2009 September: Eye On The Prize

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Of three pizza competitions won by Jodi Aufdencamp, the first in 2001 was arguably the easiest: held in Columbus, Ohio, a few convenient miles from her shop, Mama Mimi’s Take ‘N Bake Pizza. Forced to carry just one cooler to the contest, Aufdencamp had only to make a great pie.

But her trip with husband, Jeff, to Salsomaggiore, Italy, weeks later for the World Pizza Championships, was a different story. Neither spoke Italian — a handy asset for fi nding stores, shopping for ingredients or asking to borrow a dough mixer — or knew how to navigate the winding streets of “Salso.” The panicked pair was truly working from scratch.

“We wound up doing our dough in our hotel room, making it in a marble sink and proofing it on a radiator under a towel,” says Aufdencamp. “Things were ugly at first, but the pizza came out fi ne.” The humbling trip forced her to think about how to be better prepared for future contests. Winging it never works, she says, adding: “You’ve got to have a plan and be organized.”

Tony Palombino agrees. The winner of a pair of International Pizza Expo contests, Palombino says his preparation for a contest begins months in advance, when he settles on a clear and straightforward recipe.
“Simple wins,” he says. “Some think that the more ingredients they use, it somehow shows a wider understanding of pizza. But more often than not, it shows a lack of decisiveness by someone who’s trying to show off their pantry.”

Palombino, owner and franchisor of four Tony Boombozz pizzerias in Louisville, Kentucky, says his winning pies contained seven or fewer ingredients. “I’ve seen triple that on some pizzas,” he says, commenting on his past experience as a Pizza Expo judge. “When you’ve got too many ingredients going, it’s hard to taste any one thing. … Yet some of the simplest pizzas I’ve seen are just packed with fl avor — plus they win.”

Though he’s been making pizza for decades, Palombino tests new creations on his wife, his cooks and friends with trustworthy palates. He even asks some to make the recipe and critique its simplicity. “If it makes sense to somebody else who’s making it, then you’re off to the races.”

While it’s common for competitors to bring all their pizza ingredients to a contest, not every past winner believes that’s necessary. To avoid unpredictable water, Palombino pre-makes his dough and brings his own proteins. Where necessary, he sources fresh produce in the town where he’ll compete.

Save for making her own dough in a hotel room sink, Aufdencamp likes the challenge of making her dough onsite and wishes other competitors would, too. “To me, that levels the playing fi eld,” she says. “And since everyone would have to use the same water, it makes it more authentic to the place where the competition is held. I know not everyone would agree with that, though.”

Graziano Bertuzzo has no choice but to make everything from scratch when he travels from Italy to the U.S. to compete. As the owner of Ristoranti Brian in Revena, Italy, he must fl y 14 hours to Vegas and buy all his ingredients except for fl our. To him, adapting onsite is just part of the battle.

“Every competition is diffi cult,” he says in an e-mail. Challenges aside, he’s captured two Pizza Expo titles. “The only thing I do not fi nd diffi cult is my passion for pizza and knowing how to express my emotion through my presentation.”

Both Palombino and Aufdencamp insisted that knowing where to fi nd ingredients in the competition city is immensely helpful. Palombino admits
he’s made some anxious supply runs in Las Vegas without knowing where he’d fi nd a supermarket. Aufdencamp says she once began setting up her pizza at a contest and realized she didn’t bring some needed sausage. Luckily she found a generous tradeshow exhibitor who loaned her some.

Sean Brauser, owner and franchisor of Medina, Ohio-based Romeo’s Pizza, says he’s “a make-my-dough-ahead-oftime guy, because mine is best after a couple of days.” A multiple-trophy winner with a meat-laden creation dubbed Butcher’s Shop, Brauser says traveling with cold proteins is less problematic than shipping delicate produce. Yet, like Aufdencamp, he’s had to scramble for ingredients. “That can be a nightmare if you don’t know where to fi nd things.”

Doug Ferriman, co-owner of Crazy Dough’s Pizza in Boston, says selfconfi dence plays a large role in winning competitions. Pizza makers need to remember that they’re already competent at their trade, so making “just one in a contest can’t be that hard.” He says he also visualizes himself “holding that big, fat check at the end” to keep himself focused on the incentive.

Still, he insists confi dence mostly comes from practicing his pizza ahead of time, “so that when you get out there, you’re just going through the motions. That takes away a lot of stress.” Bertuzzo says it similarly.

“My winning formula is believing in yourself, believing in your product and all the ingredients you use to deliver an optimum product,” he says. “These competitions are not about luck.” But they’re not about trying too hard, either, says Brauser, who now organizes both Pizza Expo contests. “I tell people to relax and have fun,” he begins. “You’ve already got your stuff there, and you know your pizza is good, so go make it.

“I see so many guys get worked up and nervous, and invariably they don’t win, so they’re upset and mad.”

Yet Brauser warns competitors not to get so unwound that they lose focus on the task at hand. He’s watched competitors make pizzas too early and have their dough blow up before it’s baked, and others undone by unfamiliar ovens.

“The danger is they think it’s going to bake like their oven at home, and they don’t have to check it. But that’s never the case,” Brauser says. “When I’m in a contest, I watch mine the entire time, and I turn it more than I would at home because I’m looking for hotspots. I’m babysitting that pizza throughout the whole cooking process.”

Brauser recalled a time when a fellow competitor slid his pizza into the oven —and then walked away to talk to someone. When smoke started billowing from the oven, the contestant knew his day was over.

“The thing was practically on fi re when he realized what was happening,” he says. “But it’s funny now because that guy’s won contests. He’s fi gured out what it takes.” Ferriman advises competitors to remember they’re not in their own kitchen where speed racks are full of toppings and coolers are just a step away. Doing so will force them to consider what containers they’ll need, how to arrange them and how they’ll keep ingredients fresh while waiting their turn. “It’s really about reducing the variables of failure,” he says. “I’m not sure people really think of it that way. … In Las Vegas, especially, it can be warm, so you’ve got to keep your dough sealed properly, or keep your mushrooms from getting too moist. You don’t think of that back home, but you will at a contest.” 09.09.09

Competition Cheat Sheet

1. Choose early: At least a few months in advance, choose one pizza, test it thoroughly and practice making it.

2. Less is more: Where possible, use as few ingredients as possible.

3. Know the territory: If packing all your ingredients is impossible, plan ahead on where to shop. Ask fellow competitors for help.

4. Research past winners: That gives clues as to what judges in that region of the world may like.

5. Make it a learning experience: Taste competitors’ pizzas, especially the winner’s. A winner’s pie might be your menu’s next big hit.

6. Have fun and make friends: Networking with other competitors not only builds camaraderie, it builds a base of friendly consultants who, many competitors insist, help with advice when future challenges arise.