Tom Pizzica: The Whole Story

I Grew up in West Chester, PA and my love for the kitchen started at a very early age. As a young child, I would help my mother with dinner and the occasional party she would throw. Even if the task was as simple as licking the spoon or putting the dishes in the sink, I was more than happy to help. By age 8, I was butterflying chicken for cutlets and cooking perfect fried eggs and toast. Now, do I think my mother is crazy for letting me get that close to a stove or a sharp object at 8 years old? Yes I do. But she recognized a passion and always supported it.

High school passed with little fanfare and I got my first restaurant job when I was 16 years old at a place called Anthony’s Pizza. I quickly fell in love with the pace of service, the intensity of the kitchen heat, and smells wafting through the dish pit doorway. I denied my calling the first time and quit before I could move up to making cheesesteaks and hoagies on the flat top; the next step in the hierarchy of that kitchen.

I started to think about colleges at this point in my life and my mother was always throwing around names like CIA, Johnson and Whales, or Cornell School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. I ignored her coaxing and my ultimate chosen path once again to attend a “real school” to get a “real job”. Well folks, a “real college” was not the answer and I had no idea what I wanted to get into for my career. I chose Speech Pathology as a course of study but started to think more and more about cooking.

Then it happened. One day in audiology class I opened the school newspaper (as I usually did during class) and staring back at me was a full page ad for the local Outback Steakhouse seeking line cooks. It was then and there that the calling could not be denied any longer. I quickly applied and was on the line making salads and desserts for 500 people a night. I loved it. The clanking of the hot plates, the sizzle from the deep fryers behind me, the yelling of kitchen Spanish back and forth down the line, the clowning around and the team work, the waitresses in their shorts (hey, I was in college!) and of course the food. I fully embraced the challenge of making each salad and dessert just like the last one and balancing the timing and order of everything. I moved up the line very quickly and began to learn that making perfect food every time is hard enough but when it becomes a constant juggling act on a tightrope thin timeline, it gets extremely intense. I was immediately hooked! The calling was to be denied no longer and I began to think about how I could make a living doing what I love. (And what to tell my parents about the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on school!?)

As per usual my mother and father were very supportive and I moved back home to the Philadelphia area and began working at a very small fine-dining French joint my dad had invested a little money in. Going from a corporate kitchen to a small independently owned place was a huge change and quickly proved what I feared all along. I didn’t know anything about real technique. Never afraid to learn or fail (two crucial personality traits of anyone looking to succeed in this business), I jumped right in.  I learned from a couple of guys barely my age that had been in the business since they were 15.  After about a year, I had learned all this tiny place could teach me and went looking for other jobs in the restaurant arena.

I dropped the right name and scored a gig as a manager in a downtown oyster house in Philadelphia. The place already had a hands on owner and a general manager so I was nothing more than a hostess who counted the servers’ money at the end of the night and scheduled their shifts. Spending my days seating people and listening to servers complain about their schedules and sections was not my idea of a good career. To top it off,  the kitchen staff gave me absolutely no respect. I befriended a few cooks and would share smokes with them in the back alley but I was still viewed as a waste of payroll by them and I began to view myself as such. I inadvertently got myself fired by throwing a big dinner for all my friends around Christmas time and comping the bill a little to much (I only took off 40%!) and it didn’t help that the kitchen staff ratted me out for giving away liquor, a mortal sin to any restaurant owner.

I was broke and needed money fast. I also wanted to learn the other crucial aspect of the restaurant world; waiting tables. I went back to my local Outback Steakhouse and scored a serving gig with ease because I already knew the menu and could communicate with people effectively. It turned out to be the best decision I’ve made up to this point in my life. I met a young hostess there named Rachel who became a great friend and 8 years later became my wife. Working there also made me realize that I needed to do something more with my life. After about a year, I began to dream up ways to get out of my ratty suburban two bedroom apartment, and away from Philly all together. I began to think about the U.S. Virgin Islands or something else drastic and far far away, but what happened next really became the turning point in my culinary career.

I went to San Francisco for the first time at the request of two of my life long best friends who had moved out there years before. I fell in love with it and it just so happened that I had a friend who worked at the California Culinary Academy. I enrolled, signed my life away in student loans (my parents weren’t about to shell out any more money for school!) and moved there four months after I first visited.

