pizzas. I’m on vacation in my head,” he said. He’s on a perpetual quest to find the most perfect pizza in the motherland. He’s tasted the pizza of Rome, of Sicily, of Tuscany and of Venice, but his favorite is that of Naples, because “the wood fired oven makes the difference.”
Baxter is a Little Rock native. At 14, he got his first job making cotton candy at War Memorial Stadium. Since then, he’s worked with a host of well-known chefs and restaurants, gaining all of his culinary tricks on the job. He’s cooked at Andre’s, Ciao, Purple Cow and Graffiti’s, under chefs such as Paul Bash and Suzanne Boscarolo (owns Ciao Baci), to name a few. From 1998 to 2003 he ran his own restaurant, Cafe Pompeii in Hot Springs.