The Chef's Corner: Leah Scurto
Leah Scurto of the U.S. Pizza Team sits down in the Chef's Corner to talk about competitions, winning, recipe creation, and dropping her first pie.
Brian: Hello! I am here with the tremendously talented Leah Scurto of the U.S. Pizza Team and recently Pizza My Heart in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thank you for joining me in the Chef’s Corner, Leah.
Leah: I’m glad to be here.
Brian: So, I hear you are leaving Pizza My Heart soon? You’ve been there for quite a long time. What are your plans?
Leah: Yes. They have been great and helped me get where I am today. I love the company but felt the need to stretch my culinary legs, so to speak. I am planning on taking some time off. Traveling up north and helping some friends get their restaurant on the right track and then who knows, possibly a place of my own.
Brian: So as usual, we like to begin with an easy question to find out more about our chefs. What is your earliest pizza memory?
Leah: That’s a good question. I grew up in a little mountain town in North Lake Tahoe. Everybody knew each other there. There was a little pizzeria there called Peluso’s Apizza that has since relocated to Reno Nev. As a little kid, I had the palette of a 50-year-old man who smoked a lot. Extra cheese and garlic were my go-to's as a small child. I think it was my 6th or 7th birthday, and the owner brought me back into the kitchen to make my own birthday pizza. And in my mind, I cooked that whole pizza, start to finish. I pounded it out, I threw it in the air, I put on all the toppings and cooked it in the oven. In reality, looking back from experience with working with little kids at Pizza My Heart, maybe I put the cheese on, but in my head, I made that pizza. Then he said to me, “You’re gonna pick up that pizza and bring it to the oven for me.” So, I pick up the pizza and immediately drop it to the floor. To this day, it’s the only pizza that I’ve ever really felt bad about dropping on the floor. I’m sure I’ve dropped hundreds more since then, but that’s the only one that hurt.
Brian: That’s a great, yet tragic memory. Do you think that framed your desire to eventually get into pizza, or was getting into the business something that just happened?
Leah: Well, I got started in pizza like so many others. I was in college and broke. I was 18 and going to UC Santa Cruz. I had just run out of graduation money that I was living on and needed a job. So, I went to downtown Santa Cruz and walked into Pizza My Heart for a job, having never eaten there before. I said “Ah, pizza. I could serve pizza. I love pizza!” I went inside, found the guy in charge and they asked if I could start that night. I said “Yeah, sure! I need money!” They said, “If you do well tonight then you can keep the job.” I was thrown into the fire of slinging pies with little to no training that night. But that’s how I got into it. I worked the counter for a month, then after that, they moved me up to pasta cook. Within two months, they wanted to make me a supervisor. To be a supervisor, you had to know how to make pies. So, I spent a month as a pie cook and within three or four months I was a supervisor that could do it all.
Brian: You got this job at 18 with Pizza My Heart, and you have been there this whole time?
Leah: I did take an 11-month hiatus in 2001, and I moved to Portland, Ore., which I love, but the weather got me down. I think after about six months of just rain, rain, rain, I was just thinking about how to get back to California. So, I decided to call Tim Silva at Pizza My Heart, we had always remained friends. I was just calling to tell him I was moving back to San Francisco and he immediately asked me if I had a job yet. I said, “No, I haven’t gotten that far yet.” He said they were opening a store in San Mateo and asked if I wanted to be the GM. I said “Yep!” Perfect. Now I have a job.
Brian: What do you think hardest hurdle to overcome in opening a pizza place is?
Leah: For me, it’s the mental and physical toll it takes to open a restaurant. You are there, open to close, every day for months on end. And as it progresses, and you train more people, you can take some breaks. But as the GM or owner, when opening a store, you do everything. Just because I’m in charge, doesn’t mean it’s not my job. It varies from organizational work to getting in the kitchen and getting your butt handed to you for hours on end.
Brian: Just to pick your brain as a chef, what’s your favorite ingredient?
Leah: I don’t know that I have a favorite. Aren’t all ingredients created equal?! (Laughs). My favorite pizza to eat, honestly, is just plain cheese. But if I had to pick one topping I would have to pick pepperoni… or basil. I like them both together. But if I’m visiting a new pizzeria, I will just get cheese or a margherita. I want to try it with just the basic elements of pizza. If it’s good, I’ll throw toppings on it eventually, but my go-to is just a plain pie.
Brian: Well, this one might be easier to answer. What is one ingredient you will never use? One you won’t let your staff use? If you see them with it in their lunch, you send them home for the day or unfriend them on Facebook.
Leah: I don’t like to use fake meats or soy-type products. You gotta try to flavor them like what you want them to mimic. I’m of the mind, why not just use that product? But on a personal note, I don’t like tomatoes.
Brian: Ummm… what?
Leah: I know, I know! I mean, I love sauce and like salsas, but just actually biting into a raw tomato, it gives me the willies! I appreciate tomatoes. Will I get them on my sandwich? No thanks.
Brian: Is there one ingredient that you don’t use at Pizza My Heart that you would love to start testing and maybe bring into the fold?
