Beaches, Themes

This couple dropped everything to open a pizza boat in the Caribbean

This couple dropped everything to open a pizza boat in the Caribbean

Sometimes you just need pizza.

It is a truth so universally acknowledged that there are entire corporations dedicated to delivering it directly to your face. And those moments when you require it and it is not readily available are very sad, indeed. It can lead to rash decisions-for instance, eating a piece out of the rubbish at 2 am that you’d foolishly thrown away hours earlier.

A few years ago Tara and Sasha Bouis had such a moment. They were anchored in their favourite bay near St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. After years of living in the islands, this had become their favourite place to watch the sun set. Everything was perfect but one thing was missing: pizza.

At the time the couple was working on guest charter boats, sailing out to sea for weeks at a time, Sasha as the captain and Tara as the chef. They had just returned home and were too tired to cook or take a dinghy to shore to track down food. So they spent the night eating microwaved popcorn and fantasising about how great it would be if there was a pizzeria nearby on the water.

Thus was born the idea to build a pizzeria on a boat-despite the fact that they hadn’t heard of it being done before, and neither of them knew how to cook a pie. When pizza calls for you, you must answer.

“Pizza speaks to everybody,” said Tara, who is 32 and beautiful in a way that might be intimidating were it not for her sunny, disarming smile. “Food trucks had become a part of everyday life, food boats had not. We knew that the concept was strange, but thought it could work because the food is very recognisable.”

It was just another whimsical turn in the couple’s career path. Just 10 years ago Sasha, now 38, was an MIT graduate toiling away in a cubicle at Standard & Poors, where he worked as a computer programmer for five years. “I thought I was living the dream but quickly got tired of it,” he explained. His lunch became a means of escape. “I was walking farther and farther away from my office on my lunch break, and I walked past a sailing school and thought, ‘I wonder if I could get a job there?'” He could and he did. Growing up, his father taught him to sail on Long Island, and Sasha also competitively sailed while at MIT.

He ditched Manhattan in 2005 and moved to Puerto Rico where he spent a year or two working on sail boats. Eventually he made his way over to the British Virgin Islands to teach sailing at a summer camp. At the camp he met Tara, a special education elementary school teacher from Indiana who was spending the summer teaching SCUBA to kids. They married in 2012.

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Tara Bouis was already an award-winning yacht chef before trying her hand at slinging pizza. Photo: WHERETHECOCONUTSGROW.COM

In the meantime, the two spent eight years working on yacht charters together, sailing around the BVIs. (A boat charter is basically a group of people that hires a boat to ferry them wherever they want to go for however long they want.) Sasha captained the yacht while Tara was its gourmet chef, producing high-end food that made her a two-time winner in the BVI Charter Yacht Show Culinary Contest.

It was after one of these charters that the idea for their food truck/boat was born. The couple began scouting out boats, and on the island of Tortola they chanced upon a 37 foot sailing/motorboat called Pagan. Designed by GL Watson and built in Sheffield, England, it had been abandoned for 10 years. Most of the wood interior had been devoured by termites but the aluminum hull was intact.

“The interior had actually turned into a giant termite nest,” Sasha said with a shudder. “It took a lot of shovelling to get it all out.”

But it was the perfect size and shape for installing a commercial-grade pizza kitchen. Restoring the boat took about two years because they did all the work themselves. Sasha is a mechanical engineer by trade. What they didn’t already know, they taught themselves from YouTube.

The couple financed the entire operation themselves with the money they’d saved from years of working on boat charters. “No one-including us-had any idea if it would work,” Sasha said. “So we weren’t comfortable trying to get investors because we didn’t know if we’d be able to pay them back.”

He designed a hood ventilation system to funnel the heat out of the galley. Knowing they’d need plenty of water for washing dishes, they installed a do-it-yourself water maker that produces 150 litres per hour. To power the appliances, like a a 2118-kg Hobart dough mixer, they outfitted the boat with solar panels. The electric oven-a double brick-lined Baker’s Pride oven that can produce four pies in 15 minutes-is powered by a diesel generator. Instead of a regular weight scale, they opted for a hanging basket scale that’s suspended from the ceiling so that measurements aren’t thrown off by the rocking waves.

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It took Tara and Sasha Bouis two years to transform the vessel from a termite-infested junkyard find to a fully operational “food truck boat.” Every kitchen tool and ingredient is secured in the event of rough seas. Photo: WHERETHECOCONUTSGROW.COM

“When cooking on boats, you have to be really careful about where you set things,” Tara said, “The last thing you want is to have a really big wave and have a knife go flying.” Every kitchen tool is strapped down and the pizza oven is modified with heavy duty latches to prevent the heaving boat from ejecting scalding pies at their unsuspecting creators.

