• Day One at the AIB Pizza School

    Tags: Commentary

This is the first of four installments -- three lighthearted and one serious -- describing the five-day-long Practical Pizza Production Technology seminar at the American Institute of Baking.

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Judging by the size of the parking lot outside the American Institute of Baking, it's clear the legendary baking school isn't competing for students with Kansas State University, just a few blocks down Manhattan Ave. The sprawling campus draws 22,000 students each day, while AIB hosts between 50 and 100, depending on the day.

Today it's nearer to 100, as about 30 pizza industry professionals have come to the campus for the Practical Pizza Production Technology (PPPT) seminar. The five-day, $1,100 per-person event is a cram-course on just about everything one would ever want to know about making pizza -- and then some.

Tom Lehmann, director of bakery production assistance at AIB, heads up the event. Lehmann is known throughout the pizza world as the "Dough Doctor," a name he picked up while consulting on flour in Mexico several years ago. He is a walking, talking pizza wonk, a bottomless repository of facts, figures and anecdotes about the industry he has studied fervently since 1967.

This day's lengthy and pithy discourse on the physical properties of dough makes me imagine renaming Lehmann the "Guru of Gluten." He leaves no stone unturned in describing why pizza dough does what it does -- as well as why it won't do what operators often want it to do because they don't treat it right.

Hungry attendees of the AIB "pizza school" line up to taste a sample of pastas, breads and wings near the end of the first day.

That news humbles a few of the operators on hand; some even confess they'll have to reformulate their dough recipes when they get home.

I've been told that in the U.S. Marines, new recruits are torn down mentally and physically so they can be built up again to think and fight like a unit. And being from a blessed generation of American boys who never had to face a surly sergeant in some sweaty swamp on Paris Island, I have to take their word for it.

In an odd way, the first day at PPPT mirrors the mind-washing part of such a boot-camp misery. It's as if, under the sheer weight of the information overload provided by Lehmann, the base of knowledge constructed in the mind of even a seasoned pizzeria operator crumbles. More than a few foreheads are slapped as "Aha!" moments occur throughout the day; dough dilemmas are solved, and the hefty registration fee suddenly is worth it.

Today is a long day, beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 7:30 p.m. About 5:30, nine-and-a-half hours of pizza talk has both numbed my brain and stirred my stomach. As my gut growls, my mind wanders to typing my own parody of "The Shining":

"All talk and no taste makes Steve a hungry boy."

"All talk and no taste makes Steve a hungry boy."

Mercifully, around 6 p.m., Lehmann informs us that multiple samples of pasta, sauces, breads and chicken wings await us in a nearby room. As the group studies the spread, the smells and sights remind me for the millionth time why I'm glad I chose to write about the food industry rather than auto racing.

The group descends upon the bounty and begins eating in earnest back in the seminar room. About 10 minutes of undisturbed munching ensues before three conveyor-impingement oven manufacturers' reps take turns describing how their specific company's products work. Interesting stuff, all of it, but I can't help feeling a little sorry for anyone who has to speak to a group with glazed eyes at dinnertime.

Finally, at 7:30, Lehmann tells us Day One has ended. Save for the past hour and during the 90-minute lunch period, the Lord of Leavening has talked nearly non-stop, and he admits he's bushed.

As the group shuffles out, those still full from the promotional repast discuss skipping dinner and heading out for adult beverages. Some say they're skipping that, too, and heading straight to bed. The Middleby Marshall oven rep says he'll buy the first round of cocktails for anyone who "promises not to mention gluten," and he gets three takers.

But even this group won't stay out too late, for as Lehmann reminded them, Day Two begins at 8 a.m., and isn't scheduled to end before 6 p.m.

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