In less than half an hour, the lunchtime line for Pizza by Certé will snake out the door and down the block. In the kitchen, the team toils, heads down, brows furrowed, while pounds of fresh mozzarella are churned through the grater and a cauldron of organic passata sauce bubbles on the stove. There are many pizza joints dotting East 56th Street, but Pizza by Certé offers something different – a certified, 3-star green experience.
Chef Edward Sylvia opened the sustainable pizzeria – his second venture – in 2011. He began his career in catering in 1991 and his catering business, Certé, which feeds over 20,000 people a week and employees more than 100 staff is just a few blocks away.
Inside, the pizzeria resembles a tropical garden. Rows of fresh herbs line the recycled wheat board walls and dozens of environmental plaques guide customers through the restaurant’s accolades. As a dedicated proponent of green living, Chef Sylvia deploys sustainable policies wherever possible. A water catcher distributes rain for non-consumptive purposes, the cutlery is manufactured from recycled bamboo and all deliveries are made by foot or hybrid truck. Most of the organic produce is sourced from local mom-and-pop shops, “I like to be able to call someone up and ask, ‘how’s your father doing?'” he says.
Food was the linchpin of Sylvia’s Italian American upbringing. His mother ran a deli in their hometown, Valley Stream, N.Y. and he would cater on the weekends to make some pocket money. The chef spent a year in college on a football scholarship and a softer outline of his football physique remains in his thickset shoulders and wide gate. “I wasn’t going to the NFL and I wasn’t into school,” he says in a New York accent. He left school to pursue his passion for cooking and begin his own catering company.
Chef Sylvia’s environmental ethos runs in the family. “My father is the greenest guy I know,” he says. “He still has jeans from the sixties. Years ago, he was considered cheap and now he’s green.”
Like his father, Chef Sylvia is meticulous about his green kitchen and nothing goes to waste. “The meat of the tomato is our sauce,” Sylvia explains. “The seeds make our tomato seed vinaigrette and we bring the skin to Brooklyn for composting at the Old Stone House.” But, fresh ingredients are seasonal and sometimes Sylvia must look farther afield for quality produce. At the moment, they go to an organic supplier in Florida or Arizona for winter stock. “You can’t get tomatoes in New York in the winter,” he says. “I’m trying to hook up with a greenhouse out on Long Island but I don’t know if they’re large enough to handle us. We do like 500 pounds of tomatoes a week.”
Green living and sustainability have become buzzwords in recent years and many firms aim to capitalize on the environmental trends. But, eco guidelines are hazy and easy to bypass while still maintaining a green image. This is called “green washing.”
Chef Sylvia is surprisingly positive about “green washing” competitors. “They see the long lines and they think the other kind of green,” he says, rubbing his forefinger on his thumb. “But, even if they green wash, they still have to make an effort. I’m doing my part by setting an example, and the only way it will be effective is if we’re busy.”
Green living can seem daunting to the average consumer. “For younger people, it’s easier to think green because it’s a learned behavior,” says P.J. Jordan, Certé’s customer relation’s manager. “When you’re older, your mind set is hard to change.”
Kristen Sylvia, the chef’s wife struggles with day-to-day environmentalism. She has a full plate looking after the pair’s three small children – Alexandra, eleven, Jackie, seven and Ryan, three. “I’m constantly picking up from school and dropping off, it’s non-stop,” she says. “That’s why I find it hard to do exactly what he does.”
Chef Sylvia jokes about his wife’s shortcomings. “I’ll get home in the evening and re-sort the recycling bin,” he says. Married for 13 years, he understands that change won’t happen overnight. “My wife has to untrain her whole life,” he says. “She grew up in a “Wonder Bread” house, everything was processed. They threw everything in the garbage.”
Luckily, their kids keep a watchful eye on their mother’s habits. Chef Sylvia’s green philosophies are reinforced at their progressive school in Lynbrook, which runs a stringent recycling program. ” I see [their dad’s habits] in them a lot,” says Kristen. “I’m sure they’ll grow up with that mentality and try to be as green as they can be.”
Having a chef for a father has also translated into sophisticated eating habits for the youngsters. “I pity the poor guys when they start dating,” Sylvia says of his daughter’s discerning palates. “We’ll go to a restaurant and they’ll order Pellegrino with lemon and lime, and sautéed mussels. The waiter looks at them like, are these kids for real?”
Food and green living are Chef Sylvia’s passion but his children are the inspiration behind his green restaurant. “If we don’t change the way we do things, it’s not going to be a very pleasant planet to live in,” he says. “I don’t want my kids to fall victim to our mistakes. It’s something that’s in the back of my mind all the time.”
Chef Sylvia is both environmentally and ethically conscious, but he maintains the astute mind frame necessary to run a successful business. He is realistic in his green assumptions. Pizza by Certé stocks Coca-Cola, an environmentalist’s nightmare, “I have to carry it because at the end of the day I run a business and people want to drink it,” he says.
The prices at Pizza by Certé remain competitive because of the scale of the catering operation. Buying produce for both the pizzeria and the catering business allows Chef Sylvia to benefit from the economies of scale of bulk buying. “There are people we could gouge,” he says. “But we don’t, I like to keep the margins where they are supposed to be.” However, buying fresh products from smaller suppliers means the pizza is susceptible to price fluctuations. Recently, the price of a Margherita slice has increased from $2.50 to $2.80 because of rising dairy price.
Working 80 to 100 hours, 6 days a week, Sylvia’s free time is sacred. “We really look forward to the time that we have together because the restaurant business is so time consuming,” says Kristen. “We love to be outside. We hit the playground with the kids or the beach during the summer.”
This June, the couple will compete in a Spartan race – a grueling 8 mile obstacle course – in upstate New York, with 10 other staff members, including Sylvia’s younger brother Adam. “I just got back for a run in the park,” said Adam on Tuesday evening. “We’re so busy but we train when we can.” In preparation, Chef Sylvia orchestrates “Certé Circuits” during the workday. The ten staff members, climb 14 flights of stairs doing a different exercise, push-ups, sit-ups etc. on the way up and down.
An avid boxer and MMA enthusiast, Sylvia also trains in his office with a punching bag. Despite his slightly doughy disposition, Sylvia has a resting heart rate of 55 beats per minute. “My doctor thinks I’m a freak,” he says. “He takes my vitals and they’re all perfect.” Sylvia credits his health to his active lifestyle and the unprocessed food at Certé .
Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” echoes from the doorway of Pizza by Certé, while outside a thick line of traffic funnels down East 56th street. Builders pummel the concrete with heavy drills –probably gas works for the latest high-rise – while pedestrians bustle through the busy streets. Often described as an urban jungle, Midtown Manhattan is no paradise. An oasis in the madness, Chef Sylvia’s Pizza by Certé is a welcomed reprieve from the cacophony and chaos.