Merton Champagne, or Mert, is known by many as “The Pizza Guy” in Usdan. Although he has no formal culinary training, the energetic, good-natured pizza connoisseur has worked here for 16 years. He enjoys experimenting with sweet and savory flavors, loves bike rides, and considers University students his family. Even after five years at the pizza station in Usdan, pizza is still his favorite food. And come this fall, Mert will be a graduate student at the University.
The Argus: How did you come to work at Wesleyan?
Merton Champagne: I started here 16 years ago. I knew a manager that ran Summerfields. He said they were looking for help, so he hired me there. I was there for 11 or 12 years, and then I came [to Usdan] as soon as the building opened. I love this building because I get to see you guys face to face, which I really adore.
A: Were you always the pizza guy?
MC: I started as the line server over at classics, and then the pizza station opened up. I bid on that, and I haven’t moved yet.
A: Was there a test to move to pizza?
MC: No, I was just sort of thrown in. To be honest, the first three months, I was really busy. I was like, “Wow, this is hard.” But then I kind of got the hang of it. I see what people like to eat off Mongo [Mongolian] Grill; I make them specials from pizza dough; I do stuffed breads for individuals. I see some that don’t eat meat, so I try to keep my eyes open for that. I make roasted vegetables every morning. I take the leftover veggies to Suzanne at night to use for Mongo, but I always start with fresh stuff every day.
A: Did you go to culinary school?
MC: Nope, never did. I just knew a manager and got a job here.
A: How do you like working here?
MC: I love it. Every time there is a break, I miss you guys like crazy. You guys are like my family and I just really love spoiling you guys. It’s a job I love doing!
A: Any really interesting interactions with students?
MC: Everyone is always so friendly, I adore them all. I try to be loved, you know. You guys are away from home—I try to make your stay as pleasant and as happy as possible. I love my job. I actually get out of bed in the morning and say, “I love my job.” That’s why when it comes time for breaks I’m so sad.
A: What’s your favorite pizza to make?
MC: The Marguerite. It’s with the garlic and rigot cheese and tomatoes and fresh basil. I just had that today. I’ve been doing stuffed breads lately. I’ve been trying to do a ham, swiss, garlic—oh, and then I do a jalapeño cheddar, which they like a lot. Apparently they like a lot of hot food here!
A: What’s the most interesting pizza you’ve ever made?
MC: Probably the Monte Cristo; it’s based on the sandwich. I do ham, turkey, with cinnamon sugar on the dough. Then I top it with pancake syrup and confectionary sugar. It’s just like the sandwich, like grilled French toast. It goes well.
A: When you are creating a new kind of pizza, what goes into your thought process?
MC: If it’s break and I think, “Wow, I really miss those guys,” I think about what they would like. Sometimes my ideas are really out there, so I replace some parts. Then there are kids who say, “Can you make this?” And it is really weird! You know, like a clam stuffed bread, because someone asked for it. It turned out incredible, so I said okay! I just take their opinions. Also, the vegans—I’m using this fake sausage and dairy-free cheese. I’m not a vegan, so I ask them, “Is it too wet, too dry?” I ask your opinions on everything. I’m here for you guys.
A: Have you ever made anything that you thought was going to go off really well, but it didn’t?
MC: Yeah, I did a sun-dried tomato and spinach stuffed bread, and it didn’t go. I’ve done sun-dried tomatoes on vegan pizza, but I was really shocked. You know, I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t go. I try to use all fresh products—I do a chicken buffalo and I roast my own chicken breast. I slice it thin and then soak it in the sauce. My boss gives me the ability to do whatever I want, to go as far off as I want.
A: Do you make the dough?
MC: No, the bakers make it at night. It poofs up, and then I pull out the dough I need during the day.
A: What time do you get here in the morning?
MC: I get here at 7 o’ clock and I leave at 2 p.m.
A: What do you make for breakfast?
MC: I’ve made a scrambled egg and sausage in a cinnamon wrap made of pizza dough, and I see a couple of students like that. I always make those on Tuesdays and Thursdays—sometimes for specific students, I like to do special things. Friday mornings I used to do cinnamon bowls for the crew team, but then it turned into everybody. I used to make eight, but now I make three dozen! Kids just come in, grab one, and put their food in there—or cereal. It holds milk.
A: Are you originally from Middletown?
MC: No, I’m from West Hartford. But I have about 950 friends on Facebook from here! I always stay in touch with them, and I post daily specials. It’s nice to see if people like them, and if people don’t, then I don’t do it again. I ask if there is anything special they want, and I make my specials according to you guys.
A: What do you like to cook for yourself at home?
MC: I actually don’t like to cook at home. I’m by myself, so…I don’t know. Pizza? It’s no fun for me to make at home. I’ll do a hamburger and pasta-type meal. You know, it’s baked with three layers and I can eat it for a few days.
A: What’s your favorite food?
A: Has it always been?
MC: Yes, it was always pizza.
A: What do you like to do in your free time?
MC: I am an avid mountain bike rider. I try to average 40 miles a day. I like to bike through the woods in Bloomfield and Simsbury. In 2009, I was in a bad accident: I broke my jaw and my collarbone. I was out of work for 13 weeks. They weren’t sure if I was gonna make it. The kids here made a big poster that said “Get Well Soon” with a picture and they all signed it. I still have the board. I pull it out every August 20th and look at it and say “Wow!” I also ride for Jim Calhoun Breast Cancer Awareness every year, which is a 50-mile ride. I ride it on my mountain bike tires, I never change them—always have to be ready to mountain bike!
A: Anything else exciting going on?
MC: I’m starting to take some grad classes actually. I just graduated from CCSU (Central Connecticut State University). I went for a public history masters so I can teach at museums. The grad program there was closed, but I talked to somebody here and she said I could start taking grad classes in the fall. I’m looking at something like Art History or the architectural program. I did an internship at The Old State House in Hartford, which was really cool. I just love it. I love school. I really do.