Editor's note: In the seven years I've covered the pizza business, I've judged a fair share of pizza contests. I've also learned a great deal about making pizza and have received some good comments from pizza pros about my pies. So in the interest of learning more about what it's like to actually compete, I asked the organizers of the Pizza Pizzazz competition, held annually at the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show, if I could enter a dummy pizza and receive judges' comments on my work. Since I'm not an operator, I could not officially compete, so at no time were any competitors' chances of winning threatened (as if the threat were real to begin with). What follows is both a tale of my travails and my observations of the contest from the inside.
COLUMBUS, Ohio—Friday, Feb. 17. I've heard pizza operators tell horror stories about dragging pizza ingredients from their shops to pizza contests at far-flung destinations, and now I'm living their tales firsthand. I've just completed a four-hour drive from Louisville, Ky., to Columbus with a cooler full of pizza toppings and three frozen balls of my homemade dough. The refrigerated truck in which I'd hoped to store the stuff wasn't yet available, and I'm faced with keeping my product cool overnight. My "blue ice" bricks are maintaining temperature pretty well, but I'm not confident they'll hold up until the next day. Four trips to the hotel ice machine later, everything's covered, but I'm sweating the notion of the weight of all that ice on the dough.
The solution, I surmise, is to not worry about it, go to that evening's cocktail party with show organizers and put it out of my mind.
Fat chance. The party's fun alright, but I can't help wondering about my supplies. Will the dough be blown by morning? Is my cheese some HACCP nightmare waiting to happen?
Again, I've heard such stories before, but living it opens my eyes.
Knowing I've got to test my dough in a professional oven the next day, I allow one ball to thaw and slack out in the refrigerator of the president's suite where the party is held. And every time someone opens the fridge to get a beer—and that's a lot—I imagine the temperature rising and my dough blowing.
Saturday, Feb. 19: My frozen dough not only survives the night, but the ball I let proof in the fridge looks a bit bubbly.
I get to the convention center and find scads of icy cool refrigeration, plus a nickel-plated deck oven screaming hot and ready to test. Once cut out of the bag and formed, the proofed dough actually looks pretty good. In the test bake, my pizza is transformed into a beautiful golden brown bubbling mass. As a former professional chef, I'm reminded how much fun commercial equipment can be, and I dread using a home oven again.
Confident that tomorrow will go well, I clean up my area and go to my hotel room.
Sunday, Feb. 20: I arrive at the convention center at 8:30 a.m., ready to get started, but the oven I used the day before isn't on yet. The chef-rep there tells me not to worry, that it'll heat up in no time.
I put out my dough to let it relax and then make a key error: I begin talking to others. As I'm stretching my dough, an attendee from the Pizza Operators Workshop the day before greets me and starts a chat. I'm enjoying the conversation, thinking it's soothing my jitters. But then I notice I've made a big mistake in assembling my first pie. After brushing the crust with chopped garlic and olive oil, I'm supposed to follow with apricot preserves, mozzarella, smoked chicken, smoked Gouda, gorgonzola and caramelized onions. Instead, in the course of conversation, I skip straight to the mozzarella without putting on the preserves.
With no chance to undo the mistake, I pull out my spare dough ball and begin anew. Realizing I'm no longer interested in talking, the man says he'll let me concentrate on what I'm doing and moves along. The silence is a blessing and I complete the assembly.
My pizza is due at 9:45, so I slide it in at 9:35, forgetting that the 510 F oven will take about half as long to cook the pie as it does at home.
Big mistake. Huge!
Four minutes later, and much to my chagrin, the pizza is perfectly baked and ready to go—nearly 5 minutes ahead of schedule. My first hard lesson about pizza contests is about to be learned: Delivering your pizza anytime before or after it's expected is not good.
Nevertheless, I bring my pizza to the judges' area—and there's a stop for a photo, something I didn't expect. As the photographers position it for the shot, I know the pizza's cooling off quickly. Another
A judge at the 2006 Pizza Pizzazz accepts a slice from a runner.
I've also been asked to judge the contest, so I blend in by taking a seat at a table that won't receive my pizza. (Due to the large number of entries in the contest, not every judge tastes every pizza.) As my pizza arrives, I turn away, hoping not to look too interested. But as the judges begin tasting it, I approach the table and explain my role as a reporter writing about the contest.
The judges' comments are minimal, which I take as a bad sign, but I comfort myself with the assumption they're not comfortable commenting out loud because this is the first pizza of the day.
Finally, one judge speaks up: "Were it not for the chicken, this could be a dessert pizza. The apricots are really sweet, but I can't decide if I like that."
"I'm really more of a traditional pizza person, and this is pretty different," says another, as she takes another bite.
The other three judges munch in silence, and I resist peeking at their scores.
One judge who apparently likes the pie, holds out a piece to me and says, "Here, you ought to try it. See what you think."
I take a bite and immediately notice the crust softened significantly as it cooled.
Hoping to avoid hearing any further negative comments, I slink back to my table to begin judging and await my marks, which will be published later. I comfort myself with the fact that I'm not a pro and that I shouldn't expect to perform to pizzaioli standards. Still, I'm bummed a bit that I made some critical errors.
