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April 3, 2019

Work With What You’ve Got: Laura Meyer Wins Her First Championship

by Joe Bonadio

Recently, I had the chance to sit down for a chat with our very own Laura Meyer. His very first hire, the two-time world pizza champion has long served as a clutch player on Tony Gemignani’s team. And today, at just thirty years of age, she manages a dozen of his Pizza Rock and Slice House locations around the country.

With that kind of experience under her belt, naturally the lady has a lot to say. You can find the first part of our conversation here; our interview continues below.

So, you are a world pizza champion.

Laura Meyer: Yes! (laughs)

How did that come about? Can you tell me the story?

Well, my first win was in Parma Italy, in 2013. I had just gotten into the competition world, and my first competition was in Las Vegas, and I did OK. That same year, the Italy competition was coming up, and Tony asked If I wanted to go.

And I said “Of course! Why wouldn’t I want to go to Italy for ten days?” But I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

Why’s that?

Laura Pizza Champion

Laura Meyer accepts the award for her first World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy. Fittingly, Laura is standing atop a pizza oven.

The Italy competition is nothing like Vegas, or the other U.S. competitions–nothing. They are probably five times the size, and nobody speaks English. It’s very intimidating, you have no idea what you’re doing, or where you’re going.

You just know that you’re supposed to make a pizza at some point in time. (laughs)

It was a big learning lesson for me, as well as for Tony. Of course, Tony is everyone’s mentor and teacher, but with my relationship to him, it’s a little bit different. He had to have a little bit of distance from me.

So he helped me prepare, but kind of let me do it on my own.

They have their eye out for any coaching, then.

Well when Tony is walking around, everyone is kind of staring, and they’re wondering. And in this competition, they don’t want to see other people talking to you or instructing you. So you have to pretty much do it on your own.

So before I even left, Tony had told me to bring the stuff to make your dough; bring your pan; and then bring the tomatoes. So I brought a whole No. 10 can of tomatoes (Editor’s note: a #10 can of tomatoes weighs about 6.5 pounds). So my luggage was way overweight! I had a steel pan, a huge can of tomatoes and ten pounds of flour in my bag.

So I show up, and there’s two people there: Tony and Jeff Smokevitch from Telluride. And they’re looking at me like I’m crazy. That’s all you brought? You don’t have anything else?

So, I had no clue what I was doing. I had no cheese.

Tony didn’t tell you to bring cheese?

Not that I remember. Of course, the way Tony remembers it is, “I told her to bring cheese.” The way I remember it is “No, you didn’t!” (laughs)

So, you’ve got no cheese.

I’ve got no cheese. I didn’t really put two and two together. It was as if you were to come to the U.S., and say alright, make me an amazing pizza–but all you have to work with is Safeway. The ingredients are okay, and some of them are better than others, but it’s not the same quality as what you can get in a restaurant.

What do you mean exactly?

Cheese, and certain tomato products….a good quality pepperoni? Most pepperonis that are carried in grocery stores are not the same quality and consistency as what restaurants get.

But in this case, you’re in Italy.

Yes, but it’s the same general idea. They still have good products in their stores, but the restaurants get their stuff directly from certain producers, certain farms, dairies. Especially the further south you go: like in Naples, their bufala mozzarella comes straight from a dairy. So the quality is so much higher than what you can get in a grocery store, where it has probably been sitting there.

And how much time did you have once you showed up?

Not much! I had to make my dough in the hotel room. I didn’t have any equipment. I didn’t realize: How am I going to make my dough without a container? I had to make a starter, which I knew, and I had this little aluminum, tupperware-ish container. So I put it out in the sun–and it blew up. Got all over the curtains, all over the carpet, everywhere.

Of course, I got a screaming phone call from the hotel cleaning crew, because they couldn’t get the stuff out of the carpet. All I could do was say I’m sorry. What else do you want me to say, I won’t do it again? (laughs)

But that was a Sunday night, and everything closes early. And I had competition the next day I think, so I had to make my dough on Sunday. It’s got to be made ahead of time, so it can sit and refrigerate. I was lucky enough to have schmoozed the kitchen, so I could put my dough in their refrigerator with my ingredients.

At the hotel where you had just ruined their carpet.

Pretty much.

But in order to make my dough, I still needed a container. So Tony and Jeff were helping me….and all I had was the trashcan in my hotel room. Which had probably never been cleaned in its lifetime. So Tony and I decided that we had no choice. We used the trashcan. (laughter)

I have pictures of Tony bent over in my shower scrubbing this thing. And he looked at me after he had scrubbed it for a good ten minutes…and said, No. We gotta keep scrubbing.

Unbelievable.

Now, it’s funny. But the year I did it, it was like “Don’t tell anybody!”

La Regina

La Regina, the pizza that gave Laura Meyer her first world pizza championship in Parma, Italy. | Photo: Sarah Inloes

But lo and behold, it was the award-winning pizza the next day. You work with what you’ve got.

I love it.