They lived on the boat while they restored it. “Which I would not recommend,” she added.

They named the boat Pizza (Pi), using the Greek symbol for Pi. The name was a nod to Sasha’s New York roots, where people refer to pizzas as “pies” as well as his passion for math. “Pi is a really special number,” said Sasha, a self-proclaimed numbers nerd. “I like that it’s irrational and transcendental and never repeats. It has infinite possibilities.”

The ship’s interior has a quaint lounge and bedroom area. A plaque on the wall next to the bed on the boat reads: “Kissing a man without a moustache is like eating an egg without salt.” It was a wedding gift from Tara’s mother. (Another placard on the boat reads: “Ass, Grass, or Gas. Nobody rides for free.” This was not a wedding gift from Tara’s mother.)

The couple lived aboard the boat until Pizza Pi opened for business in November 2014, but Health Department requirements prevent them from living on the boat, so they later moved ashore.

There was just one thing left to do: learn to make pizza.

A month before they opened, Tara googled around until she found a cooking school on Staten Island called Goodfellas. It had to be New York-style pizza, Tara explained. “Sasha is a bit of a pizza snob, being from Manhattan.” They took an intensive week-long course where they learned to replicate the all- important thin, crispy crust.

Tara used her fine-dining savvy to create pies that are equal parts inventive and cheeky, but entirely delicious. A large banner menu hangs jauntily over the side of the boat. Among the offerings:

* Sweet Home Indiana (sausage, corn, white sauce and rocket);

* The Blumin Onion (made with lemon aoli instead of tomato sauce, leeks, radicchio, blue cheese and honey);

* Rasta Mon (red curry coconut sauce, flaked coconut, snap peas, red bells peppers, and fresh mango); and

* The Dali Lama, a fan favourite that offers all the available ingredients (“Make me one with everything”).

Fresh ingredients like local Caribbean lobster can also be added-and bartered. One day a customer arrived holding a 3-kg lobster she’d caught earlier in the day. “Can I just trade this for a pizza?” she’d asked.

“It’s not your typical form of payment, but it works!” Tara laughed.

The boat is anchored off the east end of St Thomas in Christmas Cove, next to Great St James Island. (Also nearby is Little St James, the private island owned by billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.) It’s an ideal location to snag boats from St John and St Thomas that are passing through to do daytime snorkelling trips, as well as long-term charters. You can also order your pizza on your boat’s hand radio, call it in via cell, or even email it. Then you can either pick up the pizza in your dinghy, or Pi will deliver to you if you’re anchored in Christmas Cove.

Their biggest concern when opening the floating pizzeria was not distracting from the nature of the bay.

“When we told friends our idea, they would say, ‘Oh, like The Willy-T!'” Sasha said. The Willy-T is a popular floating bar/restaurant/boat anchored in the British Virgin Islands. The boat is named for Dr. William Thornton, the architect born in the British Virgin Islands who designed the US Capitol building. But it is renowned for serving body shots and the customers who jump from the deck without the accompaniment of clothing. Essentially, a floating Girls Gone Wild video stuck on repeat.

“No,” he told them firmly. “Not like the Willy-T!”

For now, the life of Pi is a quiet one. The couple heads out to the boat each morning to get the ovens warmed up. “Then we might go wake boarding or swimming and just try to enjoy the water,” Tara said. Then they work from 11 am. till 6 pm. and watch the sun set at night. Sasha, unsurprisingly, does not miss his cubicle.

“On an average day, we make about 25 pies for 20 different customers. On a busy day, we’ll have 30 or 40 boats stop by,” he said. The couple also caters to private events. When Drink, a popular St John beach bar, hosted a movie night featuring Jaws, Pi anchored offshore and dinghy delivered the pizzas to the moviegoers on shore. The floating pizzeria also hosted an event on International Pi Day on March 14th (3.14.15-see what they did there?), which was a sales record. “We sold 90 pizzas that day-It was a crazy, amazing day.”

When asked about expanding, the couple says they’d have to finish their current project first. They recently bought a condo in St Thomas that they’re gutting and renovating themselves. They’re also expecting a delivery of the non-pizza variety: a daughter due this December. “I have a new delivery girl!” Tara laughed.

For now they’re simply enjoying the ride. Currently, Pi is ranked as the best restaurant in St Thomas on Trip Advisor. It has 59 five-star reviews and one four-star review. The four-star reviewer conceded that the pizza is “delicious” but docked points because Pi doesn’t deliver to her house.

One ambitious customer was jonesing so hard he swam over from shore. “We asked him, ‘Wait, how were you going to carry this back. What was your plan?'” Tara laughed. She let him hop in the delivery dinghy and eat his pizza there. “But I made him hang out for an extra half hour so he wouldn’t get a cramp swimming back.”

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