Pizza Expo, 2018 –You Had to Be There….
I’ve been home for over three weeks now but am still enjoying flashbacks from Pizza Expo 2018. With over 8,000 people attending everyday, and hundreds of booths, there are probably over 8,000 versions of what Pizza Expo means to the attendees and vendors. For sure, plenty of pizza to taste, ingredients to sample, equipment to test drive, seminars and workshops to attend, and numerous competitions, there are just too many story angles to do it justice. So, all I can do is tell the story from my angle, knowing that it is but a small slice of a much bigger pie.
First, I arrived on Monday (March 19th), the day before the doors to the convention floor officially opened, but there were already hundreds of attendees present, in for the early bird educational workshops on subjects like marketing, how to open a pizzeria for first times, how to dominate a market, finding your niche, expanding menus and profits by using specialty products, how to recruit top talent, developing healthy relationships with your distributors, and identifying and avoiding the common mistakes that many startups make. Really, something for everyone, including, at 1:30, my own panel called, “Is 24 Hours Enough? Understanding Fermentation,” with dough experts Bill Weekley, of General Mills, and Tom Lehman, the legendary “Dough Doctor.” These two guys have, between them, over 80 years of experience as fermentation experts and for the past 25 years have presented workshops, pizza boot camps, and Q&A sessions at Expo. And they always sell out, which is both a testament to their knowledge and also to the ever-growing world of pizza with new owners jumping into the game every year. We had a full house (I was told about 600 people) and I just asked a few questions and then let them run with the ball. The questions ranged from a basic “yeast 101” slideshow, all the way to more advanced concepts, such as the use of preferments, enzymes, and the pro’s and con’s of various types of flours and ideal fermentation times and temps. For those wanting Bill’s power point presentation, basically an introduction to what fermentation is, you can write to him at at: Bill.Weekley@genmills.com Tell him you read about it here.
Monday evening I attended a reception at Caesar’s Palace, at the Modernist Cuisine Gallery, an art gallery consisting of brilliant, idiosyncratic, in your face photography by visionary author, scientist, chef, and world traveler Nathan Myhrvold (look him up on Google and check out his various TED Talks — it would take me too long to list his achievements here). Pizza Rock, Tony Gemignani’s popular Las Vegas pizzeria, provided the pizzas, and various members of the Modernist Cuisine creative team, whose recent 5-Volume book, Modernist Bread, is up for a James Beard Award on April 27th, announced that the next book (or will it be another 5-book series?) is already underway, called Modernist Pizza. Surprise surprise!! Some of the luminaries present for the announcement included James Beard Award winning chef, Marc Vetri, pizzaiolo extraordinaire Jonathan Goldsmith, of Chicago’s Spacca Napoli (look for an interview he did for Pizza Quest in an upcoming post), the indefatigable Scott Wiener, co-author of Modernist Bread, Francisco Migoya, PizzaTherapy.com creator, Albert Grande, Antimo Caputo (the patriarch of the Caputo Flour empire), and Tony Gemignani himself. As the Rat Pack would say, it was a helluva party….
On Tuesday the convention doors opened at 10 AM and Pizza Expo was underway. The hall was so long that I couldn’t see the far end — at least 1/2 mile long, maybe longer (seemed longer!). Just to get to the demonstration stage, located about mid hall, I had to pass hundreds of vendors serving slices of all types of pizza, chicken wings, gluten-free crusts, cauliflower crusts, tomatoes from around the world, flour from Italy — and from Utah, from Montana, from Canada — dough tossing competitions, dough mixing machines, dough pans, POS systems, pizza boxes and delivery carrier systems, and ovens of all types. My brain was already firing on overdrive when I got to the stage where John Arena and I were scheduled to repeat the demo we did last year, “Why Are You Still Buying Bread?” John, as our regular followers know, is the beloved owner of Metro Pizza in Las Vegas (7 locations), and a mentor to hundreds, maybe thousands, of pizza makers and owners. He and his team had prepared dozens of hoagie rolls made from a multi-purpose pizza dough that John and I created, that could be turned into focaccia, rolls, pita bread, and even cinnamon rolls. Our point: why buy bread when your own pizza dough could easily provide for all the bread you need? It also gave me a chance to show-off my favorite technique, the “stretch and fold,” that minimizes mixing time and makes it possible to easily work with wetter dough. John’s Metro Pizza partner, Chris Decker, made dozens of hoagies, that he sliced into tasting portions and passed out to the crowd of about 200 people (how everyone had room for yet more tasting is a mystery unto itself, but taste they did).
