Peter's Blog
Peter's Blog, February 24th
Peter Reinhart

Hi again.  We've kept a lot of recent postings on the home page because we've been getting a number of new viewers and one thing I've noticed is that most people tend to stay on the home page rather than explore the archives or section categories (I know this thanks to Google Analytics!!). So, we're going to leave things up as long as we can before they automatically default to the archive section to allow as many of you as possible to catch up to some of the ongoing topic points. But I do encourage you to visit the various sections, as you will find lots of golden oldies there and, to our great surprise, we've been astonished to see how much material we managed to post in just over a year. If I didn't have a conflict of interest I'd say, "Quite impressive!"  Oh look, I said it anyway.

One of the recurring themes that you will see in these past (and future) postings is the celebration of the artisan spirit and what we think is their expression of greatness, whether in pizza or in any pursuit.  Chris Bianco once told me that he's tired of hearing the word "passion" bandied about so frequently when it comes to greatness because he doesn't think it is the vital defining quality that everyone else thinks it is. I believe I know what he means and, perhaps, a better way to utilize that passion word is to frame it within a larger definition of greatness. Passion probably is, as Philosophy 101 would term it, a necessary but not sufficient cause. Passion, as many of us might also say, has become a cliche. And here on Pizza Quest one of the things we strive to get beyond is cliche. So the question still stands: what is the defining quality of greatness?

We've focused in these articles and webisodes on technique, method, ingredient quality, the virtues of local, organic, wholeness (as in whole grain), authenticity, tradition, and, of course, on passion. I've cited another quote of Chris's that he gave me when I was writing "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza," when I asked him what was the secret to his amazing pizzas; his response was (after citing the quality of the ingredients and the dedication of his growers and suppliers as necessary but not sufficient causes), "It's me, I'm the secret. I can teach people my tricks and techniques but I can't teach them to care as much as I care," and this drills down a bit closer to the core of the matter. But we're still always drilling even deeper, trying to capture that elusive something that would answer, once and for all, "What is the secret to greatness?" Yes, caring more than anyone else is yet another necessary but not sufficient cause, but even that doesn't scratch the itch beneath the itch. So what is it then?  Do you see why we call it a quest?

I'm a firm believer that the most important things we strive for are ordained to be elusive, like a carrot on a stick and even when we find what we're looking for we rarely recognize it in the moment, and then we realize, later, that now it's just behind us, a memory. That's what most people refer to as nostalgia, looking back to happier or significant times with a kind of regretful longing, as if things will never be quite that good again. But a truer, deeper, and more literal meaning of the word nostalgia (and I've written about this in earlier blog postings) means, "A longing for one's true home, yet to come."  C.S. Lewis is my go to guy for this one and he believed that this longing is more a forward thrusting, not a backwards glance to the past, though the emotions this longing evokes are often similar. Whether it touches upon a distant memory or is an intuition of a memory not yet experienced, outside the realm of time but nevertheless a future reality -- well, those are two sides of the same coin, and another vague and ambiguous way of defining that coin is "soulful."  Yet even as I write these words I'm reminded, again, that the more we try to define it in words the more elusive it becomes. But an encounter with it somehow rings within our own beings, our souls, and whether in the moment or after the fact, we recognize it when we see it.  We've been defining this encounter as "memorable," as a way to distinguish it from other experiences that are merely good, status quo, or expected. An "abnormal, memorable moment that opens a door into a longing for something true, something lasting, maybe even eternal, maybe home...,"  and then it's just out of reach again, and it becomes an inconsolable longing.

And that's why the search for the perfect pizza is both a great metaphor and also an earthly delight. Because, fortunately for us, in this quest we do have a chance from time to time to encounter a real, literal slice of nearly heavenly joy and to establish new reference points and new memories for greatness, even if we can't quite put our finger on the words. And then we get to start again....

 
Peter's Blog, Feb. 17th, 2012 -- Great News!
Peter Reinhart

Yesterday was my birthday and among the terrific gifts I received, including a fabulous dinner with Susan at Charlotte's  delightfully romantic Passion8 Bistro -- a real gem of a place -- I got some especially great news: Pizza Quest has been nominated by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (the IACP) as one of three finalists for best food blog of the year! Here's a link to all the nominees in the book and media categories: http://eater.com/archives/2012/02/16/iacp-announces-2012-food-writing-finalists.php

I'll be in NYC for the annual IACP Conference, where the winners will be announced at the awards gala on April 2nd, and where I will also be doing a demo presentation on sprouted grain flours on April 1st. The IACP is an amazing organization,

