Our new top pizzaiolo Joe Leroux talks grains, recipe development and non-stop learning
By Colleen Cross
It came to me in a dream,” is how Joe Leroux describes his pizza – a winning combination of rosemary potatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano and hickory-smoked bacon.
Canadian Pizza magazine’s newest Chef of the Year says he was inspired to make a pierogi-style pizza after visiting a fellow pizzaiolo who was having a lot of success with his own. The taste combination held a lot of appeal for Leroux’s wife Margit, who was born in Austria.
“I am the one who loves pierogis,” she says with a smile during a pleasant afternoon interview at the couple’s pizzeria, Amadio’s Pizza in Port Credit, a pretty lakefront village that forms part of Mississauga, Ont. The two talk grains, recipe development and the importance of non-stop learning to the success of a small business.
Leroux started experimenting with multigrain flours, hemp in particular, and his creative play with cream cheese and potatoes eventually turned into garlic Parmigiano Reggiano cream sauce on a crust that features a dizzying mix of whole-wheat flour, hemp flour and more than a dozen other ancient grains including quinoa and rye.
Six months before the Chef of the Year competition, he set about perfecting the creation he calls “Chi manga bene, viva bene,” which translates from Italian to English as “If you eat well, you live well.”
Why the ambitious mix of grains? He says it came out of a desire to push the boundaries and offer customers something new. “You always want to offer something new,” he says.
He weighs and mixes the grains ahead of time so they are ready for use.
“Another challenge in working with several flours is to not let one flour overpower the others, but have it complement and work in harmony with other flavours,” Leroux says. “There has to be a nice harmony.”
Including potatoes on pizza also has its challenges. “You have to cook them al dente, then let them finish cooking on the pizza,” he says. “You need a little bit of resistance.”
They firm up in the fridge as well, he notes, so that process must be taken into account. Variety is key, he says: you should use the same variety you would use in potato salad.
Leroux will head to the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas in March to pit his pie against other avid competitors in the Non-Traditional category.
He will take cheese and flour down himself but plans to source other ingredients in Las Vegas. He plans to be there a couple of days early to give his 60 per cent hydrated dough a chance to rise.
“Ideally it needs 48 hours of cold fermentation,” he says.
He has attended Pizza Expo to watch the competitions several times, and he has a strategy: Be prepared and have a plan A, B, C and D.
The hardest thing about competing is working in an unfamiliar environment with different ovens and tools than what you’re used to, he says. “You have to be prepared for the unknown,” he says. “It’s all about adaptability and handling the butterflies.”
But he’s not waiting until March to make and promote his award-winning pizza in store. At press time he was preparing to offer it as a weekend option. And because this multi-flour dough is more labour intensive than other pizzas, he will add a 25 per cent surcharge to it.
Leroux expects it to be popular, but points to an irony he has observed over 25 years: customers want to know you have healthier choices such as whole wheat, but they don’t necessarily want to order them. He is constantly finding that balance between innovating and keeping old favourites.
“To be successful you have to look at the trends and know which ones you can adapt for your own use,” he says. “Is it feasible? Not all ideas are feasible.”
One trend the couple has observed in recent years is a growing interest in thin-crust pizza.
“There’s something appealing about the word ‘thin,’ ” Margit says.
They say the meat-lover’s pizza has grown steadily as an option, especially for teenage boys and young men.
Another development Leroux is keeping his eye on is customers’ growing interest in clean eating. “I’m looking for non-GMO ingredients, but not finding much out there,” he says.
After 25 years in business in a pizzeria market that has dwindled from 16 pizzerias to two, Leroux can call himself a veteran and a survivor. He worked in several different restaurant settings before opening Amadio’s and has been making pizza since age 15, when he took a job at the pizzeria around the corner from his home. “I was making pizza when Elvis died,” he says.
Amadio’s has five full-time staff, including Joe and Margit, and six part-time staff. The pizzeria began life on Dundas Street in Mississauga in 1990, then moved to a location three minutes away on busy Hurontario Street. “It’s just busy enough,” he says, noting it’s important to cross-train staff for those busy periods and unexpected staff shortages.
The current store sits in cosy proximity to retail stores and professional offices in an upper-middle-class suburban neighbourhood. The real estate was chosen in part because its square footage and layout was similar to the previous location. “It was 31 feet, front to back,” he says, arms akimbo. “I knew it would work.”
Leroux provides a tour of the restaurant, starting from a customer order space with a spacious feel due to a large mirror that reflects community involvement that won him a Saputo Foodservice Pizza With Purpose award in 2011. Through the door and with a gentle curve to the left is a make line that can accommodate 10 staff. A right turn takes you to the ovens, which have grown in number from two to six over the years.
“We don’t quite need the sixth oven yet, but we will,” he says with a smile.
Leroux has made a point of improving his business and marketing acumen and networking with other pizzeria operators. The learning began in earnest when he toured Italy and Europe in the 1980s – that’s where he and Margit met – and he has made a habit of visiting and keeping up with other Canadian pizzerias as well.
“It’s important to be in touch with others who are going through the same things you are,” he says.
Independent operators have more freedom to implement ideas, but fewer resources when compared to the chains they compete with, he adds. “Being an independent, I don’t have access to human resources, marketing, research facilities and accountants. I don’t have time to see the latest trends.”
Events like the Canadian Pizza Show and International Pizza Expo are “your HR department, your R&D department and your marketing department all rolled into one,” he says.
“The stuff you learn there you cannot learn anywhere else, under one roof. It’s all about collaboration.”
Chi manga bene, viva bene
- 15 different grains, including ancient grains
- Parmigiano Reggiano
- whipping cream
- rosemary potatoes
- red onions
- hickory smoked bacon
- cheddar cheese
We start with cold fermented two-day-old 60 per cent hydration dough with a homemade garlic Parmigiano Reggiano cream sauce. The pizza is topped with sliced rosemary potatoes, hickory smoked bacon, red onions, cheddar cheese and mozzarella.