A Saucy Grilled Pizza for the CPK Fan in All of Us

August  2, 2018

If you want to know when and how and why BBQ chicken turned into a pizza, you have to go to California, then back in time to the 1980s. You can do that, right? No? Okay, I’ll tell you:

Wolfgang Puck had just opened his iconic restaurant Spago and, with the help of his pizza chef (yep, pizza chef) Ed LaDou, was making waves with wacky toppings, like smoked salmon and duck sausage. Everyone was talking about it.

Which is when Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield got an idea. They called it: California Pizza Kitchen. And they tapped who else but Ed LaDou to help develop their debut menu. The restaurant opened in 1985.

At the time, LaDou told the Los Angeles Times: “We are at the threshold of a new epoch in pizza dining, an epoch that will transform convention into invention and open up an infinite spectrum of pizza possibilities.”

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Like, say, BBQ chicken. In addition to its namesake ingredients, this CPK original features smoked gouda, red onions, and cilantro. Which sound random at best and weird at worst. But taste so dang good.

Now, you can find a CPK—and its signature pizza—all across the country and, probably, in the freezer aisle of your nearest supermarket. But, if you’re like me, you’re bound to wonder: What’s the fun in that? And then you’ll make it from scratch like the daredevil you are!

Photo by Julia Gartland

The Crust

Alexandra Stafford’s brilliant book Bread Toast Crumbs is good for a lot more than, well, bread, toast, and crumbs. It also includes a mean pizza dough recipe, which was my starting point here. I swapped in some whole-wheat flour, because I like the speckliness and flavor. And, with some guidance from our resident grilling guru Paula Disbrowe I adapted it for the grill. Because if we’re grilling the chicken for the pizza, why not grill the pizza, too? Basically, you make the dough like usual. Then, when it’s nearly ready, preheat your grill (gas or charcoal, doesn’t matter). Sling the dough into a circle—or a rectangle or, uh, whatever shape that is. It’s all good. Flop onto the grates and grill one side until browned. Flip onto a platter, top the grilled side, then slide back onto the grill to finish cooking.

The Chicken

CPK uses white meat. I opt for darker, richer thighs, which are more forgiving and less likely to overcook. This is especially welcome when you’re cooking the chicken through on the grill, then cooking it again on the pizza itself. If you’d rather not be making everything from-scratch (blame you? I would never), turn to a tried-and-true rotisserie chicken. Either way, chop into bite-sized pieces and toss with...

The BBQ Sauce

CPK describes theirs as “sweet and tangy.” Mine is, too. It’s also 3 ingredients—and totally from scratch. I developed it for these pulled pork sandwiches for our Big Little Recipes column. All you have to to is blitz up ketchup, apple cider vinegar, and chipotle chiles. The sauce is dreamy with slow-roasted pork shoulder and on just about anything else. Especially pizza! I like to toss with the chicken, just to coat, then drizzle more on top.

The Cheese

CPK uses mozzarella and smoked gouda but I’ve always found the latter to be finicky when it comes to melting. So I swapped them, using smoked mozzarella and a softer young gouda. Grate both. If you can’t get your hands on smoked mozzarella, don’t fret—just buy unsmoked. Opt for a low-moisture variety, if possible, to sidestep a soggy crust.

The Extras

No deviance here—CPK goes with thinly sliced red onion and fresh cilantro and we will, too.

What's your favorite oddball pizza topping? Tell us in the comments below!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.