An interview with Audrey Kelly

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Audrey Kelly has traveled an unorthodox road to becoming a pizzaiola.

She began her journey as a recent college graduate, with a degree in journalism, traveling through Italy during an internship. It was during her time there that she fell in love with pizza. Returning to San Francisco, she emersed herself as much as possible into the craft of pizza-making through self-training and mentorships. Today, she co-owns a pizzeria with her brother and is a member of the World Pizza Champions and an Ambassador for Women in Pizza.

We reached out to Audrey to get a first-hand account of her pizza journey and learn more about her current projects, advice for new pizza makers, and insights into future plans.

Italy is always at the center of great love stories... We know you fell in love to pizza making during a journalism internship in Italy. Can you tell us more about that?
When I was in college I knew I wanted to be either an oversea’s correspondent or an investigative food journalist. That was the life track I was on until I went for a summer internship in Le Marche region of Italy. In addition to writing and learning the language, I also did my own personal study of the food. I traveled all over the country on my days off and every Sunday the group I was with would have a weekly dinner at a local pizzeria. It was there that it clicked with me what a beautiful and perfect food pizza is. I was instantly hooked. I went to Italy to further my journalism skills and instead I came back totally obsessed with pizza.  

After your trip to Italy, what did you do to kick off your career as a pizza chef? Do you have any suggestions for young pizza makers starting out?
When I came back from Italy anything and everything pizza related was my focus. I started my own journey learning how to make pizza. I made batches and batches of dough at home, read every book and blog I could find and went to every pizzeria in San Francisco trying to learn the ingredients and process. I’m the kind of person who likes to have a base knowledge and know why you do something a certain way.  At some point I hit a wall and realized that I needed more guidance and hands on experience. It was the same time that Tony Gemignani was opening up his restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach and his school. I enrolled in his Neapolitan class and after it was over I somehow talked him into giving me a job. After that, I worked with Tony for about 5 years before moving back to my home town of Boulder and opening up my own shop. My biggest suggestion would be to not be afraid of asking questions. Even now I am constantly changing my dough process and reaching out to fellow pizza people for advice. More than anything, get a job in the industry. How do you know you truly want to do something until you are actually working in it everyday. 

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After returning to your hometown of in Boulder, Colorado you  opened your own pizzeria—The Pizza Garage—with your brother, Peter. Businesses have ups and downs. Can you share one peak moment and one challenging moment that stands out to you, looking back at your life at Pizza Garage?
Everyday has both.  Our business is constantly evolving, especially right now. One of our peak moments was being featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.  It was fantastic to get the national recognition, but it was even better to have people from our town come in who never knew we were there. We are kind of hidden on the backside of a complex so unless you know to look for us, we are easily missed. 

Challenging moments pop up daily. The customer who wasn’t happy because we ran out of meatballs, getting a call that the walk-in shut down at 3 am or the grease trap overflowing right before the Friday dinner rush, but  I would say that the most challenging is finding the right employees. People who care about your product and can execute the vision you have for your product.

 

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The world is facing an unprecedented and difficult time in history, and we know that pizzerias have been affected everywhere. From a business perspective, how have you been adapting to face the challenges the Coronavirus epidemic brings?
We’ve been super lucky during the pandemic for a few reasons. The first is that, as a slice shop, we were primarily takeout already. It wasn’t a huge shift for us to make everything to go since 70 percent of our business already was. The second thing is that we have huge garage doors in the front. Right after the stay at home order went into effect, we closed off our dining room and turned the garage doors into our pickup and transaction area. We made wearing a mask and gloves mandatory right from the beginning and I think our customers felt safe knowing we were taking all of the safety precautions that we could. We also shifted almost all of our ordering online which allowed people to simply walk up to the window and pick up their order without having to touch anything. We started doing make at home pizza kits. It is was super popular not only because people felt safer about cooking the food in their own homes but it’s a great activity to do with kids and adult alike. 

We would like to know more about your signature Grandma-style tribute pizza, The Patty. What is the secret behind your creation?
The Patty is basically a Grandma style pie with sesame seeds on the bottom. It was the pizza that my mom always made us growing up. I’ve always loved Grandma pizza and I think it’s because I link it to my childhood. The sesames add a whole other layer of crunch to the bottom and mixed with the extra virgin olive oil in the pan it almost has a buttery flavor. We only make a limited number per day at the shop and right now we are struggling to keep up with the demand.   

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You are a member of the movement Women in Pizza – a place that empowers women in the pizza industry to share their talents, inspire innovation and connect one another and the world. How have you seen the role/status of woman in the pizza industry change over the last years?
I am so excited to be a part of this movement and the fact that so many other women are becoming interested in our industry. One of my favorite parts is just connecting with other people doing what I do and being inspired by them. It’s an interesting topic and everyone has their own take on it because each person has had different experiences. More than anything, I think it is just breaking through the boys club and receiving an equal amount of respect and recognition. 

I have been so fortunate in my career to have been supported and mentored by people, yes mostly men, who have always believed in me and not treated me any differently because of my gender. 

My hope, and what I know will happen, is that we won’t have to highlight women just because they are women, but because they are amazing pizza makers and business owners.  As with anything, it just takes time and this is a huge first step. 

What's next for you? What do you think is next for the pizza industry, particularly in the US?
I’ve been writing a few articles for Pizza Today and I would really love to expand upon that because next to pizza  writing is one of my favorite things.  I have also recently started consulting.  I think the pizza industry has been luckier than a lot of other restaurants during the pandemic and I see people shifting their focus to more of a refined takeout model. 

I’ve also noticed more artisanal pizzerias popping up, not distinctly one style or another which I love and I see that becoming more of the norm.  Pan pizza’s have seen a huge surge in popularity from Detroit to Roman and I see that just expanding in the next few years. 

Thank you, Audrey! We can`t wait to come visit you in Boulder! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I would love to see you in Boulder and hope to see everyone at expo in the near future!