Pizza Influencer Interview: Blue Pan Pizza’s Jeff Smokevitch

Pizza Influencer Interview: Blue Pan Pizza’s Jeff Smokevitch
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Atlantic City showcased some of the most competitive pizza makers in the United States at 2022 Pizza and Pasta Northeast. The Non-Traditional Division, according to the event organizers, is an “anything goes category with no restrictions on styles, dough, sauce or topping and features creativity and innovation.”

The Non-Traditional Division Prize Winners (from left): Brandon Bryant, second place, Hudson and Packard in Hyde Park, New York; Jeff Smokevitch, third place, Blue Pan Pizza in Denver; Cristina Smith, first place, State of Mind Pizzeria and Public House in Los Altos, Calif.; and Pizza and Pasta Northeast Show Director Bill Oakley. Photo courtesy of Pizza Today
The type of creativity needed to place in this division puts the pizza makers in a league of their own. We had the honor to speak with third place winner Jeff “Smoke” Smokevitch of Blue Pan Pizza about his competitive nature, what makes great pizza and his long-standing relationship with LloydPans.

You’re obviously very well-known in the industry and have received numerous accolades over the course of your career. To what do you attribute your success?
I go back to the pizza school [the International School of Pizza] that I went to in 2010, and that’s what really changed the trajectory of my pizza career; it got me involved in making the product better and a new style of pizza. At the time we didn’t do Detroit-style.

Your pizza-making journey certainly was a climb up the proverbial ladder.
Going back to when I got into pizza in Telluride, Colo., it was called Pacific Street Pizza. I was a dishwasher and on the grill. I had to wait about eight months before I made my first pizza. Early on in my Detroit-style pizza journey, which really started at that point in 2010, the pan company that was making the Detroit-style was going out of business. I grew up in Detroit; my parents still live there. I had moved to Colorado, and my dad went around and bought up all the pans at local stores and shipped them to me. During my trial and error phase, we launched around 2011, I went back and forth between two pans. My recipe and product was coming out superior with LloydPans.

How did you first find out about LloydPans in addition to those others?
I probably learned about them from Shawn Randazzo with Detroit Style Pizza Company. I think he may have made the intro to LloydPans, and we started buying pans then. It has turned into a really nice relationship.

Detroit-style is hot. It’s our best-selling pan! How do you approach your Detroits?
It has great taste, great flavor, great texture and it’s very unique from every pizza style. It’s not a heavy gut bomb that people may perceive a deep dish as. I feel like the new breed has taken it to a new level of crispy bottom, light airy crumb, a great chew to it and putting the toppings on kind of in different ways that they used to — and the final product comes out spectacular. It’s attributed to being different and great.

Most of our customers have never had Detroit-style before. A lot of places don’t call it that; it’s either round or square. I feel like the name came up around 2010. When I go back to Birmingham, Mich., I bring people back to Jet’s Pizza; I grew up like 200 feet from one. It’s a nostalgic thing.

Where do you get your inspiration for competitions?
I like traveling around and seeing different — not even just pizza — but trying different foods and flavors and seeing if I can put them on a pizza. While I was in New York I went to Brooklyn and New Jersey and visited friends’ pizzerias to see what they’re doing. And, the pizza school allowed me to travel around the world and begin pizza competitions. I go to Italy annually, which is a way to get out of my little bubble in Telluride/Denver and to see what else is out there. Then I bring it back to Colorado.

You placed third this year at Pizza and Pasta, Non-Traditional Division. What did you compete with?
I try to come up with stuff when I travel, but my most successful pizzas and the ones that win are the ones I make for family, friends and employees. Customers won’t always be honest with you if it’s bad. I have a loft in Denver with a test kitchen and invite over 100 local people over and try different pizzas and flavors. The ones I compete with are simple, but elevated. I first tried this pizza a couple of years ago at the loft for a birthday party, and people said that I might be onto something. I put it on the menu at Blue Pan as a special, and it was our biggest-selling special I’ve ever done.

I want to be in the top three or win every time, so I said, “What is the most popular pizza I have now that I haven’t competed with?” I baked my Detroit-style pizza crust, added aged white cheddar and then I parbake it — yes, I know that’s controversial but I’m a parbaker. I wanted a super extreme crunch, so I took the pizza out of my LloydPans, wiped it with a cloth and put olive oil on the pan and back in the oven without the dough to get it hot and sizzling. Then I gussied it up with a thin layer of pizza sauce on top of the parbake, then a cheese blend and Rosa Grande pepperoni, spicy salami, roasted garlic from Italy, and then I put it in for another bake. Then my finishing toppings were fresh basil, parmesan reggiano and Mike’s Hot Honey, which tied it together really well. They judge on appearance too, so I brightened it up with freshly ground fior di latte mozzarella, which I switched from the menu for the competition.

You’ve become a teacher and a mentor over the years as well.
A lot of people are watching me, especially at competitions. A lot of people will copy, but it’s how I learned too. It took me like 10 years before I got started, and I was so defeated. But my advice is to not get frustrated. The way I came up with my first recipe was with a lot of help from friends. Tony Gemignani was such an open book, and it’s a lot of experimenting and trial and error. People may want to use my dough as a base, take bits and pieces for inspiration, and then come up with their own — if you have a passion for pizza, it’s about finding out what you want to do and what you want your final product to be. I’m always an open book; if you have questions email me or text me and I’ll tell you.

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