Competition often involves rejection, and rejection can turn into a major motivation for those driven to win. Jeff Smokevitch, chef and co-owner of Blue Pan Pizza, which will open next week in West Highland, is no stranger to competition — or learning from failure. As a member of the undefeated 1997 University of Michigan football team, he experienced one of the greatest achievements in American sports: an NCAA college football championship. But as a restaurant owner, he’s also experienced rejection of the kind that would send many others packing.
In 2011, Smokevitch (“Smoke” to his friends) — who’d been running Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride with a business partner since the early 2000s — and lifelong pal Giles Flanagin attempted to open a second Brown Dog in the Washington Park neighborhood. They were well on their way to completing the deal when a few vocal neighbors managed to convince the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses to deny their liquor-license application, putting an end to a process that had already cost them considerable time, effort and money. After the denial, Smokevitch concentrated his efforts on improving his recipes in Telluride — but he and Flanagin never gave up the dream of bringing Detroit-style pizza to Denver.“It’s amazing what adversity can do; it will make you either focus or fold,” Flanagin notes. Rather than fold, he and Smokevitch continued to look for opportunities, and one came along last summer, when the owners of the then-just-announced Avanti Food & Beverage concept were looking for vendors to fill the six kitchen slots that would be part of the ultra-hip food court in Lower Highland. They were ultimately turned down in favor of an established Denver pizza concept, but the setback only made them redouble their efforts. “I walk around with a chip on my shoulder, for sure — which makes you better,” says Smokevitch.
Eventually they found a spot on West 32nd Avenue that had been vacated by Basil Doc’s Pizzeria, and knew it was what they were looking for. Of those previous lost opportunities, Smokevitch says, “It may have been the best thing that could have happened. I don’t think we were ready back then.”
To get ready, Smokevitch attended Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza in California, where he stood out enough that Gemignani — whose restaurants have received national attention and who has won multiple international competitions — asked Smokevitch to compete on his pizza team. He’s now an associate of the school and has won competitions with his Detroit-style pizzas. But he encountered some bumps along the way. Two years ago, Smokevitch traveled to Italy to compete in the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy. He recalls that some of the judges actually laughed at him — which only made him want to prove himself that much more. “I’m very competitive in everything I do, and if I don’t do well, I try to figure out how to get better,” he says.
This May, Smokevitch returned to Parma and came away with several prizes, including an award in the Triathlon category (which combines the scores for three different styles of pizza), one for the most creative use of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the designation of best American competitor. Although his Detroit-style pizza was mocked two years ago, this time one of those rectangular pies scored high enough to earn him the Triathlon prize. His other top pizzas were in the gluten-free and classic-Italian (a little different from Neapolitan) categories. “Classic Italian is the favorite style in Italy,” Smokevitch explains. “You’d think it would be Neapolitan, but people there are like people in Chicago: They eat a lot more thin-crust than Chicago-style in Chicago.”
The difference between classic Italian and Neapolitan is that Neapolitan pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven at high temperature for a very short period of time, resulting in a crust with a fluffy, bubbled edge and a center that’s less cooked — “almost soupy,” as Smokevitch puts it. Classic Italian pies cook longer and at lower heat, which gives them a crispier bottom, a good crumb and a distinctive webbing inside the crust that comes from the gluten in the flour. With all that practice, you might think the chef has his recipes dialed in. But Smokevitch still has batches going at home; sometimes he stays up late adjusting recipes and mixing dough. “It’s kind of like an addiction — trying to make that perfect dough that doesn’t exist,” he confesses.
Flanagin and Smokevitch have both known they wanted to be in the restaurant industry since they were kids. Flanagin ran a successful lawn-mowing business from the time he was twelve and went into the real-estate business in Chicago after graduating from Northern Arizona University. He came to Denver for the express purpose of helping Smokevitch open the restaurant in Washington Park and, despite the initial failure, doesn’t regret the move for a second. “I’m never leaving Denver,” Flanagin says. “Denver’s where home is.”
Smokevitch recalls setting up a hot-dog stand with his brother when he was a kid in Detroit. “We made a giant sign out of a two-by-four that went across the whole road, so cars had to stop and buy a hot dog before they could pass,” he remembers. He worked in restaurants as a teenager, but the demands of college football kept him out of professional kitchens during that time. After college he moved to Telluride — “mostly to be a ski bum,” he says; that lasted three years before he had to start thinking about making money. A job in a pizza joint eventually led to his purchasing the place with his business partner; they moved it to a bigger location and named it Brown Dog. Today the place has more than 100 seats and often lines out the door during the height of the season.
With Blue Pan, Smokevitch and Flanagin hope to offer a similar experience to the one at Brown Dog, with several styles (each with its own type of flour, dough-making technique and cooking temperatures) — but the focus will be on the Detroit pies they grew up with. Smokevitch becomes both passionate and technically precise when he talks about what makes the Detroit style unique. Yes, there’s the rectangular pan (originally a blue steel auto-parts pan), but the dough is not bready or dense. A three-day rise with multiple punch-downs combined with a well-oiled pan and a high-temperature oven means that the crust comes out airy and crunchy, especially at the corners, where extra cheese accumulates and caramelizes.
In Telluride, Brown Dog’s chef mixes his own gluten-free flour blend before giving it the same three-day fermentation. In Denver, Smokevitch is using a flour mix made at a Boulder bakery by a woman he met at a pizza convention and competition in Las Vegas. Pressed for time before his challenge in Italy, he purchased her blend and ended up winning with it — so now he’s using it at Blue Pan. The other winning item he’s sticking with is his pair of pizzaiolo shoes, which he bought several years ago but never wore until the championships in May. They look a little like bowling shoes, with red and green panels on either side of a white background, only with a more athletic profile. “I took them to the competition — and then I won with them, so now I have to wear them,” he says.
In addition to football and pizza, Smokevitch loves mentoring kids. During his days as a ski bum, he worked summers as a camp counselor for the Telluride Academy, something he still devotes time to each summer — only now as a pizza instructor for kids’ cooking classes. Flanagin is active on boards of nonprofit organizations and says he has a soft spot for animal charities (he and his wife currently have three cats). The partners are already making themselves at home in West Highland, working with the neighborhood association long before they applied for the liquor license they just got — with the group’s support. They’ll also participate in the Highlands Street Fair this month, with the dual purpose of teaching kids to make pizza and raising money to fight pediatric brain cancer. Smokevitch’s college football coach, Lloyd Carr, has a grandson with cancer, and Smokevitch wants to help the people he considers a second family in any way he can. “For me, that’s the most exciting thing right now,” he says.
Flanagin agrees: Opening a business in a neighborhood means getting to serve the neighbors something new, but it also means becoming a part of that neighborhood. He points out that the neighborhood is ready to explode, with Solitaire across the street and a lease in the works for another restaurant on the corner...and a steady stream of pedestrians walking past Blue Pan, many of whom have stopped to inquire about the opening date.
Looks like they finally have a winner.