 
Peter's Blog, Feb. 7th, 2012
Peter Reinhart

A couple of weeks ago I presented a demo on gluten-free baking at the annual Professional Association of International Innkeepers Conference (PAII for short). This year the conference was held in Little Rock, Arkansas and I had a wonderful time hanging out with people who really get the spirit of hospitality. Let's face it, to own a bed & breakfast inn or small lodge, as the attendees do, you don't do it to get rich, which everyone knows is not going to happen, but for the intrinsic rewards of serving others and facilitating their guests' relaxation, regeneration, and vacation plans. It's really hard work, often thankless, but sometimes a gracious guest gives back to the inn keeper the one thing that makes it worthwhile: sincere gratitude. I've been appearing at these conferences over the years and often see the same people as well as newer members who come to the conference to share knowledge, learn how to control costs and improve marketing, and to find new products to give their inns that little extra something that allows it to separate itself from the pack and elicit return visits from the guests. Sounds a lot like the pizzeria operators we've been featuring here on Pizza Quest, and I thought about this similarity often during the two days I was at the conference.

The last time I appeared at the PAII conference it was being held in Atlanta during the same week that Veraasano's Pizzeria opened, but before Pizza Quest had officially been born. I called Jeff Varasano to tell him I was in town and he was generous enough to invite me to his Friends, Family, and Press Opening event. The pizza was wonderful and I sensed the buzz of excitement and anticipation that everyone on Jeff's staff held (for those who don't know about Jeff Varasano, he had one of the most famous, viral pizza blog postings ever, a number of years ago, claiming that he could make a better pizza at home than most pizzerias. He gave out his dough recipe and techniques, and was visited by hundreds of thousands of hits.  A few years later he actually opened Varasano's Pizzeria and the game was on! For all of the back story and some great pizza photos check out his website at www.varasanos.com/PizzaRecipe.htm or do a Google search of the videos and all the press he has  generated). My point is that there is a parallel between the pizza passion that we've been tracking here, in people like Jeff, and the passion that drives innkeepers to work so hard to extend themselves beyond exhaustion just to bring joy to others. We talk about the "fire in the belly" and that's what we keep questing for, an understanding of what that is and what drives it, and now we can add another metaphor to the growing list of artisans, which an innkeeper is in a unique way, that signifies this elusive quality.

One of the fun activities at the conference was an evening at The Clinton Center, which is the Presidential Library and archival museum of Bill Clinton. I didn't know what to expect, having never been to a Presidential Library before, so I was deeply impressed by what I saw. Lots of great video material, journals, re-creations of the Oval Office and other rooms in the White House, great art and also a collection of the many diplomatic gifts he received from famous visitors. There is also an ongoing cycle of installations dedicated to celebrating local or contemporary artists. The latest exhibit is a collection of pieces made exclusively of Lego Bricks (don't laugh -- these pieces were breathtaking, as you can see from some of the photos I took. I especially liked the one of President Clinton's head, with little Lego men climbing out of the top!).

Again, one of the things that made a big impression on me was the passion of the man, President Clinton, that drove him to participate in and create a number of historic moments and to affect the world. Whether you agree with his politics (or morals and questionable behaviors), there is no question, as you follow the archival narrative on display throughout the building, that he too had, and still has, a fire in his belly and a passion to change the world, to leave it better than he found it, and to wade in where angels fear to tread. Of course, there are many such men and women with this benevolent, philanthropic, and transformational vision for themselves, but it was exhausting and humbling to see what one man (and one woman, because it was clear that Hillary was a full partner in their work) could accomplish, regardless of the personal price.

This isn't a political website, it's a pizza site (and I saw a few photos on the Clinton walls where pizza played a role, though not as big a role as barbecue), so I'm not promoting anything except this: the common ground we all share -- those who read these postings and watch our videos as well as those who are featured in them -- is that we have an intuition that life and existence has a purpose and can, in rare moments, express itself in meaningful, satisfying, and fulfilling ways. These moments are elusive, we can't manufacture them at will, we can only willingly pursue them and then hope for a taste of grace that scratches the deep itch we yearn to quench. But even when we do scratch it becomes elusive again and, once more, we're back on the quest. One of the things that keep us going in our quests is when we meet others who are on theirs and who show us (and not just tell us) that it really is worth it. This, my fellow questers, is what we celebrate.

