Just seven months after the July 2018 opening of the North American Culinary Academy, which includes Lessafre Yeast Corp. and Red Star Yeast’s Pizza Innovation Center, the business crunched its numbers: The total visitor count was more than 800 people. From amateurs to professionals, individuals to large corporations, people come to the center from all over the world for classes, R&D sessions, and consulting services.
Located in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, Illinois, the North American Culinary Academy was founded by Chef Leo Spizzirri, Maestro Instruttore, PFC, and Anthony Iannone, a formally trained chef. Not only is it a school with classes, but the innovation center allows it to serve as an R&D center that’s fully functional from concept to launch. It has four working spaces: a dough room, an oven room with seven different ovens, a classroom setup for courses, and a demonstration area.
“We’re able to show everything to everyone in one spot,” says Leo Spizzirri. “This is the real charm of the school and what has resonated really well.”
In addition to providing a space for mixing dough the traditional, freestyle way, the dough room has four mixers, including a planetary, fork-style, spiral and diving arm. Each mixer affects the dough in different ways. To demonstrate this variance, the chefs mix one base formula in each machine during classes, then bake the dough in the same oven so that the only variable is the mixer.
“To be able to see what the machines do to the structure, and ultimately the crumb, is pretty amazing,” Spizzirri notes.
The dough room is temperature- and humidity-controlled to recreate any ambiance.
“If I’m teaching a Neapolitan certification course, I can recreate the conditions of Naples, Italy,” Spizzirri says. “The traditional style of that dough is that it never gets refrigerated, so it would get made in the dough room at that temperature until the dough is ready, then we would bring it into our oven room.”
Much of the center’s success can be attributed to Spizzirri’s vast amount of experience in the industry. Born and raised with Chicago-style pizza, he went to Italy to learn the craft at the oldest pizza school, Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli.
“Once I realized the difference in the way pizzas were being made in Italy and then seeing all the American styles translated from those original styles, it was kind of like a Willy Wonka moment,” Spizzirri says. “There’s so much behind the curtain, so I needed to learn more.”
After receiving his pizza-making certification, he went back and forth to Italy for 15 years to get his master’s certification in each of the five styles. During this time, Spizzirri also was working as a dough specialist for a large frozen pizza company. In 2017, he completed a series of tests to become a master instructor and is now one of fewer than 100 people in the world to receive this high-level certification.
Spizzirri can create all types of pizza, whether it’s an Italian-style or an American translation, frozen from a store or fresh at a restaurant, a product with a yeast crust or one that’s low-carb or gluten-free. In fact, many students come to learn gluten-free pizza processing; not only is there a class on the topic, but the center also has a separate oven, mixer and tools for making gluten-free pizzas.
The Pizza Innovation Center, combined with Spizzirri’s work in the commercial pizza sphere, creates a productive environment for large baking facilities. Companies can work confidentially with chefs to develop new formulas or reinvent old ones.
“A lot of times the question is: ‘How fast we can get dough to run down the line? We know you can make pizza go down the line in 140 to 150 pieces a minute,’” he says. “We can take a pizza at the independent level and translate it into something commercially.”
The ownership of Lesaffre Yeast Corp. and Red Star Yeast also allows for a variety of opportunities. The two companies bring in a lot of national customers and provide ingredients for R&D sessions and courses. Spizzirri appreciates the company’s open-mindedness to his ideas and says there’s been a strong investment from every party.
“We’re selling equipment,” he says. “We’re building formulas. We’re doing consulting work. To say we’re just a pizza school is really an understatement because the amount of work we’re doing here is so vast.”