In the Kitchen
Tools of the Trade
The Pizza Chef: September-October 2016
Judging pizza in a world competition
I’ve had the honour and privilege of judging for the International Pizza Challenge and finals at the annual Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, and I’ve also judged in Italy and France. I’m often asked about how a pizza is evaluated. While most competitions have their own distinct rules, after years of experience, I’ve incorporated my own methods into the guidelines for each event.
The International Pizza Challenge has five categories of styles of pizzas, although the most popular ones are traditional and non-traditional. The traditional category is a red sauce pizza featuring no more than two of the most popular toppings in North America. This is where your dough, sauce and cheese are key factors to the unique taste of the pizza, since two competitors could easily each enter pizzas with the same pepperoni and sausage. What would make one stand out above the other? The non-traditional category is where anything goes and you are not restricted to the colour of sauce, or the kind or number of toppings on your pizza. That said, there must be a balance between the toppings and the crust, sauce and cheeses. Every judge I’ve spoken with agrees that more toppings piled on doesn’t make a better pizza; in fact, some pizzas that came across our tables could have been great, had they not been grossly overtopped and lost all taste.
The judging is broken down into two main criteria: taste and visual presentation/appearance. Taste accounts for 65 per cent of the overall score and visual appearance accounts for 35 per cent. The criteria for taste are further broken down into a) crust, b) sauce, cheese, toppings and c) overall taste. If the crust did not have any porosity or flavour, or conversely, if it was a flavoured crust but didn’t complement the flavours of the toppings or cheese, then the pizza would get a low score for this criteria. The criteria for visual presentation are broken down into a) bake and b) visual presentation. We are a visual species and we like to eat pretty food: most of us think that it tastes better. If the pizza is burnt, underdone or sloppily topped it would get a lower score for this criteria. The only difference in the scoring between traditional and non-traditional is that there is an additional category for creativity under the taste criteria for non-traditional.
An acceptable or mediocre pizza would receive a middle-of-the-road score, such as a 5 out of a possible 10. An above-average pizza would get a 6 or 7 out of a possible 10. A fabulous pizza would get an 8 or 9. If the pizza totally misses the mark, then the score reflects the poor quality and is low, typically less than 5. Reasons for the low score could be that the pizza is overcooked, undercooked, soggy, greasy or just tastes bad.
That is the mechanics of scoring, and I always begin by looking at the pizza as it’s presented to the judges. The pizza is always brought in for the judges to see before it’s sliced. I check the bake by lifting the pizza and looking at the bottom of the crust. The facilitators will then take the pizza away, slice it up and bring each judge a slice of the pizza. At this point I smell my slice of pizza. This might sound odd, but I love the smell of good food, and for me, one “tell” for a great pizza is whether the pizza smells good before I even taste it. Next, I take a bite from the slice with the toppings, crust, cheeses and sauce. If the pizza slops over on itself or onto my lap, it gets a lower score than if it held the weight of the toppings and cheese. Next I take a bite of the edge of the crust, just on its own. This will tell me whether the crust has any flavour – whether the pizza maker knows about proper fermentation and how that allows a great crust to develop flavours – or whether it’s actually a cardboard crust hidden under tasty toppings.
Lastly, I take another bite of the pizza with sauce, cheese and toppings, just to confirm whether my first impressions were accurate. Sometimes I’m not sure if I like a pizza or not, but after that last bite I know without a doubt. Finally, before giving it my final score, I ask myself if this is a pizza I would be happy to pay for – if the answer is yes, I give it a higher score for “overall taste.”
The important thing to note is that judging a pizza contest is a lot like judging a beauty contest: everyone does not have to like the same pizza, but as a judge, you just need to be convinced that the pizza you score the highest is the one you like the best.
Catch Diana judging the Canadian Pizza magazine Chef of the Year competition on Oct. 17 at the Canadian Pizza Show in Mississauga. She will also join us on the show’s all-star marketing panel.
Diana Cline is a two-time Canadian Pizza magazine Chef of the Year champion, internationally recognized gourmet pizzaiolo, partner with Diana’s Cucina & Lounge in Winnipeg and a director for the CRFA [now Restaurants Canada] from 2009-2013. In addition to creating award-winning recipes, Diana is also a consultant to other pizzeria owner/operators in menu development, creating systems to run a pizzeria on autopilot, along with marketing and positioning to help operators grow their businesses effectively and strategically. She is available for consulting on a limited basis. For more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.