 
Peter's Blog, 1/31/2012 -- Emeril's e2
Peter Reinhart

I had lots of things to blog about this week but something happened a few days ago in Charlotte that knocked all the other news into next week. Emeril Lagasse opened a new restaurant right here in Charlotte, called e2. This city, which is hosting the Democratic National Convention in September and has, for the past fifteen years been carrying out a dynamic strategic plan to turn Charlotte into America's next great city, has been yearning for a celebrity or major superstar chef to open a restaurant here. We thought it might happen a few years ago, and a few big names did scout us out and some even made brief, but really uninvolved forays into the local scene. We already have a number of terrific home town chefs doing some excellent work but the public rarely appreciates what they have till they're gone (or so says Jonie Mitchell). But now, at last, validation and opportunity converged as e2 opened last week and, due to the generosity of Emeril and his team, especially Jeff Hinson, I got invited to dinner and a chance to try many of the menu items (the name, by the way, refers to a number of personal associations for Emeril, including the twenty-plus years since he opened his first restaurant, with this new one representing a next generation and manifestation of that original "essence and energy").  I'll address some of the dishes a little later but, first, a few more comments on the significance of this opening and how it relates to Pizza Quest.

As our regular followers know, Pizza Quest isn't just about pizza -- pizza is our guiding metaphor in a journey that celebrates artisans and artisanship of all types. We are really searching in this quest for excellence and, bottom line, we are searching for people who have a fire in their bellies to create that excellence no matter how hard it may be to do so. Pizza is a living symbol and signifier in that regard because it means so many things to so many people and, at the symbolic level, means a lot more than just tomatoes, cheese, and crust. The ancient Greeks had a word for what their philosophers thought was the purpose of life: eudaimonia. It is untranslatable into English in its totality but the closest anyone has come to a translation is "to flourish, or to thrive."  I thought a lot about this word and concept and the deeper purpose of Pizza Quest as I enjoyed my dinner at e2.

 

 

 

 

Cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Charleston, Dallas, and many others already have so-called superstar chefs in abundance and folks from there may think this excitement is a bit naive, but I remember a time when many of those cited above didn't have great restaurant reputations. But, eventually they drew a number of local and national chefs who helped them establish a cultural food identity and now they all have flourishing, thriving food scenes (see how I worked those eudaimonic words into this?). Charlotte, to date, does not have such a reputation but it aspires to. I remember when Yountville had one restaurant that was pretty good called The French Laundry, but it wasn't owned by Thomas Keller and it was basically a one restaurant town. Then Chef Keller took over and changed everything and now, as anyone who has gone to Yountville knows, this two block town now has more great restaurants per square foot than any place in America. It's only been a few years, less than twenty, so things can happen that fast. But it has to start with someone. Chris Bianco did the same for pizza in Phoenix and we've seen other places where one breakthrough restaurant spawned a thriving, growing food savvy community. I grew up in Philadelphia and, despite our hoagies and cheese steaks, the food scene was pretty dull until Steven Starr and other bright restaurateurs, and some talented chefs like (Iron Chefs) Morimoto and Jose Garces, and even chefs who beat the Iron Chefs, like Marc Vetri, and a number of others, changed the game completely and turned Philly into a great food town. It can happen. And I think this is what Charlotte aspires to. Will it happen here? I think so. Will it take twenty years? Maybe, but maybe even faster. A lot depends on a spark and the best spark we've had is that Emeril has chosen to make a statement here and, if it strikes fire, I expect to see not only other well known chefs open here but also for great local chefs to emerge as they have in Charleston (which is probably the hottest restaurant city in America at the moment because of the emergence of three or four amazing, local chefs like Sean Brock and others). They don't need celebrity chefs in Charleston because their own chefs have redefined their cultural culinary identity. Larger cities, like New York (and Paris and London are even more perfect examples), are more like synthesis locales, giant salad bowls, that require both local and outside talent to converge until critical mass is attained. Charlotte will probably be more like those cities and it will take, in my estimation, about six to ten years for critical mass to occur (things happen faster in these digital times). Is e2 the greatest restaurant since Per Se? No, it doesn't aspire to be -- it's a fun restaurant that merges creative menu items (both familiar and inventive), reasonable prices, and the imprimatur of one of our most beloved culinary icons. This restaurant means more to Charlotte than it may even mean to Emeril, or it may be a harmonic convergence that leads to some sort of culinary big bang. Time will tell, but I'm betting on it and will continue to report on things here, not just because I live here, but because now Charlotte has joined the metaphorical lexicon, like pizza, of the quest that never seems to end.

