Border Crossing

Diana Coutu talks about preparing for overseas
Diana Coutu
June 30, 2007
By Diana Coutu
Fellow Canadians often ask me how I source my ingredients for a competition. The answer is that it usually depends on the competition itself.

Take my recent competitions in Las Vegas at the Pizza Expo for example.

The International Pizza Challenge was open to pizzaiolos from all over the world. Contestants came from New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the U.S. and Canada. There were probably contestants from other countries, but because I was also competing in the Pizza Festiva: Recipe of the Year competition, I didn’t get to meet everybody in the International Pizza Challenge.

This competition required contestants to bring their own ingredients and any equipment needed to make their pizza. So that means all your flour, salt, sugar, yeast – I even brought my own bottled water to make my dough – has to make the trip with you.

 pierre-diana
Canadian Pizza Magazine’s Chef of the Year 2005 and 2006, Diana Coutu, with her husband Pierre at the opening ceremonies in Salsomaggiore, Italy. Coutu recommends pizzaiolos travel with as much of their own ingredients as possible when competing. 
The water in Las Vegas is very hard and affects how dough proofs, bakes and tastes. I’d rather not leave anything to chance and so I bring as much as I can from home. Typically, I’ll freeze the bottled water so it keeps everything cold in my cooler and saves space. 

I also bring a container to make my dough by hand in, which doubles as a proofing box.  Since there wasn’t any refrigeration provided, all the contestants had coolers to store their own ingredients. I brought everything from ingredients for dough, to the sauce to the cheese and toppings. My friends on the Irish Pizza Team brought everything and only sourced the fresh vegetables in Las Vegas. And I just got ice from the ice machine in the hotel to keep things cool.

I found that it’s very important to keep a metal stem thermometer with your tools and check your cooler temperature twice a day.

When competing, I always bring extra ingredients too, just in case something explodes during transportation, which has happened. So double bag everything.

When it comes to crossing the border, you should expect to have your cooler opened and examined. Currently, the laws are that you are allowed to bring food with you, as long as it’s checked. 

Always make sure to bring extra duct tape in your carry-on luggage. Both the airline agents and the customs agents will ask you what’s in your cooler and they will look in it. They will ask you if you’re using dry ice – don’t use dry ice, it’s a big pain in the butt.

Dry ice is considered a hazardous material, and most airlines won’t accept anything with dry ice. I try to keep my knives, spoodle and a screen in a Rubbermaid container in the cooler too. That way, all my tools are together with my ingredients.

And it’s pretty obvious for the customs agent who is examining my cooler that I’m going to cook with these ingredients.

For the most part I get agents asking if I brought extra pizza for them.

I’ve had to pack flour in with my regular luggage and it always gets opened. Some things just look suspicious, like a kilogram of white flour, and as long as you understand that it’s not a problem.

Again, double bag everything. I also put copies of the ads for the competitions in with my luggage, and with me. I figure it can’t hurt, and it provides a visual aid to back-up my statements that I am competing.

The other competition that I was a finalist in at the Pizza Expo was the Pizza Festiva: Pizza of the Year recipe contest. This culinary competition has been going on for over 13 years and because there are fewer finalists, the show provides refrigeration and ingredients.

One of the big sponsors is the California Milk Advisory Board so they supply all of the cheese.  This year didn’t work out for me, as they couldn’t source a low fat mozzarella or a garlic ’n’ chive havarti cheese, both of which were used for my Havarti Heaven entry.

Even though I brought my own cheese, I wasn’t allowed to use it, and so I had to substitute a dill havarti for my garlic ’n’ chive havarti. I also had to use the full fat mozzarella provided. It changed the recipe and the taste.

In the end my pizza was still very good, but it wasn’t great, and unfortunately it didn’t win first place.
But that’s the way the cheese melts, you plan for everything you can and sometimes you win first, sometimes you take second. 

When I went to compete at the World Pizza Olympic Games in Salsomaggiore, Italy, this past March, I brought most of my ingredients the same way. I chose to source my fresh ingredients in Italy, and it worked out very well. There is a little grocery store at the base of the hill where the arena that the games are held is and almost all of the competitors source their fresh ingredients there.

I bought some very nice olive oil for my dough there, and then took the rest home with me. My friend, John D’Ambrosio from the World Pizza Champions and winner of Best Pizza Chef for U.S.A., bought tomatoes and fresh basil to decorate his plate and after he was finished competing he gave them to me to decorate my plate. As a matter of fact, we shared a few tools and a couple of other ingredients and it worked out very well for both of us. John placed highest for the U.S.A, and I for Canada.

Most of the competitors make their dough in their hotel rooms and keep it in their coolers or hotel room refrigerators. The only exception is the dough used for the acrobatic competitions. Teams usually have to make tons of it.

Often the hotel will let them have access to the kitchen after hours to make and store enough dough for their competitions. Some teams make friends with the owners of local restaurants and arrange to use their kitchens off hours.

The best way to leave a kitchen is as clean as you found it, especially if you’re going back to compete next year. So, if the hotel kitchen manager or a restaurant owner is nice enough to make accommodations for you, make sure you clean up after yourself. Call it good pizzaiolo etiquette.•

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