Leah: Absolutely. For years, I’ve been wanting to build a pie around watercress. It’s kind of personal for me. I have a friend with an organic farm in California, and none of the competitions ever fall around the watercress season, which is basically the dead of summer. I’ve been trying to find a competition during this time so I can use it there. In California it is usually easy for us to get really great produce year-round, but that is one that is truly seasonal here.
Brian: So where exactly is Pizza My Heart for those that would like to visit after reading this? How many locations has it grown to?
Leah: We are in the San Francisco Bay area. Pizza My Heart started in Capitola Village, right next to Santa Cruz. It started as a little hole in the wall, no seats, just a window, slingin’ slices on the beach. Since then they’ve grown to 25 total locations in the San Jose, San Francisco and Santa Cruz areas.
Brian: So, do you think Pizza My Heart specializes in “California-style”? I guess the better question is how would you describe California-style pizza?
Leah: The original owner of Pizza My Heart brought his family’s recipe over from New Jersey. That’s the style of pizza we do, sauce on top of the cheese. It’s a hand-tossed, thinner crust dough. Our roots are definitely in that East Coast, thinner crust pizza, but it has been Californicated. When you start throwing on apples and figs and pesto, that’s where I think it starts the California transformation. I think California- style boils down to outside the box ingredients, fresh produce and fruits, usually locally bought.
Brian: You compete a lot across the country and internationally. How do you come up with those recipes?
Leah: So, when we put new pizzas on the menu it is almost always a competition pie we have won an award with, between either me or Tim Silva. We are both always competing. A lot of times, they are collaborations, usually with Tim. It usually starts with an ingredient, and a lot of arguing. Recipes tend to evolve, and ideas spring up from other pizzas you’ve made before, and all of a sudden, the outcome is very different from what the original idea was. But all recipes for competition and for the menu usually start in two ways. First is an ingredient to work around. In the past it has been apples, finger limes, pork bellies. So, it’s basically, “What do I want to work with, and how do I create a pizza around that?” It can also be a dish. Sometimes I think “How do I take this dish that I love, and put it on a pizza?” But there is also something else I do before every competition. I have a pizza party at my house. I invite my friends over and tell them to bring one or two ingredients for a pizza. Don’t tell me what they are, I’ll provide the basics like cheeses, sauce, dough. Bring me something weird. That always spurs some really great ideas.
Brian: Do you guys take staff submissions for new recipes?
Leah: We are open to all suggestions, but if it is not competition-worthy, it typically doesn’t go far. But using competition pies is a good way to add to your menu because it comes with built-in marketing. It’s easier to add, market, and sell an item when you’ve won an award or competition with it. It creates a buzz and people want to try it.
Brian: That’s a great philosophy. It breaks the ice with customers, gets them to tread outside their comfort zones in trying a new topping combination. And speaking of comfort zones, it’s now time for the infamous “Scott Wiener Lightning Round”. I will give you three ingredients. I’ll try not to give you something I don’t think you have tasted, but if I do, so be it. This is about thinking on your feet and making a pie on the fly. So, for the first ingredient… cornbread.
Leah: I would probably use it as a finishing move. I would probably crumble it on top of something, similar to the way you would use regular breadcrumbs. I would put it on towards the end to get it nice and toasty. I don’t want it to lose a lot of that moisture, but I would like that crisp.
Brian: To be fair to the competition, give me two ingredients you would incorporate with that cornbread.
Leah: Ooh. Jalapenos. That’s a no brainer. And sausage.
Brian: Alright. Sausage, jalapenos and cornbread. I like it. Being in Mississippi I get to sample that combo quite a bit, although never usually on a pizza. Ok, second ingredient! Sour Cream! It’s a tricky one, can you cook it, can you not? What’s your take?
Leah: There’s two ways you can go with that. You can take the sour cream and turn it into a sauce, or you could do a Mexican-style pizza and do some dollops, use it as a finishing move. You’re giving me all finishers! But I’m a big fan of after toppings— the last items you can add to make that pizza shine. I hate cooking basil, I hate cooking cilantro. Maybe it’s a California thing, but I want them on the pie fresh, I want them green, I want them pretty… I would never cook them.
Brian: Ok, well I don’t think this last one needs to be a finisher, but… fennel.
Leah: Ah… dude! (Claps Hands). Now you’re talking my language! I absolutely love roasted fennel. One of my favorite pizzas, I actually cook this for my wife all the time, because she’s a vegetarian, but it’s roasted fennel with olive oil, salt and pepper. A mushroom medley. I love mixing creminis, shiitakes and oysters with some garlic, butter and fresh thyme. I also like to do a shaved fennel that you can toss with arugula with some lemon and olive oil. So now you have it both ways. You have the fennel roasted and you have a fresh mix on top after it bakes. This helps you get a little crunch, as well as those roasted flavors. Then you can even use some of the fennel fronds as a garnish, or aesthetics. That will add a nice green to that pizza. And if you’re a meat eater, just throw some pinches of sausage on there.