In the photos you'll see some of my favorite moments from my night at e2: a wood oven roasted marrow bone with mushroom toast points served with tender slices of seared yellowfin (a little marrow spread on the toast, topped with the butter-tender fish created an explosively satisfying bite); a shrimp pizza with artichoke, fontina val d'aosta, white cheddar, and herb pesto (at first look I didn't think it would compete with some of the pizzas we've featured here from Mozza, Tony's, or Pizzeria Delfina but I was delighted by how much snap the dough had -- followed by a soft,creamy crumb, and a nicely charred underskirt ( took a photo of it but it didn't turn out -- sorry). And I have to say, the cheese combination coupled with the shrimp and artichoke slices was totally delightful; three slices of hamachi tuna crudo in tangerine oil with jalapeño slices and micro cilantro in a ponzu sauce -- these were just some of the starters and this high standard was maintained throughout the night. I'm not a restaurant critic and so will not pretend that this is a critical review, but just to give you an example of some of the other dishes we sampled: citrus tea lacquered "five-day" duck served with Anson Mills farro (Anson Mills is one of the places I hope to film for Pizza Quest one of these days -- a rock star brand in the artisan grain world); a tile fish special of the night (caught off the Outer Banks of North Carolina); Dry Aged Creekstone Farms Natural Angus Strip Steak, and Emeril's unique take on shrimp and grits. And, of course, there's Emeril himself (yes, that's me with him, just after the dinner rush ended), having directed and expedited his team through the entire service. The whole menu, which changes frequently, can be found at: http://e2emerils.com/ 

Like I said, this isn't a restaurant review website -- we just like to celebrate people and places that we like and, as a faculty member at Johnson & Wales I'm, of course, extremely proud of our most well known graduate, but I'm even more thankful that he's now in Charlotte for the initiation of what promises to be a new culinary era here. I'll keep you posted.

 
Peter's Blog, Jan. 24th, 2012
Peter Reinhart

In the past week I received three gifts: the first was a new folding proof box for home bakers made by Brod & Taylor. I tried it out and love it for two reasons: during my baking classes for home cooks I get asked all the time how to proof bread without a professional proof box. I suggest things like using the dishwasher as a steam box, the microwave with a glass of boiling water, an upside down styrofoam box with a lightbulb hanging through the roof, and other improvisations. But this new device is a compact (yes it folds up for easy storage) mini-version of a real proof box (and you can even make yogurt and sour cream in it), with a hot plate, water pan, and, temperature controls. The second thing is that it's just a beautiful design, something you want to let people see. I just read the Steve Jobs biography and have a new appreciation of his genius for creating (with the help of his over-worked and over-chastised, under-recognized team of collaborators) beautiful tools. This is a similarly beautiful tool and, for serious home bread bakers, solves the proofing problem.  We all have a tendency to say, "Hey wouldn't it be nice if someone would make ...." and then we go on with life.  Well, these guys went out and made it and it sells for about $150. Check it out at:  http://brodandtaylor.com/

This must be "thank the people week." Here's the second of the three gifts I mentioned above,  a great e-mail from Raphael Vaccaro along with some photos he sent. I'm posting this not because we will post every restaurant person that writes to us (though I am willing to post some as Guest Columns if you send me a good story at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ), but because I love the fire and passion and sense of connectedness with which he tells his story (and I like the way his pizza looks too!). We say here that we want to celebrate artisans and artisanship wherever we find them so here's an example:

Good Afternoon Peter:

My name is Raphael Vaccaro.  I am second generation restaurateur in Akron Ohio.  I have been working in the industry all of my life.  About 2 years agoI had an epiphany that would change the way I cook and the whole concept of bread making.  You do not know it, but your books and explanation had a lot to do with it.  This together, with the passing of my father, the patriarch of the family business; I have felt great comfort in and peace knowing that a 58 year old family pizza business has been elevated to the next level.

Just a quick intro:

· My father started in 1957 -- a classic deck oven pizza business.  It's grown into 7 locations.

· He was the first in the area to install a Middleby Marshall conveyor convection oven.  All stores utilized them.  This was in the early 70’s.

· Transferring the pizza cooking process from deck oven to conveyor gave us the ability to do high consistent volume, but we also sacrificed a lot of texture.

· In the early 90’s my father went from several locations to one location, changing his venue from classic old school Italian. I felt the need to go upscale because we relocated into a very upscale high end neighborhood.