But alas, life goes on, and my fellow judges turn out to be an amiable lot from a few different non-pizza-industry lines of work. To agree to do this early on a bitterly cold Sunday morning—and be happy about it—takes a hardy heart and a willing gut, but all are eager for the challenge. Eyeing a pizza headed toward our table, one judge peers over the head of another and says, "That pizza has a (ton) of cheese on it, so it gets bonus points already. I think I'm going to like this work."
As we munch on and mull over the pizza, I read over the scoring instructions: 0-3 if the pie isn't appealing; 3-5 if it's nothing special; 5-8 if some qualities stand out; and 8-10 if it's a wow. Where this contest's scoring becomes unique is in the weight given several characteristics of each pizza, i.e. crust, appearance, toppings, etc. Just how those priorities are scored, said contest co-organizer Craig Peterson, will remain confidential.
"We've worked really hard over a lot of time to make this is a unique contest, to make it something we believe is fair and equitable to every contestant," Peterson says. Adding with a grin, he says, "But there's been a lot of interest from outsiders recently wanting to know how we do it, so we're keeping that to ourselves."
The parade of pizzas continues to our table and others. A moan of envy comes from a judge next to me as a particularly attractive pie goes to another table. Soon enough, however, what appears to be a good one comes our way.
"My experience is there's always one in the bunch that knocks your socks off, and there are also are some that are completely awful," says a veteran Pizza Pizzazz judge, while serving slices around the table. "When you find that good one, it makes tasting the others worth it."
His furrowed brow, however, tells me his socks are still on his feet. "I don't like the crust much, and that's important to me. The edges are fine, but it should be firmer in the middle. I do really like the toppings, though."
Runners take the pizzas from contestants and present them to the judges along with a description provided by the pizza maker. When the runner at our table says the pizza before us includes more than 30 ingredients, one judge immediately looks doubtful. She takes a bite and she grins—but not appreciatively.
"This one reminds me of when I'm cooking at home, and I don't have the right ingredients to put together something that's really good," she says, laughing at herself. "It tastes like a lot of things were just thrown together. It's too much."
"It does look festive," said another judge, admiring the pineapple pyramid at the pizza's center. "But it's just not delivering the kick I'm looking for."
A barbeque chicken pizza comes to the table and one judge leans in for a luxurious whiff. "I'm already loving this one. Let's cut it."
The lingering aroma is a good sign; every component of the pizza is perfectly balanced, the chicken toppings are perfectly cooked and the crust is a uniform crunchy golden-brown. The pie earns the highest praise thus far.
"I'm not a big fan of barbecue sauce on pizza, but that's really well done," says one judge. "I can't find anything wrong with it. It works nicely."
Peter Stern, who oversees all the activity in the exhibit hall, walks through the area to check on the judging. The smiling Stern shouts, "Hey, judges, what do you think about judging ice cream and pizza on the same day?" With stomachs filling, several men groan collectively. Yet the women appear to like the idea and Stern takes note and adds, "Why is it that the women always say yes to ice cream, but the guys roll their eyes?"
One female judge responds, "Next year we'll do pizza one day, ice cream the next and NutriSystem the next," gets a laugh from the group.
As the laughter dies, a pizza topped with steak, coleslaw and french fries comes to the table and elicits astonished looks. One judge says, "What the hell is that? Cole slaw? That's insane."
And then she tastes it. And likes it. Within 60 seconds she's pitching the pizza to other judges, telling them they're missing out if they don't try it.
"I know it looks weird, but it's great," she tells them. "It's got a nice little kick to it."
A judge next
A judge listens as a runner explains the ingredients on one of the five finalist's pizzas.
"There are so many elements here that everything has to be done correctly," he says. "Like the fries, they have to be right on. If there's one element that doesn't work, it will probably mess the whole thing up. And when you're busy, it's probably hard not to mess up at least one thing."
Two hours have passed and the preliminary round is finished. With the show underway and several other duties to attend to, I excuse myself from judging the five finalists. But as I turn to leave, a contest volunteer approaches to tell me he loved my pizza. I thank him but say I was disappointed in it, "the crust was soft and that the toppings were cold... ," but he's not listening.
"Man, that was good," he says. "I really liked the apricots and the gorgonzola. What a cool combination."
Not feeling like a total flop, I thank him and walk away.
A day later, Tod Priest, who organizes Pizza Pizzazz with Peterson, approaches me and asks if my pizza was the one with apricots. I tell him it was, and he tells me how he took the remainder of the pie home and ate it with his family—cold, straight out of the box.
"You didn't reheat it? Even in the toaster oven?"
"No, we just dove in. We were hungry."
"But wasn't the crust kind of soggy?"
"Didn't bother me. I was interested in the other stuff."
I tell him I can give him the recipe if he's interested, and he cuts me off.
"No, no, don't tell me, I want to see if I can rip it off for myself," he says, smiling.
I tell him to go for it, that I can't take the credit for the pizza since a chef friend of mine made a similar version for me years ago. I just adapted his idea to my crust.
Priest asks where I finished, and I pull the score sheets from my pocket. I admit I wasn't all that eager to look.
"Fifteenth out of 38," he says.
"Really?" I say, and he counts again.
"Yeah, 15th place. You did pretty good for your first time."