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Interview with Norma Knepp

 Note from Peter:  In January, I had the honor of being one of the judges for the 2016 Caputo Cup Pizza Championship. I served with Metro Pizza founder John Arena and Pete LaChappelle, publisher of Pizza Today Magazine (and also the organizer of the annual Pizza Expo in Las Vegas), as judges in the New York-Style category. Our category actually included any form of pizza baked in a pizzeria-style deck oven instead of a wood-fired oven (as in the Neapolitan-style). We judged 26 entries — talk about fun — and tasted some pretty extraordinary pizzas! But our biggest surprise was that the winning pie was made by an unknown pizzaiola, a woman named Norma Knepp, from Lancaster, PA (yes, Amish Country) who, as the only woman entrant, took on a whole slew of full-time professional pizza guys, many of them competition veterans, and taught us a all a lesson in humility.  Her simple NY-Style sauce and cheese pepperoni pizza blew us all away, as we’d seen a lot of pepperoni pizzas over the two days of the competition, but none so beautifully balanced between crust and toppings (and Norma’s pepperoni, we found out later, was provided from a secret source that she may or may not reveal after she competes at the Pizza Expo this week in Las Vegas — part of her prize for winning the Caputo Cup in NYC was a trip to Vegas to compete for the National title). So we’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, enjoy our conversation with Norma, who showed us all that love for the craft can conquer all.

–Norma, tell us a little about yourself and how you got into making pizzas
.

   I am 69 years old. I worked at RCA, GE and my then to be husband worked as a butcher, in addition to working part-time making caramel popcorn, kettle corn, old-fashioned clear toy candy, brittle, cotton candy, fudge and other kinds of popcorn at the Roots Farmers Market. My husband, Albert, wanted to quit his job as a butcher and try other farmer’s markets in our area besides Root’s Market. Albert’s parents started the Caramel Popcorn stand at Root’s Market in 1928. It was an 8′ stand when I met Albert. We later expanded that stand, and also went to other day farmer’s markets in our area. Albert had an unfortunate fall at home that led to many complications. I eventually sold those stands at the markets. I then purchased a Funnel Cake stand and sold fresh lemonade, fresh dipped ice cream, and even added Mexican food. I also made fresh salsas. Since the Funnel Cake stand was in the Flea Market section at Root’s (and was outside) it was only opened from March to the end of October. I knew the market management wanted a fresh pizza stand. Another man was going to start that stand. He had big equipment in the small space where I am located now. For some reason the man never finished the pizza stand. I asked the market management if I could sell fresh salsas, tortilla chips, dip mixes and such inside market, in addition to having the funnel cake stand. The fresh salsa stand never made enough money. I then asked market management if I could sell the funnel cake stand and try to make pizzas at the salsa stand. I didn’t know anything about making pizza when I started the pizza stand. My mother and I built out the pizza stand. It is only 8’x13′. I found the equipment on eBay and Craigslist. A local pizzeria man was going to help me learn how to make pizza dough but he became ill and had to be hospitalized. I already had joined the pizzamaking.com forum and was reading how many members there made pizzas, and how helpful the members were when someone had problems. At first I tried the dough recipe the pizza man gave me. It was in volume measurements, not by weight. The pizza man did not tell me anything about how to mix the pizza dough or how to control fermentation. I had many problems the first month, but was determined that I would learn to make pizzas. I started a thread and asked Pete-zza (his name is Peter, but not Peter Reinhart) for help. Pete guided me through many things until I could successfully make pizza dough and pizzas. He also directed me to many links from Tom Lehmann (“The Dough Doctor”). I asked questions on the PMQ think tank too. I have never stopped learning about pizza dough and I study things about pizza dough every day. I also have tested different kinds of pizza sauces, cheeses for pizzas and other toppings.

The Roots Market, with Norma's building way in the back.

The Roots Market, with Norma’s building way in the back.


–Where did you get your inspiration for your method, including your sauce and dough, and how did you figure out your system for how to make it work at the Farmer’s Market (and how many do you make during a typical day)?

     I got my inspiration for everything I learned from the pizzamaking.com forum and from the PMQ Think Tank, in addition to PMQ and Pizza Today, where I asked Tom Lehmann questions. I watched many YouTube videos, too, of professionals stretching their pizza dough. I’ve changed the formulation for my dough many times. Sometimes a preferment was used, old dough, longer ferments, and also different leavening methods were used. I even tried real milk Kefir as a leavening agent for awhile in experiments. I just learned by seeing what worked at the market. For a long while it was hard to get customers to come into the back area where I am. It is one of the slowest areas in the market. Since the market is so big most customers go on their regular routes and don’t stray from those routes. I knew from owning the Caramel Popcorn stand how many people went by there. Most of the time folks can’t walk very fast without bumping into one another. Where I’m located it’s not like that at all. The customers are sparse. I talked to the market management many times about how to get more people back to Area 4. For awhile I thought of selling my pizza stand and trying to find something else to do. I loved making pizzas, but wasn’t making any money. It’s hard to say how many pizza are made in a typical day. Usually in the winter months it’s slower. In the summertime there are a lot of people that only go to the outside stands. But now, since there has been a lot of media attention from the Caputo Cup win, I can’t keep up.

