The Best Way to Improve Your Skills? Teach!

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about the student teacher relationship. For the past few weeks I have been training a friend who wants to open an authentic New York style pizzeria in Seoul.

James Yu is not your average pizza guy. A native of South Korea, he graduated from Auburn with a degree in Chemical Engineering and worked in the US for several years. Along the way James fell in love with crispy thin crust New York style pizza. Did I say James loves pizza? That’s not quite accurate. James is absolutely obsessed with pizza. James is so dedicated that after attending Tony Gemignani’s great pizza school in San Francisco he came back to the US to spend time with me in Las Vegas. He has attended Pizza Expo and thrown in Scott Wiener’s New York City pizza tour for good measure. I have had an opportunity to guide thousands of aspiring pizza makers over the years, but none have come close to matching his uncompromising, analytical approach to the subject. Perhaps because of his background, James always wants to know “why” and it is the answer to that unrelenting question that can lead to growth for both the student and the teacher.

The truth is after nearly 3 weeks of 16 hour days and literally hundreds of “whys” from James I think I emerged as a better pizza maker.

Use a California vine ripened tomato- “Why?”

Extend dough from the middle out towards the cornicione-“Why?”

62% Water in your dough formula- “Why?”

Never turn your gas oven off- “Why?”

Longer fermentation results in more flavor depth- “Why?”

On September 7th I celebrated my 44th year of making pizza. I may be slowing down but I still make a few hundred pies every day out of sheer joy in the process. But here is the thing: no matter how much you love something, over time repetition can become mechanical. You stop thinking about the “whys”. In many cases “old school” pizza makers learned by rote and could work their entire careers without knowing or considering why they did things the way that they did. That may be OK if you are happy with the result and have no desire to improve.

My guess is that if you follow this site you are the type of pizza maker that is never satisfied, no matter how great your pizza may be. Like James, you have a pizza ideal in your head and the quest toward mythological perfection may be just as important to you as the end result.

So, how do you keep everything fresh and continue to challenge yourself over years or even decades of pizza making? Teach. Whether you are a professional pizzaiolo or a dedicated amateur share what you know. No matter what your level of expertise is, there is someone out there who would like to be able to do what you do and can benefit from your experience.

Ultimately you will gain the satisfaction of sharing your passion and I guarantee you will also improve your own skills. James and I developed 16 different dough formulas using 4 different types of flour during his visit. He finally settled on one that he was happy with but every one was a success in that it gave me new insight into my own methods.

Certainly many of the techniques and recipes we worked on simply reinforced my existing beliefs, but in some cases I was surprised by the success of things that James wanted to try. If truth be told I have also found by objective research that a few of the widely accepted “truisms” of our craft don’t really create the result that we think (sorry fellow New Yorkers, All Trumps is not the only flour that can produce a crispy pizza) So… teach, share, pass it on. The result will be good for the student, the teacher and our craft.

 

 

Comments 

 
#1 michaelthebaker 2011-11-03 02:49
hi john. I totally agree with you. Since giving up commercial baking (if that is ever possible) I have learnt so much more from my teaching and my students. But the main reason i teach (often little or no reward) is that it is encumbent on me to pass on what knowledge i was fortunate to learn from my teachers. Otherwise the knowledge will be lost forever. It is so exciting to have young enthusiastic bakers coming to me to learn. It is my gift
honey in the hearth
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