I began living the dream. I was flat broke, in debt up to my eyeballs and living in a tiny dorm room on Eddy Street in the tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco with some 19 year old kid from Baltimore. It was amazing because I was finally doing it. I was fully embracing my calling to be a professional cook. It didn’t take long to score a job, because my route to school everyday took me past the famed hotel Phoenix where a new restaurant called the Bambuddha Lounge was about to open up. How did I know it was a new place? Because everyday I would see a 30 year old guy standing outside the kitchen door looking like he had been asked to paint the Sistine Chapel in water colors with a toothbrush.  One day on the way home from school, I finally got up the nerve to ask if he needed any help. You would have thought I told him I was Michelangelo showing up on the scene with a set of oil paints and brushes to take over on the ceiling part of the job.

The relationship began with one simple question on that winter afternoon: “do you now how to roll a raw spring roll?”  Right then and there I became entrenched in the big city restaurant subculture with this chef as my guide. He became a mentor not only in the kitchen (he taught me more about California Asian style cuisine than any schooling could have possibly taught me) but also tuned me in to the whole San Francisco restaurant scene. The late late nights, the brutal long hours. Sometimes I would curse my passion but I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He was a rockstar, and I quickly learned that good chefs get treated as such. I wanted to be a rockstar too!

I spent the next 15 months going to school and working prep in the mornings trying to learn as much as I could. I did my externship in Philly and graduated culinary school in 2004. I first worked at a small neighborhood Italian place and then sunk my feet into a few of the well known big restaurants of San Francisco. I worked the grill at Postrio at night and also did breakfast shifts at the famed Campton Place hotel in the mornings. I was learning from some of the best chefs and soon had a merry crew of fellow cooks to party with at night. I was still flat broke but loving my life.

This went on for a few years and then in 2006 my parents retired and moved to Maryland. They had an opportunity to purchase a 100 year old hotel and restaurant in Chestertown, MD but would only do it if I moved there to be the executive chef. I was 28 years old and by no means did I think I had the experience yet to take over my own kitchen but I would have been a fool to pass up the opportunity. Rachel had no desire to go to this small Maryland town because she had just settled into the San Francisco life after graduating college and was enjoying her lifelong passion of floral design. It was also a far cry from the fast paced city life we both enjoyed but being the supportive person that she is, she went with me.

I renamed the restaurant “The Front Room at the Imperial Hotel” and we hired someone who became another mentor for me. Joe Dolce, a sommelier by trade and a General Manager by experience, he taught me a lot about what it takes to own and operate a business. My food was ready for the big time but my business sense was not.  Unfortunately the tanking economy was no help and made it difficult for an already small town that relies heavily on tourists for income.

Chestertown was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was small…tiny in fact, and it was extremely hard to find cooks that shared my passion.  I worked 16 hour days almost everyday and got physically and mentally exhausted. I lasted three years there and by the middle of the third year, I was seriously low on creative energy and inspiration. It was miserable. I had nothing to spur my creativity and no more energy left to pretend I was still in love with this lifestyle.

Rachel had the opportunity to buy the flower shop she left in San Francisco and jumped on it. I saw this as my out because there was no way I was doing this without her. My misery was tearing us apart and I knew I had to get out and get back to the city I love and breathe some life into my cooking soul.

I packed my entire life into a $700 Ford Aerostar van in the summer of 2009, and my best friend and I set off on the road trip to end all road trips. I had an engagement ring in my pocket and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was extremely burnt out from my time in Maryland and had zero desire to consider going back into a professional kitchen. I felt like Rocky after his loss to Clubber Lang in the third movie. This road trip was the journey to a new life. I came to San Francisco the first time with nothing but a dream and I was returning pretty much same way only with a little more furniture and life experience.

I arrived in late July and proposed to my Rachel in a song I had written for her on the guitar. She accepted, and the next day, being my fiance now with a little more pull than just a girlfriend, she forced me to go to an open audition for the new season of “The Next Food Network Star” season 6.   She had always seen the entertainer in me and thought I would be perfect for the show. To be honest, I had never really watched it but I knew who the winners of previous seasons were.

