Food & Drink

A Slice Above the Rest

With grace and grit, Niles Peacock has worked his way to the top of the pizza world

By Rachel Gallaher February 9, 2024

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

“This has to be a joke.”

That’s the first thing that passed through Niles Peacock’s head as he stood reading the posted results of the 2022 International Pizza Challenge at the International Pizza Expo — the world’s largest pizza trade show, held each year in Las Vegas. Next to him was Will Grant, owner of Kingston’s Sourdough Willy’s pizza house and one of only a handful of certified Master Pizzaiolos in the United States.

Staring at the paper taped to the wall, which announced him as the first-place winner in the Northwest nontraditional division — his “My Hot Date” pizza combines mozzarella and gorgonzola cheeses with Medjool dates, garlic-roasted olive oil, and a balsamic glaze for an elevated flavor bomb — Peacock turned to Grant and, looking around nervously, still in disbelief, told his friend to take down the printout.

“I thought that Will was playing a joke on me,” Peacock says, shaking his head on a rainy afternoon in his namesake restaurant, Niles Peacock Kitchen & Bar in Edmonds. “I was sure that he had put up fake results, but he just kept shaking his head and saying, ‘No, Niles, you won.’”

The day before, Peacock entered the Las Vegas Convention Center dragging an old beat-up red Coleman cooler held together with black tape and, unfamiliar with the provided ovens, proceeded to burn the dough on his first bake. Feeling defeated, he was ready to walk away when an oven technician passed by and helped him calibrate the temperature settings. Despite the initial setback, Peacock, who had never entered a food competition before, beat out more than 80 competitors, going home with the blue-ribbon title. At the time, no one was more shocked than the winner himself, who threw his hat in the ring at the urging of Grant, whose 128-year-old sourdough starter is the basis for his golden crust.

“Now I love competing,” says Peacock, who went on to participate in national and international food contests, including Pizza & Pasta Northeast in Atlantic City, where “My Hot Date” came in fourth place, just a half-point behind the thirdplace winner, and the East Coast Bagel Championship, where he clinched second in the nontraditional category. It was his first time making bagels — his accompanying gorgonzola, scallion, and crispy shallot schmear took first place.

“The experience makes me better,” he says of competing. “Nothing will force you to evaluate and engage with your craft like a competition. It puts on a lot of pressure, but that’s where you get to see what you’re really made of. Do you break down, or do you thrive in that environment? Me? I thrive.”

Niles Peacock has appreciated good food from a young age. Born on a tobacco farm in Kyoto, Japan, to renowned jazz bassist Gary Peacock and his second wife, artist Nancy Peacock, the young Niles and his two brothers grew up in Wallingford, eating organic produce (before it was trendy), home-cooked meals, and lots of Japanese food. Instead of the standard PB&J, Peacock arrived at first grade with a lunchbox full of fried mochi and miso soup.

“I remember trying to trade tofu or bags of nori for Twinkies,” he recalls. “Kids would sweep their food away from me so fast!”

School itself was a struggle. Saddled with a debilitating case of Attention Deficit Disorder, Peacock found the traditional classroom setting incompatible with his learning style. “I didn’t know how to read until I was 10 due to dyslexia,” he says. “I thought I was stupid for so many years. I barely graduated from high school.”

Looking to pursue a career in fashion, Peacock enrolled at Parsons School of Design, making extra cash as a club promoter and bartender on the side. He dropped out of school after two years when, he says, he “realized that I was going to have to do a lot of work for a bunch of other people for a long time.” While the fashion degree didn’t pan out, Peacock enjoyed working in the hospitality industry. “I love engaging with people,” he says. “There’s the social aspect and the aspect of offering a service, which I think is a noble thing. I’m drawn to that.”

After seven years in New York — and a lot of time spent slinging drinks — Peacock moved first to Miami (for another seven years), then landed in Aspen, where his career took off. Peacock took a job at the Ajax Tavern at the five-star luxury hotel The Little Nell. While there, he turned to executive chef Dina Marino for guidance in creating flavor profiles, infusions, and candied garnishes. Applying cooking techniques to his cocktail game elevated his libations to the next level. It was the early aughts, and with the popularity of specialty and craft cocktails on the rise, suddenly Peacock had a niche.

