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February 13, 2019

San Francisco’s Other Pizza Champion: Laura Meyer

by Joe Bonadio

It has been just over a decade since pizza impresario Tony Gemignani opened his eponymous flagship,Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, in the center of San Francisco’s North Beach. Of course an awful lot changes in ten years, and with 22 concepts around the country, Tony’s pizza empire has expanded quickly. It requires a superstar staff to make that happen, and this week we’ll be taking a look at one of Tony’s most potent secret weapons: Laura Meyer.

Laura was just a high school kid when Tony met her, having just been hired at Pyzano’s in Castro Valley, her first job. The two took a shine to one another, and when he opened his own place in San Francisco, Tony eventually took her along as his kitchen manager.

Since then, Laura’s path has been charmed, and her ascent a steep one. She served as Head Chef/Pizzaiolo at Tony’s Pizza until 2017, and as Regional Chef for Tony’s Pizza Rock restaurant group, today Laura is responsible for managing ten restaurants around the country. And just in case you’re still not impressed, Laura Meyer has become a food celebrity in her own right, winning two back-to-back World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy and Las Vegas in 2013 and 2014. By the way, Laura just recently turned thirty years of age.

I recently sat down for a chat with the enterprising young chef; the first part of that interview is below.

So tell me about meeting Tony for the first time.

Laura Meyer: I first met Tony in 2006. It was my senior year, so I was seventeen, I guess. It was my first job, so I didn’t really know what I was doing, but they trained me to be a pizzamaker.

They hired me right away. In the interview, they asked me two questions. First, What is your favorite color? And then, Do you have a car to get here? And that was it: ‘OK, see you tomorrow.’

And what is your favorite color?

I like royal colors. I like blue specifically, but I like royal colors–so I like ruby, emerald, very deep, rich colors.

Really, I think they were just looking for people, and I was going to get hired no matter what I said. My first day was Kids Eat Free day, so it was mayhem. It was crazy, but it was fun.

They made you a manager pretty quickly.

Yes. I think they saw some talent, something beyond just a general worker; they didn’t really even know how old I was at the time. They made me a manager, and it was about a year later when Tony won in Naples in 2007. That’s when he brought the big oven into the parking lot, and that was my first taste of something beyond just….cooking.

And you studied Italian in high school also?

Yes, and I kept it going in college. I ended up studying abroad in college, and that’s kind of
where my bond with Tony really started. Because it wasn’t just that I liked to make pizza, but I
had a connection with the culture–the people, the language.

I remember Tony went on a trip, and someone gave him this book. And it was in Italian, so he couldn’t read it. He brought it into the restaurant one time, and that’s kind of where our relationship started, at least beyond just the kitchen.

When I was studying abroad, I saw a pizza competition for the very first time. The Parma competition used to be held in Salsomaggiore, and I traveled to meet Tony there. Saw the competition, saw what was going on. He left afterward, and I stayed in Italy for the next year.

When I came home, of course I needed a job again, and Pyzano’s took me back right away. At that point I was just finishing my college career, and trying to get out of my hometown. Just looking for a good reason to go, really.

And that’s when Tony asked you to come to San Francisco.

Once I graduated, he offered me the job right away. At first I was working just one day a week, just to kind of get my feet wet.

And you were probably loving it.

Oh yeah, I was loving every minute of it. But at the same time, I think Tony had a bigger idea of what I had been doing at Pyzano’s… (laughs)

And you started in what position there?

Kitchen Manager! He just threw me into the role. Granted, Tony’s wasn’t what Tony’s is today. The menu wasn’t nearly as large. It’s been over the course of the years I’ve been here that it’s grown to what it is today.

Also, at Pyzano’s we didn’t push out pizzas by hand in the beginning. It wasn’t until toward the end of my time there that we started doing it all by hand. We used to do everything with rolling pins–so my technical skills were limited.

And this was a different environment.

Yes. But I felt like, Why the hell not? So I jumped in. I was 22 at the time, and I was managing fifteen men, most of them over 30. It was intimidating walking into a kitchen of seasoned veterans. I felt like I was way out of my league.

But I treaded water, and learned my bearings and how to get things done. I learned not just from Tony at that point, but more from the guys around me, a lot of whom still work here today.

My parents had taught me knife skills, so I knew how to not chop my fingers off. And that’s a plus! But I didn’t go to cooking school, so I learned a lot of skills from the people around me. I spent a lot of time working directly with Tony, but in that first year he was also opening Pizza Rock in Sacramento, traveling, learning.

He was on the move.

Very much on the move. And I spent that year pretty much living here (gestures to indicate the restaurant around her), just trying to hold my own and absorb whatever I could. Most of the day crew here is the same from Day 1. They’ve all earned their stripes, they know what they’re doing, and every nook and cranny in this place.

So I learned a lot from them, and I grew–and slowly but surely, Tony drew me into the class that he was teaching here. This was 2012, and it wasn’t long before I took over the school (Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza) when Nancy, Tony’s partner, moved to New York. So now in addition to the Kitchen Manager job, I was handling admin for the school, as well as teaching alongside Tony.

“I see kids I grew up with, and they always make comments like ‘Oh, you’re still making pizza?’ Yeah, but it’s so much more than that.” -Laura Meyer

That was the same year I had my introduction to Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. That trip gave me my first taste of competing, and in 2013 I started competing myself.

Being at Pizza Expo that first year was my first introduction to what Tony really is. I mean that he’s not just a pizzamaker–although he is the King! It was my first time seeing the speaker that he is, the acrobat that he is, all of it.

Ever since then, for a lot of the big things Tony has done, I’ve traveled with him. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and the personal side of our relationship has grown.

And then of course, Tony’s has kind of grown along with it. Pretty much every time Tony says I have an idea, I know it’s not just any small idea! So, we grew from five or six regional styles to thirteen in the span of five years. Tony’s has become an empire, and a lot of it happened in the first five years I spent here.

…And somehow, that’s just the beginning of the story. Since joining forces with Tony, Laura Meyer has earned two World Pizza championships and collaborated on a cookbook, and today she oversees the Pizza Rock group–managing ten of Tony’s twenty-two restaurants. And she’s just getting warmed up.

Meanwhile, we’ve got more of Laura’s remarkable story coming up on the blog. So make sure to bookmark us, and we’ll see you here soon.