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Interview with Will Grant, Caputo Cup Champion

Written By Peter Reinhart
Tuesday, 05 December 2017 Interviews

Note from Peter: I met Will Grant in October, in Atlantic City during the Caputo Cup Pizza Championship, where I was serving as a judge in the Non-Traditional Category (this meant, pretty much, anything goes, as opposed to the Traditional category which limited total toppings to three). Will had come to my interview, earlier that day, with pizza maestro Joe Beddia, and afterward he filled me in on his life on Bainbridge Island in Washington and we got to know each other a bit. I wouldn’t let him tell me about his competition pizza because I didn’t want to be biased, so I was pleased when his pie won the category without me knowing it was his (there were a few other sourdough pizzas in this category besides his). While I didn’t know it was his, what I did notice about it was how great the crust was — light in texture while complex in flavor — and, equally important, how balanced the pizza was, not overloaded with toppings but pleasantly topped with a unique gorgonzola cream sauce, along with some other ingredients. Will’s pizzeria, That’s A Some Pizza, has quite a backstory, and stays loyal to the Pacific Northwest passion for sourdough and to the generational values instilled by his family. He agreed to share some of this story with us as he now prepares to represent the United States at the World Pizza Competition as well at the upcoming National Pizza Championship in Las Vegas at Pizza Expo in March.

Will Grant, sourdough pizza master


 

Peter (PQ):  Will, can you tell our readers a little about your journey, and how you ended up making pizzas?

Will: I have a life long relationship with pizza. I didn’t ended up in it, I started in it.  In 1984 when I was five years old my parents opened our pizzeria on Bainbridge Island, Washington State.  I made dough and pizzas when I was pretty young and have always loved to work and make food. I got serious and started as a chef’s apprentice when I was 10 years old. A year of washing dishes, a year of cutting herbs, a year of baking bread and desserts, a year of prep cooking and sauces and finally, on the fifth year, I worked the sauté line to complete my apprenticeship. For the next 8 years I worked my way through the front of the house.  I started by bussing tables, then expediting, then on to waiting tables, bartending, and even Sommelier, then finishing up with Managing. I opened my first restaurant on my own when I was 24 years old. I sold it two years later and came back to the family pizza parlor that I now own and run on Bainbridge Island.

The family pizzeria. That Will’s mom with him as kid, way back when.

PQ: Sounds like you’ve come full circle, for sure. But you’ve done more than just take over the pizzeria. Both you, and also one of your staff, won awards at the recent Caputo Cup in Atlantic City. Can you describe the winning pizzas and the ingredients and choices you made in creating them?

Will: The winning pizza was in the “non-traditional” category. It was my Gorgonzola Vegetarian, that I came up with about 6 years ago. It is a homemade gorgonzola dressing base with mozzarella, provolone, mushrooms, red onions, garlic, pine nuts and feta cheese sprinkled on after the bake to keep in the feta’s moisture.  The Gorgonzola Vegetarian is one of my favorite pizzas and the first one of mine that I added to the menu. If I was going to represent my skills as a Pizzaiolo I wanted to make one of my favorite pizzas from our menu!

Will’s winning Gorgonzola Non-Traditional Pizza

The second place winner, in the “traditional” category was won by my manager, Allen Raymond,, who made a pepperoni and onion pizza with a Stanislaus tomato sauce mix base, with mozzarella and provolone cheese. Allen had been working on the right combination for a good traditional pie for three months before deciding on his pepperoni and onion pizza for the event.

Last year’s winner, Norma Knepp, entered this pepperoni beauty but didn’t place this year. Instead, Allen Raymond’s Traditional Pepperoni and Onion Pizza outscored her and was the 2nd Place winner. I think it was his and Will’s sourdough crust that made the winning difference this time around.

PQ: You grew up in the pizza business but then, later on, you went to San Francisco and studied with Tony Gemignani at his pizza school. How has that experience influenced and changed you and, dare I ask, raised your skill level?
Will: One of my biggest philosophies in restaurants and commerce is you never really “know it all.” The second you think you know it all is the second you become complacent and irrelevant. Someone else will always be hungry enough to keep trying, keep learning, and take your customers and business, all while you think you “know it all!”  With this in mind, after I took over ownership of That’s A Some Pizza from my mother, I felt it was my duty to take things to the next level. I knew becoming a certified Pizzaiolo would help me on that journey. The closest certification was at Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza in San Francisco. Now, I have been a fanboy of Tony’s since I first heard about him in the mid ’90’s, and have been following his career ever since then. I jumped at the opportunity to work with him in his kitchen! It was an amazing experience, I recommend it to anyone in the pizza business. It boosted my confidence and re-ignited my passion! 34 of my 39 years on this planet have been cooking and making pizzas. You spend your whole life in a career, doing what you do, the same thing over and over again every day and sometimes its easy to forget how special that career is. I went in as a pizza guy and came out as a pizza scientist. I call it my Masters Degree in pizza!  It was Tony who encouraged me to compete at the Caputo Cup. On our first day of class Tony asked me if I had ever competitively cooked before. I said,”No,” and he told me, ” You Have, have, have to compete!” And when Tony Gemignani, the top Pizzaiolo in the world, tells you to jump you say, “How high?” I had actually canceled my trip to the Caputo Cup a week before the competition. Our 80 quart Hobart mixer had blown up and I had to make all our dough and shred all our cheese at another restaurant two towns away, all while trying to replace our old mixer and getting a new one. It wasn’t till three days before our trip to Atlantic City that I replaced the mixer and decided to go. I put so much hard work and passion into the shop that I needed to trust my process and prove to myself that I could compete. Boy am I glad I did!

