Denver Chef Wins $15K In National Real California Pizza Contest

Real California Pizza Contest Winners
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Winners from Chicago and Las Vegas Take Home $5,000 Each in Bake-off Featuring Real California Cheeses


After 11 chefs spent a competitive day crafting and working pizza dough, developing unique toppings and sauces, and combining innovative blends of California cheeses, on May 9th the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) rewarded three with the ultimate prize in the 2019 Real California Pizza Contesta national search for the best pizza recipes using Real California Cheese.

Grand Prize winner Thomas Garnick, from Brava! Pizzeria in Denver, took home the Real California Pizza Contest top prize for his Bandera de Fusion pizza representing the Mexican-Style category. This pizza, inspired by the Mexican flag, included pork carnitas, salsa verde and mole and featured four California-produced Hispanic-style cheese and dairy products – Oaxaca, asadero, cotija and crèma Mexicana. Garnick received $5,000 for winning the category and an additional $10,000 for the grand prize distinction. 

Two other category winners, each taking home $5,000, joined Garnick in the winners’ circle:

  • Giovanni Labbate, from Bricks Wood Fired Pizza Café in Schaumberg, Ill., who won the All Cheese category with his pizza called Harvest. Harvest, a New York-style pizza, was topped with kale, butternut squash and caramelized red onions and showcased California-produced mozzarella, fontina and parmesan.
  • Las Vegas-based chef John Alers, of Flour and Barley – Brick Oven Pizza won The REAL California category with a California-inspired gluten-free pizza called Cow-Incidence. Cow-Incidence blended applewood-smoked bacon, roasted chicken breast, pulled pork and was topped with three California-produced cheeses – mozzarella, smoked mozzarella and raw sharp cheddar.

Real California Pizza

The contest, awarding prize money totaling $25,000 for the most innovative use of cow’s milk cheeses from California and made with Real California Milk, was open to professional chefs and culinary students across the U.S.  The contest was held at The CIA at Copia, The Culinary Institute of America’s epicurean destination in Napa, Calif. 

Nine professional chefs and two culinary students competed in the national finals. Chefs represented restaurants and food companies from California and as far away as New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and Washington, with two culinary students representing The Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif. and the Columbus Culinary Institute at Bradford School.

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Three culinary professionals – Barbara Alexander, executive chef and consulting partner for The Culinary Institute of America’s consulting division; Glenn Cybulski, certified pizzaiolo and award-winning executive chef; and Scott Weiner, founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in NYC – evaluated each entry. The judges based their blind evaluations on a variety of factors with a focus on the innovative use of cheeses made with Real California Milk.

“The pizzas created today really showcased the innovation happening in the pizza category,” said Mike Gallagher, business and market development consultant for the CMAB. “The judges were impressed by the creativity represented in the recipes as well as the culinary skills demonstrated in bringing those recipes to life – from the selection of raw ingredients through to the final bake.”

“We were excited to see the diverse choices of cheeses used from throughout California,” said CMAB CEO John Talbot. “As the top producer in the United States, we were expecting to see plenty of California-produced mozzarella, but we were also pleased to see so many non-traditional varieties like ricotta, asiago, blue, dry jack, and white and garlic cheddar. And because we included a Mexican-style recipe category, we saw some delicious combinations of great Hispanic-style cheeses – from Oaxaca, queso fresco, asadero and cotija to crèma Mexicana. It is this kind of creativity and variety that California cheeses have become known for and we are thrilled that these chefs are making such good use of it.”

pizza show challengewinnerFollowing is a full list of the all the finalists, their affiliations and pizza concepts for the 2019 Real California Pizza Contest: 