About 2 years ago my brother built a wood-fired pizza oven in his back yard.  He kept telling me how good the flavor of my parents old style pizza is in that oven.  It was my dream to go with the wood fired ovens.  The caveat to the oven is that most restaurateurs do not know how to use them.  They have no concept of intense temperature, how to work with dough, and the cold slow fermentation of yeast.   I see countless pictures on the web of wood fired pizza’s, artisan Napolitano style, true to Italian heritage, blah blah blah.  The pictures I'm sending, though, look OK in high resolution, but when you actually follow the procedure of retarding dough, the quality and flavorand overall result is beyond ordinary or what any picture can show.

My brother introduced me to the Bread Bakers Apprentice and Pain à l’Ancienne…I have since changed the whole pizza making procedures that my father started to the next generation of Vaccaro’s Pizza.
About a year ago I found an old Blodgett deck oven and refurbished it.  I opened up the gas valve to change the btu’s from 37k to about 65k btu.  I lined it with fire brick.  I added a 650 degree thermostat.

The story goes on and on and on.  Enclosed you will find the final product with Pain à l’Ancienne and 00 Caputo flour.  The crust is INCREDIBLE.   I also switched from using provolone or mozzarella like any other American style pizza and switched to 100% DOP Pecorino Romano.

I look forward to more correspondence as this pizza tradition develops into the next tradition of our family business.  My next version of dough will be whole wheat and also using spent grain from a local micro brewery.

Raphael

PS…I have also enclosed some pictures of a new prototype oven I am building to be mobile for my catering.  It is a combination of the Pompeii and Tuscan ovens.  This is lined with thermal blanket with fire brick.   I should reach 800 degrees with no problems and be able to roast meats for my dinner service.
Ciao

Raphael Vaccaro
Vaccaro's Trattoria



Finally, gift number three, here's a note from a home baker in the UK, Ilian, who also happens to be a professional food photographer, as you will see from these amazing shots. If you like them, check out his website for more. Enjoy!   www.ilian.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Peter,

Just want to say I have your Whole Grain Breads book and I made Four Seed Crackers. Thanks for the recipe, the crackers are amazing. Attach are some of my images.

Best Regards

ilian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay folks -- you did all the work this week and thanks to Ilian, Raphael, and Michael Taylor of Broad and Taylor.  And to everyone else,  do feel free to share your stories with us -- we'll publish the ones that carry the same spirit as these.




 
Peter's Blog, Jan. 17, 2012
Peter Reinhart

Just received a call from a friend of mine from Syracuse who said she received her latest copy of Better Homes & Gardens and saw the pizza article about me. I think it hit the news stands today. I don't know when it will go digital but I just taped a narration voice-over for a short video on how to shape a pizza dough, which should show up on their web site at some point soon. I'll let you know when it goes live and we'll post a link to it here when it does. It's short and sweet (about a minute and a half long), but it was fun to sit in front of an iMovie console and tape a narrative over the video stream. It was the first time I've ever done that and I can see how easily it could become a habit. If any of you discover that the video is live before I do please let me know by writing to me here in the Comments section.

Also, I wanted to remind those of you who have been writing to ask about where and when I'll be teaching around the country in the near future, that I'm just starting to schedule a new tour for late summer and fall, 2012. The new book I've been working on is almost finished and when it is I'll have more opportunities to get back on the road, so as soon as I have the new dates I'll post them here. For those who live in Little Rock, however, I will be doing a demo next week at the Professional Association of Innkeepers International Conference at The Peabody Hotel. Of course, the demo is limited only to attendees at the conference, but if you want to meet up for a drink or a cup of coffee, drop me a line at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . I'll be arriving late Tuesday night and my demo is Wed. afternoon but I'll be free afterwards so who knows what kind of questing we can get into. Is there any killer pizza in Little Rock? Time to find out!!

One final note: our friend Paisley McCaffery's mom, Sheila, has a really fun blog in which she shares the menus and anecdotes from her A-list dinner parties over the past thirty or so years (maybe even longer -- she seems to have known just about everyone worth knowing). In her most recent post she fired up a few pizzas, recounted some memories, and gave Pizza Quest a shout out. So, check out her blog at: http://entertainingaddict.blogspot.com/ and let her know we sent you. All I can say is that I want to get invited to one of Sheila's parties. She doesn't go on quests, the quests come to her -- you go girl!!

More coming this week, so keep checking back. And may your pizzas all be perfect!!

Peter

 

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Vision Statement

Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.

Peter's Books

American Pie Artisan Breads Every Day Bread Baker's Apprentice Brother Juniper's Bread Book Crust and Crumb Whole Grain Breads

… and other books by Peter Reinhart, available on Amazon.com

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