The Forno Bravo pavilion, was about two-thirds of the way towards the end of the hall (where the “best pizza” competitions were being held). There, I had the joy of seeing world pizza champion Leo Spizzirri putting on a series of demonstrations, showing how to use wood fired ovens for all sorts of things beyond pizza. Forno Bravo, for the second year in a row, invited Leo to be their demo guy and, I have to say, he puts on a great show; not only entertaining but super informative. When he starts performing the crowd continually grows, drawn by the food and the showmanship. Leo is on the brink of opening his own pizza school in Chicago, so I’ll try to get him to do another interview with us in a month or so (you can see our earlier interview with him here). During Expo, I was fortunate enough to be able to do a tandem demo with him on the first day, but one in which Leo did all the work and all I had to do was ask a few questions and be the second banana. I was the Carl Reiner to his Mel Brooks (for those of you old enough to get that reference to the “2,000 Year Old Man”). Leo showed everyone how to pre-cook eggplant and other sliced vegetables in about 2 minutes for toppings and for filled and rolled side dishes, how to make a bread bowl with pizza dough and then use it to serve meatballs marinara, and how to assemble and bake a beautiful Roman-style pizza alla pala (sometimes known as pizza a metro, aka, by the meter), as shown in the accompanying photo. Oh yeah, he (with only a little help from me) put on quite a show.
The following day, I got to do a solo demo myself, making fresh pita breads in the beautiful Forno Bravo brick oven (gas fired for Expo since there was not way anyone could do wood-fire in a convention hall, but it worked great!), using the dough I had made the day before during the duet demo I did with John Arena (you can write to me at email@example.com if you’d like a copy of the recipe, a wonderful multi-purpose pizza, focaccia, and bread formula). The pita breads popped nicely and, I have to say, were pretty fabulous (yes, you just had to be there). Because I had my hands full doing the demo I never got to take any photos of them ballooning up so dramatically but, trust me, they were spectacular. And, thank you Forno Bravo, I was able to give out a number of signed copies of my books, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, as well as The Bread Baker’s Apprentice 15th Anniversary Edition.
My favorite event was serving as moderator for a panel with pizza icons Nancy Silverton (Pizzeria Mozza) and Brian Spangler (Apizza Scholls), who shared their respective journeys with the 500 or so people who came to the conference room. This was Nancy’s first time ever at Pizza Expo and she told me that if she’d known how much fun it was she would have come sooner. Brian hadn’t been there in about 12 years, and he too marveled at how much it had grown. More importantly, they were both very generous with their answers and advice, and hung around after the panel answering one on one questions for a number of folks. The best takeaway from this for me was garnering the wisdom of two highly successful people advising others as to how to find their own voice and identity in and through their work. As we often say here, it’s all about the quest.
Once I completed my performing obligations, I was able to walk the vast floor and visit some pretty amazing booths and pavilions, such as The King Arthur Flour booth, where an all star line-up of famous pizziaoli performed throughout the three days of the Expo (including a brief appearance by the legendary Chris Bianco), and I couldn’t resist returning a few times to the Roman Pizza Academy and Manzo Foods booth to taste Massimiliano Saieva’s Roman Pizzas (you can read my interview with Massimiliano and Alex Manzo here).
I looked at pizza pans of all sizes, tasted cauliflower pizza crusts (I’m a fan of this new gluten-free style — I love cauliflower!), played with some new, small mixers, and, at the end of the third day, got to watch the finals for best pizza maker and even help out with announcing some of the winners. By then, I was pretty fried and had a plane to catch, so I can only say, again and again, you had to be there (and I know many of you were and have your own fun stories to share, so please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to write a guest column about your Vegas adventure) — and I hope to see you all there next year.
PS Las Vegas is a city loaded with great restaurants, but after a full day of pizza I was craving something totally different, something soothing, so a few of us headed out to Chinatown and found an amazing ramen house called Ramen Sora — I’d jump on a plane and fly back to Vegas in a minute for another bowl of their soul satisfying spicy butter corn ramen. Keep this place in mind next time you’re in Vegas! It got me thinking about going next on a Ramen Quest…..
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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.
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