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SEVEN OVENS BLOG
April 18, 2022

Team Effort: Behind The Wins At This Year’s Pizza Expo

by Joe Bonadio

Last week, the 38th Annual Pizza Expo was held in Las Vegas, the city that has hosted the enormous trade show since its inception in 1985. Like so many other things, Pizza Expo was derailed by Covid in 2020, managing to make a limited comeback in August of last year. It’s the largest show of its kind, and happily this year was a return to form: with over 500 exhibitors and more than 1,100 booths, Pizza Expo was once again the sprawling event crowds have come to expect.

It was also a defining moment for a handful of our favorite chefs, who have apparently spent the last two years upping their game. In his very first competition, longtime Tony’s pizzaiolo Oscar Venegas managed to snare third place in the traditional category—not to mention Best of the Southwest. Adam Sachs, Tony’s partner at Toscano Brothers Bakery and loyal wingman at Expo for years now, also placed third in the pan pizza division. Although Adam competed in Parma, Italy in 2019, this was also his first time competing in Vegas.

Perhaps most impressive of all were Javier and Alma of Slice House Walnut Creek, whose graceful efforts swept them into first place in Expo’s exacting Tandem Team competition.

This undeniably strong showing by his compatriots was a proud moment for Tony. He knows what it takes to win against such a strong field of competitors, having taken home many a trophy from Pizza Expo in his years on the circuit. I spoke with Tony just before he flew to Parma, Italy to compete alongside Capo’s Chef Laura Meyer, his partner for countless competitions both here and abroad.

Alma And Javier

In a seamless performance, Alma and Javier from Slice House Walnut Creek won top honors in the Tandem Team Competition at Pizza Expo.

Joe Bonadio: So, how was Pizza Expo?

Tony Gemignani: It was big, it was really big. There were a lot of people, and it was like it used to be. And this year I had some new people from the team compete, people who’ve never competed in Las Vegas before. Oscar, who had never competed before at all, and Adam, this was his second competition. Javier and Alma, from Slice House Walnut Creek, and Tony and Marcos from Pizza Rock were first-time competitors too.

Adam was in Pan Division, and Oscar was in Traditional. For weeks we’ve been working on their pizzas, primarily on Saturdays. We’d be at the bakery on Saturday mornings, and then come over here. Their pizzas got better and better and better as we worked.

We even worked the Saturday prior to flying out to Expo. I said: Let’s do it one more time. There are certain things you need to do to make the pizza….perfect. There are things that I would tell them, from finishing ingredients to how to stage the pizza. What to do before you cut it, then afterward, what do you place it on?

During the time between the pizza coming out of the oven and when it gets to the judges, you don’t want the pizza to get soft, or for it to get cold. You want it to be crispy. So there are a lot of things they didn’t know.

Their pizzas really improved, too. There are these marinated peppers that both Adam and Oscar used that are great. I’m not going to say what they are, but I bring them in.

JB: [Laughter]

TG: For Traditional, you’re only allowed to use two ingredients, and this one ingredient is great. So I think they scored really well on that, and they did well on bake, on everything. They listen.

So Oscar placed third, and got best Traditional Pizza, Southwest region. He competed against 80 people, and ended up third. There were a lot of people competing.

JB: His first time. That’s pretty great.

TG: Yeah, he did really well. Then Adam, same thing. We increased his dough weight….

JB: He mentioned that his first dough was too unpredictable.

TG: Oh yeah. It was just not right. Even the way he baked it, and what he did with it after the par-bake. How long he let it sit, rather than take it out of the pan….all sorts of things. Stuff I don’t like to talk too much about.

JB: Trade secrets.

TG: And then Alma and Javi from Slice House Walnut Creek: they were in the Tandem Competition, where you had to make three pizzas, with two pizza makers. There’s an American and an Italian Division, so they did the American Division. They did cheese, pepperoni and a three-topping pizza. You had to make them, bake them, take them out, then cut, finish and pan two of them; and then put one in a box.

Then you present them to the judges. There are three judges, and they’ll check how big the pizzas are: you’ve got to make a 14-inch pizza, minimum. The judges observe how well they work together, and then judge on taste and bake. It’s a new competition in Vegas looking at how well the chefs work together, how clean they are in working the oven. I wrote the rules with John Arena and Michael LaMarca.

Adam at Expo

The versatile Adam Sachs took third place in the Pan Pizza Division in his first contest at Pizza Expo.

JB: It really puts you under the microscope.

TG: A little bit. It’s how well you work together. How clean you are, did you sweep, did you wipe off the table. You’ve got 20 minutes to do it, there’s a time limit. So it’s not entirely about how good it tastes—that’s just part of it.

They did great, and I signed them up for that. I signed two teams up: the Pizza Rock team, Anthony and Marcos, and Alma and Javi from Slice House. I told them they’d do extremely well, because they work together. When you work together every day, you know. So they won.

JB: How about the guys at Pizza Rock?

TG: They didn’t win. But competition was stiff, and all but two of our teams did well. There were ten total teams, eight of them did very well.

So I was proud of those guys. They did great, they listened. They did extremely well, their pizzas rocked. They were super close to winning first—like a point away. The little things really make you win.

But not everybody won. Javi cooked, Alma cooked. They all did well. Anthony cooked. Anthony had an amazing pizza with duck as the main topping, but he was in Nontraditional, and Nontraditional is the hardest to judge. Anthony from Pizza Rock, he’s my chef.

JB: What did he do?

TG: A pomegranate reduction with chicharrones—I don’t know exactly what he made, but it was really great.

But the pizzas that come to you….you’ll have crab, and lobster, and truffles…it’s so much.

