Mert Champagne: Wesleyan’s Pizza Man Makes 45 Creations a Day

Mert Champagne, a cook in Usdan University Center's Marketplace, takes special requests at the pizza station. His specialty is a white pizza made with garlic, ricotta cheese, plum tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. (Photos by Olivia Bartlett Drake)

Mert Champagne, a cook in Usdan University Center's Marketplace, takes special requests at the pizza station. His specialty is a white pizza made with garlic, ricotta cheese, plum tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. (Photos by Olivia Bartlett Drake)

Q: Mert, why do students call you “the pizza man?”

A: Because I make pizzas. It’s all I do. Pizza and special stuffed breads. I love my job. Pizza makes students happy.

Q: How long have you been making pizza?

A: This is my third year making pizza, but I’ve been working for Dining Services for 14 years. There’s also a pizza maker on the evening shift and weekends.

Q: What’s the pizza-making process?

A: The bakers make the dough, but I am responsible for stretching it out. I make 45 pizzas a day. I roast fresh rosemary and garlic in the morning, and I rub the rosemary and oil on the dough before I bake the pizzas so it really seeps into the crust. All the pizzas are cooked in a wood stone oven. I’ll put the roasted garlic on some pizzas; usually the pepperoni or vegan pizza. I slice all the peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms fresh and sometimes I marinate them in cider vinegar. By 11 a.m., I will have four pizzas out, and by 11:30, eight out and eight in the oven. As the lunch hour winds down, I only keep four out there at a time.

"The Pizza Man" Mert Champagne shows off a cream cheese and apple pizza, fresh from the oven.

"The Pizza Man" Mert Champagne shows off a cream cheese and apple pizza, fresh from the oven.

Q: What’s the best part about being Usdan’s pizza man?

A: The students. I love the students as if they were my own. My job is not to just make pizza; it is to make them feel at home. When I’m not at the pizza station, I like to greet the students at the top of the stairs, outside the Marketplace, and say, “Welcome to Usdan!”

Q: Do you take requests?

A: Yes. If the kids ask me to make something, I will certainly throw that out. Or if I get positive feedback on something, I will make it more often. If a student is having a bad week, I’ll make him or her special stuffed bread or a personalized pizza. The most requested pizza my white pizza. That’s made with garlic, ricotta cheese, plum tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. I also make special apple and strawberry pizzas.

Q: Where did you work before Usdan?

A: I started in Summerfields as a first cook. I made food for Summerfields and food for lunches at Downey House, when we used to serve food there. Then I worked on the salad bar at Summerfields until Usdan was built. I started as a line server, and now I am on pizza. It has been an interesting and fascinating experience working up front. I don’t think I could ever go back to doing behind the scenes work again. I’d be lost.

Q: In addition to being the pizza man, you’re also the Usdan DJ.

A: I like to play music for the students while they’re getting lunch. A couple students have given me their own CDs, and I will play that. The students come in and say “wow, that’s my music!.” Most of the time I play the Beetles. Today I played Led Zeppelin. I’ll play pretty much whatever the students like. I also like to attend the students’ concerts. I’ve been to three or four choir and a cappella concerts and they’re awesome. Out students are very talented!

Q: You were out earlier this year due to a mountain bike accident. Are you fully recovered?

A: I was out almost 12 weeks, but the Wesleyan students really helped me with my recovery. They made me a huge, 5-foot card, which I keep at my home near my dresser. It was really incredible. I couldn’t wait to get back to Usdan and see the students. My boss, Mike Strumpf (Bon Appetit resident district manager), also offered to help me while I was out. He reached out to me and made sure I was doing OK. I really respect him. Other than my father, he’s the only man I really trust. He really follows through with things.

Q: What are your hobbies? Do you have children?

A: I told myself no biking until spring. And I can’t wait for spring. I  love to work in my yard and keep busy. I also am very involved with my church’s outreach committee, where we prepare meals and feed the homeless. I have two children, a daughter who is in the nursing program at Southern Connecticut State University, and a son who is a carpenter.

Q: You’re also a full-time student?

A: I’m also two classes away from finishing a bachelor’s degree in history, with a minor in public history from Central Connecticut State University. I’ve been volunteering at the Old State House in Hartford and I’d like to end up teaching at a museum or something similar full-time in the summer. But I don’t ever think I could leave Wesleyan during the school year. I love my job here.