LAS VEGAS, Nevada – Local pizza chef Tom “TJ” Elder’s first trip to the International Pizza Expo was an eventful one, netting him a third-place win in the International Pizza Challenge.
TJ, a Fisher resident and 2011 graduation of Clarion-Limestone High School, has been working at his father’s business, Tommy’s Italian Pizzeria & Pub in Sigel, since it opened in 2015.
Prior to that, TJ’s family operated BJ’s Family Restaurant, in Knox, and operated concessions at a number of festivals and events over the years.
Growing up around a family business, TJ says he fell in love with cooking and decided to work toward expanding the family’s business.
“The business is growing, and needs to keep growing with a decent-sized family to support, and this is the kind of stuff I need to do to help it grow,” said TJ.
He had heard about the huge annual International Pizza Expo, held in Las Vegas, but this year, he decided it was time to go there.
“Honestly, one day I just started thinking about it and signed up.”
The International Pizza Expo began in 1985 and currently hosts over 7,000 attendees and about 500 exhibiting companies each year.
“It was overwhelming,” Elder noted. “The place is huge, and there was something like 1,200 vendors there.”
The trade show at the expo puts owners and managers of independent and chain pizza restaurants in touch with manufacturers and service providers to the industry. The expo also offers a number of seminars, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and demonstrations, as well as workshops, and the two big competitions: the International Pizza Challenge and the World Pizza Games.
TJ participated in the International Pizza Challenge, a bake-off event where pizza chefs vie to impress the judges with their culinary creations in five different categories. The pizzas are scored on crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings, overall taste, bake, and visual presentation, and in the Non-Traditional and American-Pan divisions, they are also scored on creativity.
He competed in the Northeast Region Traditional Division and was awarded third place for his New York style pizza topped with pepperoni and sauteed baby portobello mushrooms.
Because the competition ate up most of his time, TJ didn’t get much of an opportunity to attend many of the other events at the expo. However, this won’t be his last opportunity.
TJ said that he would be there again next year.
TJ not the only local resident in attendance at the expo. Scott Anthony of Punxsy Pizza (pictured above with Elder) who gave two seminars, one discussing community roots and another on marketing, and also participated in a panel discussion on achieving longevity.
Mike Schill, the owner of the Pizza Pub in Clarion, also attended with his son Eric and his daughter Marisa. Marisa competed in the Fastest Box Folding event in the World Pizza Games. While she didn’t place in the competition, it most likely won’t be her last opportunity, either.
According to Eric Schill, their family has been attending the expo for at least 25 years and has no plans to stop attending.
“It’s great, we always get a few ideas for different menu items and even different or more efficient equipment, just things we can tweak here or there,” explained Eric.