Brian: Well, those were some great answers! As we say, there are no losers in the “Scott Wiener Lightning Round”! I will mail you your prize of a San Francisco snow globe directly. Now that you’ve survived the lightning round, let’s get on to some more “Leah-specific” questions.
I really like how you won the Secret Basket People’s Choice event at the 2017 USPT West Coast Pizza Trials. Tell me about that.
Leah: Well, the secret ingredient was a cocktail cherry in heavy sauce. So, I really only needed two things, which I could not find at Dominic’s Italian Restaurant (the event venue). I needed powdered sugar and a mandolin. So, I ended up slicing my lemon slices, very thinly, on a meat slicer, rind on and all. A tiny little bit of mozzarella and a tiny little bit (I mean a lot) of butter. Used the whole cherries with the syrup drizzled over the pie. It was very much a dessert pizza. I was eventually able to find some powdered sugar at one of the shops on the boardwalk the restaurant is on in Oceanside, CA., and there you go. I think it went over well because it was light and a dessert pie. These people had tasted a lot of the best pies in the country by the time we started that competition. This was the perfect flavor and density for them at that point.
Brian: That’s great. I do remember a Twinkie pie being made by someone who shall remain nameless. That’s the fun of the secret ingredient. You can never be fully prepared. Congratulations.
You recently returned to the 2018 West Coast U.S. Pizza Cup and won 1st place and a trip to Italy in the Pan division, what kind of pie did you make there?
Leah: I called it the Rosemary Sicilian Grandma Pie. It’s kind of a meld between a Sicilian and a Grandma- style crust, but it was infused with rosemary. It had a mushroom medley like I mentioned before, some great shredded and block mozzarella from Galbani, some Point Reyes Toma and some truffle gouda. Crushed tomato sauce from Bianco DiNapoli, then topped off with cup and char and pan-fried pepperonis. All finished with some basil and 36-month aged parmesan.
Brian: You can actually see that pie recipe video at pmq.com/1018B. Thank you very much for that recipe by the way.
Leah: Of course.
Brian: So even if you don’t win a competition, do you think there is benefit for a pizzeria to compete?
Leah: It’s become an important thing for us. Not necessarily the competition itself, but the camaraderie, and the ideas that get flowing when you get talking to people and seeing what they are doing. People are sharing. They’re sharing technique, they’re sharing ideas and everything about running a restaurant, or being in a kitchen or making pizzas, and you just learn a lot. I think it’s a great environment to put yourself in to further your skills and further your knowledge.
Brian: So now I’m gonna to jump to something a little more… I don’t want to say personal… no, more hard-hitting. (This is not my forte). You… you’re a woman.
Leah: I am.
Brian: You are! Do you ever have difficulties in the industry because you’re a woman in a position of power in a large company, but also an industry mostly dominated by men?
Leah: Absolutely. I think probably every woman has. I’ve had a couple of instances with employees that didn’t want to listen to what I said, but luckily the upper management in Pizza My Heart was 50/50 on genders, so that was never an issue from the corporate side. If a starting employee had a hard time with respecting the office, not the person, they would find they might have issues in advancing.
Brian: What about the industry in general?
Leah: Yeah. It is a male-dominated industry. I’ve had a few run-ins with it. For instance, in Italy. We went one year with the U.S. Pizza Team, and someone at the event wanted a picture with the team. The whole team was standing there in our coats, and they walked up and handed me the camera to take the photo. There was no question that I was not part of the team or with that group, just, you’re the woman, you take the picture. Old school attitudes. You can’t let that bother you though. You’re not gonna get anywhere if you stay hung up on those things. I really make it a point to touch base, say hi, or to be friends with the other women in the competitions or at trade shows, because there are not that many of us. If we don’t stick together and we don’t have each other’s backs, then sometimes, nobody else will.
Brian: Do you feel being a woman has ever held you back in your career? Either overtly or covertly?
Leah: With Pizza My Heart, absolutely not. They have always had my back and been there for me. If it has happened other places, I’m not aware. I try not to let that affect me. Sometimes it does, and it’s unavoidable. But if I just do my best, and work my hardest and be who I am, then, if at the end of the day, you don’t want me because I’m a woman, then it’s your loss.
Brian: That's some solid advice, for everyone. Aside from those, do you have any other tips for other women climbing the ranks in the pizza world?
Leah: Come out, get involved, compete, and talk to each other. We all have to be there for each other. If you’re worried about the competitions being all men, look, I’ve been to tons of competitions where I was the only woman, and it would be great if there were more women at these events. Just try not to take it all personal. Fight through it. Be you. Be who you are and don’t sweat the small things. Show up… be there… don’t be small… make your presence known.
Brian: Great words of wisdom for everyone. Thank you so much for your time in the Chef’s Corner, Leah. I look forward too many more Award-Winning pies from you in the future. If people want to find out or follow you on social media, how do they find you?
Leah: Thanks for having me. People can find out about Pizza My Heart at www.pizzamyheart.com, if you want to find out more about me, you can find me on Instagram—@Scurtographer.
Brian: Thanks again Leah. We will see you again soon in Italy at the World Pizza Championships!