I went to the audition and crankily sat there for three hours begging Rachel to let me leave and go get some lunch. When I finally got into the interview room, 30 seconds flew by in front of the panel and when it was over, I had a pink slip of paper in my pocket telling me when and where to show up for the callback the next day. They told me to hide it and not tell anyone on the way out so I naturally saw this as an opportunity to play a trick on my new fiancé. I walked out looking really disappointed and she started to feel so bad about making me stay there for so long. But as soon as we got into the elevator, I pulled out the paper and we both started jumping up and down.

From there you pretty much saw the rest of the story if you watched the NFNS season 6. I went from no cooking enthusiasm to finding that spark again all on national TV thanks to the show. I worked my tail off during the filming and found out that entertaining people through cooking and food has always been in my blood. I will continue striving to be the best at this and hope you will join me in all of my culinary adventures be it on “Outrageous Food” or doing demos and dinner parties.

Thanks for being a fan and thanks for listening to my story.

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20 Responses to Tom Pizzica: The Whole Story

  1. Lauren says:

    Great story. So inspiring. You da best :)
    Watch out for Tom Pizzica, world!!!! This guy is doing BIG THINGS!!!!

  2. Carol Shaw says:

    Hi Tom,
    Hard to express how proud I am of you.
    Sorry C-town was such a strain, but to see it in print doesn’t really surprise me.
    I wish you success on your new “OUTRAGEOUS FOOD” program. Personally, I think the chef will be more fun to watch than the food will be to eat, and I have NO doubt that the food will be wonderful!
    Carol Shaw

  3. Vicki says:

    You were a favorite from the beginning. We liked your humor and your outrageous ideas but you had no passion. The next week Aarti would be our favorite, then you’d have a good week. And so the season went for my husband and I, you & Aarti being our favorites. My husband and I don’t particularly care for Indian food but Aarti does make it a bit more accessible for us. You on the other hand had some great ideas, are were willing to try anything which encourages my husband who loves to cook too.

    Can’t wait for your show to start!!! We know you’ll be a big hit, just be your big outrageous self, toss in a few good ingredients and stir!
    Best of everything to you, you’re a winner too!!
    Vicki & Rob

  4. Carolyn Halpern says:

    Tom,
    We are so proud of you. I am Jerry’s Shinfeld’s cousin and Mark and I attended your beautiful wedding. Can’t wait to see you on your show.
    Give our love to Rachel.
    Love,
    Carolyn & Dyani Halpern, Mark Fleischman

  5. Mary Eileen Omlor Johnston says:

    Break-a-(um)….chicken leg??

    Happy to have had hosted you with your buds, my nephews Sean, Brian, and Austin and their father, my bro, Kevin!

    Seems like too long ago, but I’ll never forget that Christmas; so sorry I never got to Chestertown afterall.

    Wishing you all the best!
    MEJ

  6. Ruth says:

    I followed you from the beginning of the NFNS and After reading your story, it inspires me to keep trying and not to give up on my dreams!!!Congratulations in your new showwww

  7. Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site by accident, I bookmarked it.

  8. Shawn says:

    I don’t like to read a lot, but you’re such a great personality. I enjoyed the whole story. I hope you’ll have a book out some day.. you can combine your wonderful stories with pictures and recipes.

  9. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

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  17. Suvir Saran says:

    Tom – If you keep writing as you do, and with the honesty with which you write, and keep feeding us the wonderful food you prepare, I could listen to you endlessly.

    Thanks for some of the tastiest bites of food at the CIA Worlds of Flavor Conference – Japan in Napa Valley. I can still taste the flavors of your magical pulled pork sandwich.

    Wish you great success, good health and great joy – always.

    Best,

    Suvir Saran
    “the foolish Indian chef who had no idea about your celebrity and was smitten by your food and you from first bite”

  18. Marian Hamilton says:

    Proud to say I knew you when. So much fun following your career.

  19. Francesca Hohimer says:

    Great story!! Its always nice to erad about someone who has been able to comeback after loosing the passion for what you love. You can bet ill keep watching “Outrageous Foods” (its set to automatically record whenever its on so i never miss an episode!). Thanks for a great show and story to go along with it!

  20. johnny love says:

    Pretty lame blog since ole boy Tom Pizza won’t respond to his fans.