Denver-Based The Gluten Free Explorer Wins 2016 International Pizza Challenge, Gluten-Free Division
Is what I shouted as I jumped 3 feet in the air (Rich claims he has never seen me jump so high) after they called my name as the winner of the 2016 International Pizza Challenge, Gluten Free Division, in Las Vegas on March 10, 2016.
Rich and I decided to attend the Pizza Expo this year to check out the world of pizza and see what was going on. Since starting our gluten free baking company last year and specializing in pizza crusts, we found ourselves in the middle of this industry without really knowing much about it. In February, we registered for the Expo and during the online registration, a window popped up and asked if we wanted to enter the International Pizza Challenge. We knew a bit about the Challenge from the website and thought it would be fun to try. So we entered the Gluten Free Division.
For the next 6 weeks we planned, strategized and tested our entry. I am not only gluten free but dairy free as well and did not want to make a pizza for the judges that I could not eat. Rich and I have been working on a ready-to-bake line of pizzas for The Gluten Free Explorer and had tested a few pizzas for friends back in December. The pizza everyone loved the most was our gluten free and dairy free bacon, chicken, broccoli, and ranch, made with a dairy-free scratch-made ranch dressing. We felt taking a dairy free pizza (yes, it was cheeseless!) to an international pizza competition was a bold move that would either be well received or a complete fail. We knew there would not be a middle ground with a cheeseless pizza. Since I felt very strongly about making a pizza I too could actually eat, we made the bold decision to present BCBR pizza.
Although Rich and I completed all our prep for the pizzas early in that morning, we still arrived early for the competition. We watched all the competitors arrive and begin prepping their pizza toppings and dough. We had wonderful conversations with some of the competitors as we waited for the competition to begin. At 10 am, it began. I was #7 and we competed in order. At around 11 am, it was my turn to make my pizzas. After waiting since early in the morning, I was very excited to finally get the chance to compete. I think I actually smiled continuously during the entire competition.
I had 30 minutes to top and bake two pizzas. In the weeks leading up to the competition, we utilized the immense experience of one of our customers, McKinners Pizza in Littleton. Dennis and Kevin allowed us to practice in their kitchen and use their deck ovens. It was an invaluable experience for us. Because of that practice, I was able to complete the task, on time, without any issues.
After the pizzas were out of the oven, it was time to present to the 5 judges. I explained to them why I was presenting a cheeseless pizza and explained the toppings and crust. After examining the pizza, I cut it and served a piece to each judge. Then I waited.
The competition went on until 3 pm and during the waiting time, I really had no expectations. For me, I had accomplished what I set out to do. I made a pizza I loved, experienced immense fun in the process and met quite a few amazing people. Did I want to win, of course! Did I need to win, no. Three years prior to competition day I didn’t believe I could even cook well and never imagined I could put flavors together that others would love to eat. And, I never thought I would be living a life where I would be cooking all the time. Yes, I wanted to win, but you can see how I already considered myself a winner.
It was time to announce the winners and I was excited. A place in the top ten would have been nice (there were 30 competitors). They announced only the top three, starting with third place. As the first place winner was about to be announced I don’t recall having any thoughts in my mind, which rarely ever happens. Then, I heard my name, jumped in the air and screamed, “no way!” Wow, what an experience it was.
The most important thing about winning is not the winning part. It is the validation that we are truly helping change the world’s impression of what gluten free is, or should I say, is not. And, we are changing the notion of what pizza is as well. In my opinion, pizza crust does not need to be made from wheat flour to be delicious, and pizzas do not need to be topped with cheese to be considered a tasty slice. I hope that this win will allow me to take this message, spread it far and wide and make help those the gluten and/or dairy-free have more pizza choices the next time they dine at their favorite pizzeria.
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