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February 10, 2023

A Different Level: Tony Talks About His New MasterClass

by Joe Bonadio

Okay, here’s a riddle: What does Tony Gemignani have in common with Steph Curry, Carlos Santana, Bill Clinton and Natalie Portman? Answer: they are all instructors  for MasterClass.

The unique streaming platform that offers classes from the biggest names in a broad range of fields, from food to entertainment, science, sports, business and more, MasterClass has become something of a phenomenon in recent years. And for good reason: whether you’re interested in singing lessons with Christina Aguilera or prefer to take tennis tips from Serena Williams, they’ve got something for everyone, with over 180 classes on offer.

The market has taken note, and since its launch in 2014, the San Francisco company has grown to a billion dollar enterprise. Hosting a MasterClass has become a mark of prestige, a recognition that you’ve reached the very pinnacle of your field.

When a production company of MasterClass reached out to Tony late last year, he was coming off a series of wins that landed him squarely in that category. No stranger to accolades, the 13-time World Pizza Champ really ran the table in 2022. After snaring the pizza maker of the year award from Italy’s respected 50 Top Pizza organization (which also chose Tony’s Pizza Napoletana as the #2 pizzeria in America), Tony pulled off what might be the biggest honor of his career: Pizzeria of The Year from Pizza Today Magazine.

Tony had dreamt of scoring that one from the very start of his career, and when I spoke  to him at the time, he called the award “bigger than James Beard.” The chef still had a few things in his bucket list, though–and believe it or not, MasterClass was one of them. I sat down with Tony last week to talk about his experience, and lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

The team that produced Tony's MasterClass

The team that produced Tony’s MasterClass was completely dedicated to getting the perfect take, every time. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

Joe Bonadio: I was taken by surprise when I heard about the release of your MasterClass. Congratulations on that!  

Tony Gemignani: Yeah, I was in a pretty big confidentiality agreement with them. I got a call when I was in Atlantic City at the pizza and pasta show there. They told me they were interested in getting me on MasterClass.

And I was like, wow. MasterClass, that’s a big platform. The people they work with….George Bush, Serena Williams, Seth Curry, Bill Clinton. Writers, speakers, FBI profilers, all kinds of different things. It’s kind of the elite from every field.

And they never had pizza. I always wanted to do it; there is actually a checklist I have, and MasterClass was one of the items. I told someone this just two months ago. They asked me, what are you looking to do in your career? And this was one of them.

This is their GOAT series, and that revolves around a shorter MasterClass–not a two or three-hour course, more of a twenty or thirty minute docuseries. Something that’s not quite so in-depth that audiences might not engage. They were looking to do something tighter. And they asked me if I was up for it–and I said Yeah. 

So I had to screen for it, and we had to create a sizzle reel for it. I brought them photos, and told them my story: basically they asked, what’s interesting about you? One of the producers told me afterward: We’re looking for a person, not a personality.  

I told him, I can teach you every style, I can do anything you want. But I’m not going to go up there and be a….buffoon. That’s just not how I am. I’m not going to be fake or cheesy. He told me that wasn’t what he wanted–they were looking for the real deal.

And there were a lot of great things that came after that. For instance, they had a budget, and said they might film in North Beach, and they might not. I told them you have to film in North Beach. You have to see the operations.

And they did. And it was great.

They told me, “Thank God we filmed in North Beach. We saw the restaurants, we drank the Kool-aid, we saw your customers.” We were slammed that day, and the pizzas came out great. It was just the best day, it was perfect.

Then we filmed for two days in LA. I was really sick with Covid right before. I had just recovered, and you can tell I’m a little hoarse.

JB: I picked that up.  

TG: Does it sound bad?

JB: No, it lends you some gravitas. 

TG: Yeah, right? Anyway, I was sick with a cold before we filmed the first part, then after that I got Covid, and we had to postpone for a couple of weeks. I had a pretty rough spell, and in the middle of it I had to film MasterClass. So was I on my A-game? I tried really hard to be, but it was tough.

The pizzas Tony created on the MasterClass set

The pizzas Tony created on the MasterClass set were picture-perfect. | Photo: Tony Gemignani

JB: It turned out great, though. 

TG: Thanks. You know, it’s not for the professional to watch. It’s for the average person that wants to learn how to make great pizza at home. That’s what it’s about. Me, I’m super technical. I could make it five hours long, but we didn’t want that.

JB: Well, look at all the teaching you’ve done. 

TG: Yeah, I teach a lot. But they wanted to simplify it. They wanted for the end user, the viewer, to learn to make the very best pizza you can make at home. They wanted it to be a base, plain cheese with maybe basil, very simple. As long as they can make a great basic pizza, people can always move forward from there with other toppings.

So they had the ingredients shipped for me, and there were dozens of people working on the set. The main three guys I worked with were Ralphie, Ronnie and Matt. They were all amazing people, though. They got into the work—they got into you. Really pulled the story out of you. I’ve done a lot of filming, and I’ve done some how-to videos in the past, and it means so much for a production team to be so complimentary, so accessible. To be able to make what you told them from the recipe, just the right way.

Ralphie is the culinary director, and he was like: “Okay, I made your dough. This is 72 hour ferment, this is 48 hours. I’ve got eight batches and 17 dough balls  here…” (Laughter) 

He was good. I did bring dough from Pizza Rock, but I needed the help. Because I got sick, then I had to do the Vegas Pizza Festival. Then fly to LA for another festival, something that I couldn’t miss.

So I was still a little sick, and when you shoot, you shoot for hours and hours. Twelve hours maybe? You do a lot of takes, and you go through dough after dough after dough.

Tony and longtime Tony's bartender Robvell Smith

Tony and longtime Tony’s bartender Robvell Smith at the head of the table at the recent Salesian Boys & Girls Club crab feed in North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Grande Cheese came in for me, and I brought in Stanislaus tomatoes. A lot of things didn’t make it through the editing process: Grande Cheese sent cheese to me overnight, but some of the ingredients I use didn’t get mentioned. Of course we talk about quality ingredients, and I did talk about all those companies, but a lot of things just don’t make the final cut.

That team made it as easy for me as they could. I was tired, and I kept clearing my throat between takes. Ahem. ‘I’m Tony Gemignani’. Ahem. It was just all day long, and These people all had earphones on, so I kept saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

JB: So what kind of feedback have you gotten so far? 

TG: I’ve had a lot of people come up to me, and say “Hey, MasterClass!” I’ve gotten emails from all over the world, I just got one from Brazil. It’s pretty inspirational.

JB: It’s a whole new audience. 

TG: Yeah, worldwide. And everybody wants more. Everyone’s asking, is there going to be a part two, part three?

You know, I’m pretty hard on myself. So making it right for these guys was important for me. These are Emmy Award winning-type people, and when they needed a certain take,  they were going to get that take. They were very generous, really easy to work with— but they wanted it to be as good as I wanted it to be. And that’s hard.

JB: What would you say was the one thing about this that made it different from things  you’ve done before?  

TG: Telling the story. People know me, maybe they know the stories—but they haven’t heard me tell the story. Some of the moments that they captured, and the way they worked those moments into the timeline. It wasn’t crazy in-depth, but they got into it.

I watched it with my wife in Maui, while we were on vacation. And we actually teared up a little bit. It was nice.