Wednesday, November 23, 2016

3 college Towns, Sofo mojo and the High Priest of Yeast

You know, college life is on my mind lately. I teach a class at Ole Miss and I’ve become a fanatical devotee to the Rebel football team, who would be one of the best college football squads in the country if games only lasted two quarters. That, plus two months ago I took a week-long trip to Columbus, Ohio, for the Sofo Summit. No, not a high-level diplomatic confab with the Japanese prime minister, but a cool food distributor show. You pizzeria peeps know about Sofo, where this year pizza chef extraordinaire Ryan LaRose ruled in the culinary contest with his “Shroom Zoom” masterpiece featuring the elusive crack equivalent of pizza ingredients, White Truffle Oil. Listen to LaRose describe his big winner here.

The happy young pizza virtuoso at Leone's Pizza in Columbus doesn't share that his lovely city is also the hometown of THE Ohio State University and the zoo where my favorite Saturday morning TV personality, Jack Hanna, reigns as director emeritus.

Anyway, I endured the 632.1-mile, 9½-hour (Google lies—more like 12-hour) drive to Columbus where my job was to cover the Sofo mojo and stop in for a story on Mikey’s Late Night Slice. Mikey’s started out as the quintessential college “drunk food” oasis fueled by contests, iconic pizza varieties like the “Cheesus Crust” and edgy pop culture décor that includes a fake bathroom door. That's the snare where unsuspecting patrons pull the knob only to stand nose to nose with a life-sized poster of Samuel L. Jackson looking more batpoop crazy than he did in the Pulp Fiction car scene where Travolta accidentally shoots the dude. Learn more about Mikey's here.

Before we arrived in Columbus we made a pit stop in my hometown, St. Louis. The Gateway City is home of Provel cheese-oozing square pizza. It's also headquarters for the company that makes the living organism, yeast, that activates both pizza crust and the perfect golden elixir to wash it down. The impressive urban headquarters of AB Mauri and Fleischmann Yeast offered us the chance to video capture some even more impressive, mostly young, professionals who specialize in blending a passion for baking with a keen understanding of the science behind yeast and other flavor enhancers. 

As a college town, St. Louis is home to St. Louis University and Washington University. The Billikens (think Munchkins) don't boast a football team (Wash U Bears are Division III), but both universities sport national powerhouse medical schools. At AB Mauri/Fleischmann's, I met a team of professionals who've taken their food science degrees to the next level. Equally comfortable in their fully equipped test kitchen or laboratory, this team is led by former Domino's operator, current AB Mauri Innovation Manager, and the man I like to call The High Priest of Yeast, Paul Bright. Our hosts downloaded their off-the-charts foodie intellects to treat our video crew. The payoff was homemade pizza with a yeasty kick in the crust. I successfully resisted the powerful urge to greet my collaborators with a hearty: “There's a fungus among us!” See the AB Mauri crew in action here.

Then the PizzaTV van pushed east to the home of the Boilermakers and Mad Mushroom Pizza. The Purdue Boilermakers of West Lafayette, Indiana, aren't named for their ability to down shots of whiskey floating in beer. Do these Big 10ers produce a plethora of portly opera majors? Haven't done the research. I do know they graduate a bunch of guys and gals who can engineer stuff, presumably like boilers and additional infrastructure that makes our economy hum. Purdue may rarely beat THE Ohio State in football, but they did educate the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and the talented entrepreneur who owns two Mad Mushroom pizzerias in West Lafayette.

U.S. Pizza Team mainstay Dave Sommers is currently expanding his Mad Mushroom brand to additional Midwest college towns, but 20 years ago he was a college kid trying to earn some spending money. Pizza sauce, flour and dough seeped into his blood and today Dave is one of the industry's sharpest pizzeria practitioners with a vision for marketing America's favorite food and crafting internationally acclaimed American Pies.