Mexican-Style

  • GRAND PRIZE AND CATEGORY WINNER: Thomas Garnick, a professional chef from Denver, Colo., founded Brava! Pizzeria. This top prize was inspired by the Mexican flag and included pork carnitas, salsa verde, mole and featured four California-produced Hispanic-style cheeses – Oaxaca, asadero, cotija and crèma Mexicana.
  • Spencer Glenn, a professional chef from Pacific Grove, Calif., works at Pizza My Heart. His entry, Holy Mole, featured Oaxaca, cotija and crèma Mexican along with chicken mole, avocado and purple radishes.
  • Justin Pearson is a culinary student from Dublin, Ohio, where he attends the Columbus Culinary Institute at Bradford School. His entry, Carnitas Street Taco Pizza, featured cotija, Oaxaca, queso fresco and fresh crèma along with a green chile pesto, spicy pickled vegetables and carnitas.
  • Lars Smith, a professional chef from Palo Alto, Calif., works at State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria. His entry, Super Chorizo con Papa, featured Oaxaca, queso fresco, cotija and crèma Mexican along with chorizo and pickled red onion. Lars was also selected as finalist in The REAL California category.

All Cheese

  • CATEGORY WINNER: Giovanni Labbate, a professional chef from Schaumburg, Ill., works at Bricks Wood Fired Pizza Café. His entry, Harvest, was a New York-style pizza featuring kale, butternut squash and caramelized red onions and showcased California-produced fresh mozzarella, fontina and parmesan.
  • Daniel Bothman, a professional chef from Bellingham, Wash., works at La Fiamma Wood-Fire Pizza. His entry, Sei Cheese White Pie, was a white sauce pizza that featured an herbed ricotta base, along with blue cheese, gorgonzola, dry jack and a blend of mozzarella, provolone and cheddar.
  • Buffy Wimmer, a professional chef from McKinney, Texas owns Jersey Pies. Her entry, St. Patty’s Irish Pub Pizza, was an Irish-inspired pizza that featured seasoned hash browns, smoked bacon and a splash of Guinness. The cheeses that her recipe showcased are sharp cheddar, low moisture mozzarella and asiago.
  • No qualified culinary student entries were identified for this category.

The REAL California

  • CATEGORY WINNER: John Alers, a professional chef from Henderson, Nev., works at Flour and Barley – Brick Oven Pizza. His entry, Cow-Incidence, a California-inspired gluten-free pizza featured blended applewood-smoked bacon, roasted chicken breast, pulled pork and was topped with three California-produced cheeses – mozzarella, smoked mozzarella and raw sharp cheddar.
  • Erin MacLennan, a culinary student from Allendale, N.J., just graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif. Her entry, The Kale-ifornia, featured California produced garlic cheddar cheese along with kale, bacon and julienned onions.
  • Ricky Webster, a professional chef from Spokane, Wash., works at SYSCO Spokane. His entry, Chard to Resist, was a California-inspired pizza that featured ricotta, mezzo secco and raw white cheddar cheese, hot honey and shallots.
  • Lars Smith is a professional chef who works at State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria in Palo Alto, Calif. His entry, The Napa Grandma, was crafted around cheddar and burrata cheese and featured red wine salami, pickled grapes and arugula. Lars was also selected as finalist in the Mexican-Style category.

The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), an instrumentality of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is funded by the state’s more than 1,300 dairy families and is one of the largest agricultural marketing boards in the United States. With a mission to increase demand for products made with Real California Milk, the CMAB is celebrating 50 years in 2019 of promoting California’s sustainable dairy products in the state, across the U.S. and around the world through advertising, public relations, research, and retail and foodservice promotional programs. The Foodservice Division of the CMAB supports foodservice operators and distributors that use Real California dairy products. The CMAB offers marketing and promotional support for foodservice operators that purchase dairy products with the Real California Milk seal, which means they are made with 100 percent milk from California’s 1,300 dairy families. For more information on sourcing cheese from California, please contact the foodservice team at 209.883.6455 (MILK), businessdevelopment@cmab.net or their website.

  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • DAVO Sales Tax
  • Imperial Dade
  • RAK Porcelain
  • Day & Nite
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado
  • Inline Plastics Safe-T-Chef
  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • RATIONAL USA
  • McKee Foodservice
  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units