PQ: Let’s talk more about your decision to make your crust entirely with natural, sourdough leaven.  What is your connection with sourdough and why do you prefer it, and what have you learned from working with it?

Will: It is not a completely naturally leavened pizza dough. I also use .05% of commercial yeast in my recipe. The starter is completely naturally leavened, though. Since day one, 34 years ago, we at That’s A Some Pizza have always used the same 120 year old starter from the Klondike Gold Rush to make our sourdough pizzas. We’re not just Pizzaiolos, we’re caretakers for one of the oldest sourdough starters in the world. This starter gives our dough a unique one-of-a-kind flavor profile that cannot be reproduced anywhere else! I’ve learned lots about sourdough over the years. I live my professional and personal life by what I call “the culture of culture.” I’ve found that if you treat your professional life the same way you treat a starter great things can come of it, hence “the culture of culture!” Our starter is so special the Quest for Sourdough by Puratos of Belgium is flying all the way out to my pizzeria on Bainbridge Island to collect a piece of my starter and take it back to the Quest for Sourdough’s World Heritage Sourdough Museum in Belgium!

PQ: What are some of your other goals for the business? Are there any other products in the planning stages? Where do you see it going in, say, 5 or 10 years?

Will: I’m just taking things one step at a time. For everything that has changed we are still that same 500 square foot pizzeria that has been open for 34 years. We proved to the nation we have great pizza, now is the time to impress the nation with consistent food and excellent customer service.  Our dough makes a pretty great Sicilian crust with a four part fermentation process. I have been making some fun Sicilian pan pizzas and look forward to adding them to my menu this year. In the next 5-10 years I would love to either expand my Pizzeria or open a new, bigger location! But a big part of these next few years will be spent close to home raising my daughter as a Pizzaiolo. To be honest I’m just trying to wrap my head around this next year. I have the Quest for Sourdough collecting my starter in February. Also I have been asked to join the World Pizza Champion Pizza Team and will be competing next April in Parma, Italy for best pizza in the world!

Will and his daughter — the next generation!!

PQ: That’s fantastic and should be a life changing experience — congratulations! What is it with the Pacific Northwest? It seems to be a hot bed for creative, innovative cooking and baking, and people feel so passionate about living there. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is so, and how living there has influenced you, both as a baker and also in general?

Will: The passion about living and cooking in the PNW started even way before our starter was born in the Klondike Gold Rush, 120 years ago. Though the Gold Rush brought most of us Europeans here, the Native tribes had been living here for hundreds of years before us. They did, and still to this day, share their traditions in cooking and life. How to be one with the world around you, and how to appreciate your time on it, are some of the lessons I have learned from my Native Aunts and Uncles here.  Being as far west as we are, people have always come here to escape whatever life they have come from, to join the last of the wild west and our independent spirit. I am blessed to live on a small island in the middle of the Puget Sound surrounded by the Cascade Mountains on the east and the Olympic Mountains to my west.  With these mountains and waters we have an abundance of local farms and hatcheries to use the freshest of ingredients and seafood, giving us a unique sense of pride for myself and all my cooking brethren here in the Pacific Northwest.

A true pizza family!

 

PQ: Do you plan to enter the big competition in Las Vegas at Pizza Expo in March? If so, any hints as to what you might be planning to make?

Will: I’m going to do my best to duplicate and win with the same pizza I made in New Jersey.  The biggest change is that, this time, I will be closing down my shop to bring out all of my management staff to participate as well!

PQ: Wonderful – can’t wait to see if you can capture that magic all over again! Thanks so much, Will, and again, congratulations on winning the Caputo Cup, and for your amazing pizza. I look forward to seeing you soon in Vegas at Pizza Expo!

 

Note: You can email Will directly at: thatsasome@gmail.com or visit his webpage at: thatsasomepizza.com   You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram, and he can also be found writing for PerfectingPizza.com (it’s an excellent new resource for independent pizzerias, created by World Pizza Champions Michael Shepherd and Siler Chapman — check it out).

With his winning pizza!

 

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