Not one to stay somewhere for too long, Peacock jumped from Aspen to Las Vegas, where he worked at the popular TAO nightclub before being recruited by chef Charlie Trotter to develop and run the bar program for his Las Vegas restaurant.

Niles Peacock first studied fashion, worked as a bartender to earn extra cash, and then overcame several obstacles to become an influential and award-winning restaurateur.

Steve Parent Photography

“This whole time, I kept waiting for someone to find out that they had hired the wrong person,” Peacock says. “I had no formal education, and I thought that would be exposed. It turns out that it was my skill and creativity that people were looking at, not my education.”

In 2016, Peacock returned to the Northwest, taking up behind the bar at 190 Sunset in Edmonds. The year after, he was voted best bartender in the 2017 Best of Western Washington competition sponsored by KING-TV. In 2019, he was on the precipice of opening a bar on Stone Way in Wallingford when the James Beard Foundation reached out, asking him to participate in its Raising the Bar event as part of its annual Taste America series. He has since participated three times, the most recent being in October 2023.

“I was planning to open a 72-seat craft cocktail bar,” Peacock says of the Wallingford space, “but then I was informed that we had no zoning permits for a tavern license, which meant that I suddenly had to figure out how to pivot to a 72-seat, full-service, family-friendly restaurant with a kitchen smaller than a bathroom.”

Working with a budget that was already tight, Peacock started scouring the internet for used kitchen equipment and stumbled across a shuttering Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop in Northgate Mall. The husband-and-wife owners sold him their pretzel oven and a kitchen timer, and after hearing the woes surrounding Peacock’s tavern permit, the wife gave a single directive: “You should make pizza.”

“I left and said to myself, ‘OK, now I need to learn how to make pizza,’” Peacock recalls. He purchased a book, The Elements of Pizza, by chef Ken Forkish, and started tweaking ingredients and cook times until he had made the perfect dough. At the time, Peacock didn’t own a dough mixer, so each night he would combine the ingredients in a plastic bus tub.

“Niles is confident in what he does,” says Grant, who met Peacock through their mutual flour dealer. In 2021, Grant gifted him that 128-year-old sourdough starter as a birthday present, and Peacock helped create a bar menu for Sourdough Willy’s. “He leads by example. He’s detail-oriented, and that helps him make the best possible product.”

By the end of 2019, Peacock was on an ascendant path — and then the Covid- 19 pandemic hit, bars closed, and life as most people knew it came to a grinding halt. Restaurants, however, were labeled “essent ial businesses” and could remain open.

“If I had gotten that tavern license like I wanted, I would have had to close,” Peacock says. Instead, he moved his namesake restaurant to Edmonds after his Wallingford neighbor bought him out of his lease. Since the move, he’s offered a consistent menu of creative pizzas and cocktails out of a small, always-packed space near the ferry dock. With an effusive personality, a knack for engineering flavors, and a love of people, Peacock is someone you believe when he says he truly loves his job.

Looking to the future, Peacock is currently working on a brunch menu. With the help of Jerilyn Brusseau, creator of the Cinnabon brioche recipe, he’s deep in the testing phase with recipes for sourdough brioche cinnamon rolls, and will continue to enter food competitions: pizza and bagels again last fall (he took first place for his nontraditional sourdough bagels and second place for his schmear at October’s East Coast Bagel Championship), with calzones as a new challenge. “Why not try something I’ve never done before?” he asks.

For Niles Peacock, though, it’s not about winning, although it doesn’t hurt coming home with a plaque or two. And if he doesn’t take a top spot? There’s a valuable lesson in that, too.

“Accolades are great,” he says, “but the whole process, the experience of it, is what I thrive on. I don’t have to win to get value from a competition. You learn in both failure and success. Failure leaves a lasting impression on me. If I fall on my face, it’s a great way to not let it happen again.”

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