So, my buddy that was with us, he had some extra cheese, which he gave me. And I knew I had to make a pizza, but I still didn’t know what I was making. I literally showed up at a grocery store and was like “what can I make with whatever is here?” For some reason I showed up without an idea, without a concept. So I just did a play on a traditional pizza. I thought, we’re in Parma, so we should probably use ingredients from here, which is a lot.

So I mixed a lot of cheeses together, hoping it would distract from the fact that the mozzarella wasn’t the greatest. It was a mix of mozzarella, piave, parmigiano and provola.

Provola?

It’s a sister of provolone. It’s a smaller, bulbous version you don’t really see here. It also had soppressata and prosciutto on it, and arugula. And tomato sauce, from the tomatoes I brought!

Very simplistic, just done right. It turned out great.

So what was the actual event like?

At these award competitions, you sit there for about three hours. Waiting and hoping for them to call your name. Each team has its own table. And they’re playing the same song, over and over….and over.

They’re speaking only in Italian, but everyone at my table doesn’t speak Italian. So they’re just staring off into space, wondering what’s happening.

And there are little things that kind of tell you if you did well. Other smaller awards that are given. There’s an award for the best from each country, and I won that award. And there was an award for the best use of parmigiano, because it’s Parma. And I had placed in that one as well.

So these were indicators that I had at least done well. Maybe not won anything necessarily, but at least placed high.

Reason for hope.

Yeah! And I’m thinking, this is my first time here. And most of the competitors in Italy have been baking pizza all their lives, they might be in their forties or fifties. They come to this competition, they bring a mountain of stuff with them to make one pizza. And some of them never win.

And how many competitors were there in your category?

Over fifty people.

And it’s a blind tasting?

Yes. It’s usually spread over the course of three days. You show up, you make your pizza, and then you take your pizza into the tasting judges. The judges have no idea what’s coming at them.

You see some weird things. People come from over twenty-five different countries. I remember one year, this Scottish guy put haggis* on his pizza.

That’s disgusting.

Right? I mean, you’re Scottish, I get it. But why? Why are you going to force this on me?

So you obviously didn’t go too crazy with your pizza.

Well, Tony had told me: remember where you are. You have to play to your audience a little bit at this type of competition. Not all of my judges were Italian–only two out of the four were Italian. I think one was Japanese, and one was Chinese.

Not what you were expecting.

No, not what you’re expecting in an Italian competition. But you still have to remember what’s around you.

You have to be careful with your flavors. If you’re going to go outside the box, you have to make sure that’s it’s done really, really well, so that’s it’s understood by everyone, and hopefully translates to all cultures.

I think it’s remarkable that you won with a pie that you had never made before.

I know a lot of people will make the same pizza over and over again, tweaking it in the hopes that they will get that perfect pie.

For me, I tend to do pies that I’ve never made before. It’s more about pushing it, and getting out of my comfort zone. Trying to do something that I wouldn’t do in a restaurant, because that’s my chance to do it. For instance, the pizza that I won with in Vegas was a lamb and rosemary pizza.

So tell me about the moment you realized you had won.

Well, they finally called my name. But before they did, they said “and the winner is” in Italian. But of course in Italian, the word for winner can be masculine or feminine, depending on who it refers to.

So they had begun to announce the winner as a man, but then had to retract it when they saw my name….and that the winner was a girl. So that’s kind of when I knew it was me, because there were only a handful of women in the competition. There are a lot more now, but not so much then.

What was the crowd’s reaction?

Well, usually when people win, there is this uproar of people shouting and cheering. But when they announced my name, it was just my group of five people! I was the new kid on the block, and no one knew me, except the people who had come with me. But I was overjoyed! And eventually everyone else started cheering. But they were sort of…

You had just stunned the crowd!

Yeah! The crowd was like, Who is this girl? And it’s an American girl!

And it’s funny. Every winner, first, second or third, always gets a trophy. It’s something you can put in your pizzeria, something you can show–it’s a symbol of your accomplishment.

Laura Drinks Like A Champ

Laura Drinks Like A Champ: Laura Meyer drinks a celebratory toast from her outsized trophy–with a little help from a friend.

But for some reason, in my category the first place winner didn’t have a trophy. So I didn’t have a trophy to take home with me. Thankfully, Tony and Nancy (Tony’s partner) were there–and both of them immediately said Oh, Hell No. What do you mean you don’t have a trophy?

So they went to bat for me. And literally a year later, they sent me a trophy. When it finally showed up at the restaurant, Tony and I couldn’t help but laugh. It was gigantic! I don’t know if they were compensating for the fact that it took them a year, because it’s the biggest trophy in the restaurant.

Haha! How big is it?

It’s bigger than any of Tony’s trophies! It’s bigger than a magnum of wine.

Tradition says that when you win, you are supposed to drink out of your trophy. But my trophy was so big, I had to have someone help me.

So, are you the first woman to win a world pizza championship?

Yes. From the digging I’ve done, I was the first American to win first place, at least in that category. And I’m the first woman to win first place in that category.

 

Make sure to come back to visit us again soon, because next time we’ll be talking about my experience at last week’s amazing Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, my first. See you soon!

*For the uninitiated, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish of sheep or calf oal, typically boiled in the animal’s stomach. You’re welcome.