JB: It’s got to be hard to judge.

TG: Yeah! There are so many different flavors.

JB: How do you even compare one to another?

TG: Yeah, it’s a lot.

JB: So you’ve got another competition coming up, too.

TG: Yes. Laura and I are doing a Due competition in Parma. Chef and pizzaiolo. We’re working on that. We’re not really advertising what we’re making, because people watch what we make.

——

I spoke with Oscar Venegas just as he was returning from Vegas, his first competition— and his first win.

Joe Bonadio: So it was nine months ago that we talked. And when I asked you about competing at the end of that interview, you told me you were getting ready to compete––that you were going to decide what to make, and “go to work.” Now you’ve placed third, and you’re winner of Best of the Southwest. Sort of unreal.

Oscar Venegas: Yeah! Honestly, I didn’t even know I won, or placed at all. During the competition, I was really nervous. As I was going into it, I was thinking to myself this is my first time. As long as I’m in the top fifty, I’m solid, I’m good.

So right after I competed, I walked straight to the strip. I walked around, and didn’t even think about results or any of that.

That’s when I got a call from Tony: Hey, congratulations! I was like, what? And he said, Do you not know? You placed!

I was like, no way!

JB: So to say it was a surprise…

OV: It was a shock, to be honest. I didn’t believe him. I wanted to see the paperwork, I needed to see my name in the results to actually believe it.

So when they actually showed me the results, I was so surprised to know that I was right below two big names, and that I was third. I didn’t think I was going to do that great at all. Considering how the actual competition went: it was super nerve-wracking sitting in the back just waiting to go. That’s always the most terrifying moment.

But once we started cooking, I was in the zone. That’s when I knew I was on my level. But everything that happened is thanks to Tony. I’ve heard him called the Maker of Champions before, and just working beneath him and seeing everything he does has made me super confident in the cooking field. As soon as I got that dough in my face, I said: I’ve done this a million times. This is nothing different.

He’s given me so many tips, and while I was cooking I could see the other competitors making small mistakes. I had three guys start right after me—and finish before me. And I was still in the ovens. Looking around I was thinking, some of this stuff is cooking too fast.

Oscar And Tony

In his very first competition, Oscar Venegas won third place and Best of the Southwest in Pizza Expo’s Traditional Competition.

JB: You were noting the errors.

OV: I was noting all the errors, nonstop. They didn’t check the ovens, they didn’t check the temperature. After seeing that I was finally able to relax.

JB: Describe your pie to me.

OV: I competed in traditional style, which means everything that goes on the pie needs to be on top of the pie before it goes into the oven. You can’t finish it, nothing goes on top of it after it comes out. Which makes it a little more difficult, because a lot of the ingredients taste way better put on afterwards than when they go into the oven.

So my pie consisted of sauce, cheese, Calabrese honey sausage, sweet peppers. Then I added ricotta, and I had golden peppadew and Calabrese pepper puree on top.

I wanted more peppers, I wanted more flavors to stick out. But I also didn’t want to have so much of a variety of bell peppers. So that pie changed dramatically from the start, and all the way to the very end. Originally it was honey sausage, but once I got to competition, I decided to make it hotter, so I used Calabrese sausage instead.

Then I wanted texture, so I took the golden peppadews I had used for the puree—I had extra—and I quartered them and put them on top. I guess it was the right move.

JB: I guess so! So what’s next for you, Oscar?

OV: After this, I just want to keep competing. Knowing what to expect next time, I’m going to go into it with all this new information. What I really want to do is to compete in all the categories—and hopefully come in first in every category.

Eventually, I want to be competing in Italy. I always hear stories about it from Tony and Laura, that’s it’s a much harder competition. At Expo they want you to do well, so you get a lot of extra help. But in Italy all of that goes away. You either know what you’re doing or you don’t. But it’s a dream of mine now, and that’s my main goal.

——

Next I spoke with Adam Sachs, who also placed third at Expo, in the Pan Pizza Division.

Joe Bonadio: Adam, I’m pleased to say congratulations on the win. So what was it like to win at Expo?

Adam Sachs: I’m kind of stunned. My objective was to was just to bake the pizza I was trying to bake. Then of course, you hope the judges like it. And I wanted to place in the top third, and at least get a respectable finish. Everyone else there is really talented.

JB: So you surprised yourself. What do you think accounts for your success?

AS: Enough people make pizza of a high quality. It happened that I did some things around the margins that ultimately made the difference. And Tony’s advice on the fine points changed how I was thinking about the pizza.

For example, when you’re decorating your pizza, where do you place the ingredients? There’s a visual element, because you want it to look good.

JB: You eat with your eyes first.

AS: Right. But you also want the judges to taste it. The judges are only going to take one or two bites, and that’s it. I wanted those bites to be the best they could be, so the judges didn’t miss anything important.

JB: It appears to have worked. I understand you got pretty emotional when you found out you won.

AS: Yeah. I was in disbelief, and just overwhelmed. And I was with the team, people who understand what this meant. So I just sat there, quietly trying to take it in and enjoy the moment.

JB: Well, you certainly worked for it. You’ve worked pretty closely with Oscar, too. What did you think of his performance?

AS: Oscar’s pizza was spectacular. I had tasted it beforehand, and it was just great. He’s so talented—I want to be Oscar when I grow up.

And the Traditional and Nontraditional divisions are judged blind, so Oscar couldn’t describe the pizza to the judges. The pizza had to speak for itself. For him to do so well the first time competing is amazing.

 
The Seven Ovens blog brings the stories behind Tony Gemignani’s San Francisco pizza school and remarkable group of restaurants to a wider audience. Make sure to bookmark us, and we’ll see you here soon.