By Cam Wood
One of the world’s best pizza spinners looks to Canada f
By Cam Wood
Sitting at a quiet table in the back of a chic Montreal
coffee house, Juan Hermosillo is feeling a little like an apparition
|A skilled pizza spinner, Hermosillo is hopeful Canada will provide some stability for his life.|
Sitting at a quiet table in the back of a chic Montreal coffee house, Juan Hermosillo is feeling a little like an apparition these days.
“I feel like I'm from nowhere,” he says, pausing to think of way to explain the situation he has found himself in.
He clearly acknowledges his Mexican roots, but like millions of his fellow countrymen, his life has never been rooted there. Hermosillo said when he was 11-years-old, his mother and siblings made their way from Mexico City to Los Angeles, where his father was already living.
An illegal immigrant in the land of opportunity, he grew up with an uncertain future … and an inevitable deadline with fate. That deadline reared its head just weeks before his first appearance at the World Pizza Championships in Salsamaggiore, Italy.
Knowing he could reach for his goal of winning a world championship in pizza spinning in weeks and accept the possibility of not returning to the United States, or appeal the judge's decision in his residency trial and being a sort of prisoner in the country for the next four years – free to roam, but not free to leave – he took the shot at pizza gold.
Since that time, Hermosillo told Canadian Pizza, his life has been like that of a ghost – almost unreal.
As the aroma of coffee, cheese omelettes on the grill and a rainy afternoon fill the bistro, Hermosillo talks about the past several months; of how his pursuit of a championship has taken him to both wonderous and disasterous places, of injuries and bad dough, of lofty ambition and deep depression.
As many in the pizza industry know, Hermosillo is a former member of the U.S. Pizza Team. Today he feels he can no longer represent the country that has rejected him.
Tugging at his t-shirt to stress his point, he says “I told them, this shirt is very heavy on me.”
And, he also is afraid to return to Mexico.
“It's not a very safe place,” he says of where his sister resides – the only family he has in Mexico. The neighbourhood is wrought with drugs and crime.
The last time he had to go there, it didn’t go so well. His family, he explains, think he has a lot of money from his life as a pizza spinner. The travel and media attention have tainted their views. But the reality is, he’s made almost nothing from his experience. Unfulfilled promises, unpaid debts and conflict is all he seems to have been rewarded with. His former team, owned by an American trade magazine, “is powerless” to help him.
So now he’s looking for help from the Canadian pizza industry.
Hermosillo has found a temporary home in Montreal. He came to the city in 2005 to participate in the Just For Laughs festival. He came back this summer to perform at a local festival, and under what he describes as another hollow promise.
His goal of pizza gold still in his sites, he has acknowledged that the time for more stability in his life has come.
“I want to stay. I’m really excited about Canada. I really love it here.”
Unfortunately, he is facing yet another uncertainty. His visitor’s visa expires in November, and his choices are to return to Mexico and hope that someone will take him in until he can get back on his feet, or take an offer to move to Australia and compete for the pizza team there.
“But Australia …” he says looking out onto the colourful urban mozaic of the Saint-Denis neighbourhood, “is very far away from my family. Here, at least my brother can come to visit me.”
Hermosillo once had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian. It was that ambition that led him to the pizza industry. He started working in a restaurant to raise the money for the courses.
“One day I was on pizza rotation and this guy was spinning. I asked him to show me, but he wouldn’t.”
As fate would have it, that was the motivation Hermosillo needed to become one of the best spinners in the world.
“So I learned a few tricks and I went back and challenged that guy. I told him ‘You're going to be part of my story. When people ask me where I learned to spin, I’m going to tell them I learned because you wouldn't teach me a couple of lousy tricks.’”
Hermosillo – despite the controversy created in the American pizza industry about his 2004 victory over six-time world champion Tony Gemignani – is one of the best pizza spinners around. He is hoping that a Canadian pizzeria will see how that talent will help them help him.
Gemignani has repeatedly stood behind how much value pizza spinning can bring to an independent pizzeria – especially in the face of competition from corporations with sizeable advertising budgets.
“Everytime I appear on television, my sales go up about 30 per cent,” Gemignani told Canadian Pizza in a previous interview. Over the years, he figures he has gained about $3 million US in free advertising for his own California restaurant.
Hermosillo said even without representation in Canada, he has already become a bit of a celebrity in his Montreal neighbourhood. He’s appeared on French television on his own, and recently represented the City of Montreal in a spinning contest against two of his former team mates.
“Since I came to Canada, I have signed so many autographs. The kids think (pizza spinning) is great. They come up to me and say ‘Aren’t you the guy from television’ or ‘I saw you at the festival.’”
And he believes there is a Canadian pizziaolo out there that can see the value of that, and give him the opportunity he needs to stay in Canada – a job offer.
Is it a longshot to hope for that?
Apparitions, like crystal balls, have their skeptics. Hermosillo only wants the chance to prove himself.
The Canadian foodservice industry is facing a severe labour crisis. Ask most restaurateurs and pizzaiolos and they will spend hours discussing how difficult it is to find talented, reliable and trustworthy employees.
In August, Statistics Canada reported that a third of the country’s hotel industry is reporting a shortage of skilled and unskilled labour.
In Alberta, one pizza place is reportedly offering cash rewards at the end of the shift to keep employees from quitting to join the oil boom.
The Alberta Ministry of Human Resources and Employment estimates that by 2009, there will be a shortage of labour for the industry.
The University of Guelph has adjusted their hospitality program to reflect the trend of foodservice jobs requiring more than one language. (Hermosillo speaks Spanish, English and is managing quite well with his French.)
“We are facing a critical shortage and it’s going to get worse,” Lindy Rollingson, president and CEO of the Alberta Restaurant & Foodservices Association, told the Calgary Herald in July. “It’s very, very serious right now.
“In our industry, the problem we’re facing is we’re competing with a worker being able to go up to Fort McMurray and push a broom for $20 to $24 an hour.”
She said 50 per cent of the workers in the industry are between the ages of 16 and 24. So the smaller demographic today “really hurts us.”
“We’re seeing all kinds of things. Some restaurants closing over the lunch hour or closing over the dinner hour,” said Rollingson. “We’re seeing some closing on one day a week, Sunday or Monday. We’re seeing them work with less staff, which means everybody is getting burned out because they’re having to do more. And all kinds of packages to retain the staff they already have.”
In British Columbia, similar concerns are being seen.
According to CanWest Media, it’s estimated 84,000 hospitality workers will be needed in B.C. over the next decade. If that doesn’t happen, the industry warns, it could tarnish the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Back out on Rue Saint-Denis, it’s hard to see what kind of impact this would have on a city like Montreal. There’s about six bistros, pizzerias and diners to each side of a city block. And walking in the lingering rain of Hurricane Ernesto this afternoon, there’s one pizza spinner wondering just what it will take for whatever his sins are to be washed away.
Any pizzaiolo who wants to take a shot at gold with Hermosillo, or even just take a chance and be rewarded with a hard-working young man with a passion for the industry, should contact Canadian Pizza Magazine at 519-429-5180, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.•