Norma at her small shop in Roots Market, near Lancaster, PA

Norma at her small shop in Roots Market, near Lancaster, PA

Norma, presenting her pepperoni pizza to the judges (Pete LaChappelle on the left, Peter Reinhart in the center, John Arena on the right, at the Caputo Cup.

Norma, presenting her pepperoni pizza to the judges (Pete LaChappelle on the left, Peter Reinhart in the center, John Arena on the right, at the Caputo Cup.

–What were your expectations when you went to New York City and competed in the Caputo Cup? What do think it was about the pizza you made that day that caused it to win?
      I didn’t have any expectations when I went to New York City. I just wanted to see if I could get through a competition. I had gone to the Caputo Cup and Pizza Summit at Neapolitan Express <in Harlem> last year. I just left home in the morning and traveled by bus, then subways to Harlem, to see what went on in competitions and also what it was like at an event like that. Since I am always interested in finding out everything I can about pizzas it was a very interesting event. I met Tony Gemignani for the first time and had him sign my “Pizza Bible” book. I also met John Arena for the first time. Scott Wiener introduced me to John. Tony had heard of me and asked me, “Why not try a competition?” At that time I told him I would be too nervous to enter a competition. I left the Caputo Cup before dark last year and traveled home on the bus. When I heard that the Caputo Cup and Pizza Summit was going to be in January of this year I thought to myself, maybe this would be the last time I’d be able to try something like competing and traveling by myself in NYC.

      I never thought the pizza I made would have won first place, or any other place. My cheese clumped badly. I have photos of how badly it clumped. I grated the cheese the night before I was scheduled to compete. I put it in a Cambro container that wasn’t clear. About 15 minutes before I went to compete I saw how clumped it was from moisture that got in the container somehow. I tried to pick it apart, but had no idea of how much cheese I was applying. I had thinned my sauce some the night before competing. When I went to thin it more in the kitchen the two sinks were filled up with other contestants things. I then went out and got some Italian water to thin the sauce more. My hands were shaking so badly I didn’t think I would get through the competition. In the end I guess, because I have learned to balance ingredients to a certain point, that helped some. Also fermenting the dough overnight helped some.

The winning pizza, with Norma's secret source pepperoni and her uniquely complex sauce (with maybe just a touch of anchovy?)

The winning pizza, with Norma’s secret source pepperoni and her uniquely complex sauce (with maybe just a touch of anchovy?)

–Did you learn anything new by watching all the other competitors? Anything you plan to add to your repertoire as a result? 
    I was mainly watching the Neapolitan, wood-fired competitors because I was standing alongside the kitchen most of the time. I also competed in the Neapolitan category but that was another mess. If I attend again I would watch more what the NY-style pizza competitors would be doing.
 –How have your customers reacted to the news of you winning the competition? Any unexpected reactions or responses?
     My regular customers are very supportive of me winning. They say they always knew I made a special kind of pizza. The unexpected reactions is I am not able to make pizzas for some of my old time customers that have been there for me for a long while. I tell them to call and tell me when they want pizzas, or slices. I keep apologizing, but feel bad that I can’t make as many pizzas as needed since the media has done article on my pizzas. I never knew before what media attention would do.
–What do you think the future holds for you? Do you plan to expand to more days per week, or will you simply continue doing it as you’ve been doing it?
     I don’t know what the future holds for me. I can’t expand at the market, because spaces with water are at a premium, and also bigger stands usually don’t become available. Since the market is very old, water had to be run underground outside. The Market doesn’t usually like to do that since it involves a lot of work and money. And the Market is only opened Tuesday’s. I spend a fair amount of time preparing my doughs, stocking up on supplies, and also picking up flours and other things during the week. I guess I just will do things like I normally did before the win.
–Finally, do you have tips for others who love to make pizza and dream of someday being recognized for the quality of their work?  What are a few life lessons you’ve learned along the way?

      I have learned that many experiments are needed to be able to make better than average pizzas. That balance of a good crust, about the right amount of sauce and cheese do matter. Also different oven and temperatures matter. The same dough and ingredients baked differently in the deck oven at Market than they do at the Caputo Cup. I also have a Blackstone pizza oven at home that I experiment with, making many types of pizzas. After much experimenting I can get exactly the same pizza that I can make at market from the Blackstone. Home pizza makers can make very good pizzas if they experiment some and follow a good dough formulation. I would say just keep striving to make the best pizza you can.

The Caputo Cup, winners in both New York Style and Neapolitan, along with Antimo Caputo

The Caputo Cup, winners in both New York Style and Neapolitan, along with Antimo Caputo and various sponsors and judges.

From Peter: As soon as I hear from Norma, I’ll let you all know right here how she did at the Expo competition in Las Vegas.

 

With her well-deserved trophy

With her well-deserved trophy

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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.

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