An Interview with Tara Hattan
On April 28th of last year, hundreds of pizzaiolos hailing from all over the nation traveled to Toledo, Ohio, in hopes of becoming the next representatives for The United States Pizza Team. Veterans to rookies alike vy for these spots, and train year-round to win a trip that will allow them to compete on the international stage of London’s “European Pizza and Pasta” show in November - just seven months later! Needless to say, these qualifiers are a big deal. However, within last year’s Pizza Acrobatics competition, one contestant’s performance blew away both audience and judges alike. Now everyone in the pizza industry wants to know: who is this new acrobatics champion?
Fresh-faced, confident, and easy-going, we had the pleasure of sitting down with 23-year old Tara Hattan to learn about her story with pizza-acrobatics, and how she would like to take her new-found pizza successes into the future.
1. When and how did you get into the pizza-making business?
I was working at a pizzeria part-time while going to college for some extra money, and for some reason, I fell in love with it there. There was so much history and I was like, “Why am I going to school to do something that I am going to end up hating? I want to stay here and make pizza. I want to strive for this.”
From there, I dropped out of school and went on to start working in pizzerias. I worked at another pizzeria for two years before I ended up coming to Andolini’s.
2. Why pizza, opposed to other Italian culinary specialties? What is it that drives you?
Pizza is so underestimated and overlooked - especially by how much potential it has to be something extravagant. People just think pizza is like that cheap food that you go to sit and eat at home when there is nothing else to eat. Pizza is a lot more than that.
Source: @tarahattan via Instagram, 2019.
3. In your experience, what are the biggest differences between standard pizza dough, versus competitive acrobatic dough?
Acrobatic dough is really just flour and saltwater. It’s got a lot of salt and very minimal hydration. The dough that we usually use in the restaurant has oil, it has yeast, it’s fermented, it rises. Usually with acrobatic dough, you really want to use it after 24 hours.
Pizza dough? It’s usually better that third or fourth day.
3a. Is there a secret recipe you use for competitions?
Yeah! I always like to use my own dough, I don’t like people touching my dough. It’s my dough! I feel like my recipe changes every time I use it and I make it a little bit different.
4. Life - and business - have ups and downs. Can you share one peak moment and one low moment that stands out to you, looking back at your life and career in the world of pizza?
I don’t want to say there is too much of a “low” that stands out. I think one of the most defeating moments I had was the first year I competed in Vegas. I placed dead last minus the people who got disqualified, so that was actually eye-opening for what I was going into - the industry and the competitive side of it.
I think probably the high was in Vegas this past year when I went from last place to first place in the preliminaries. That was something I never would have imagined happening, let alone in just a year!
Source: @midamresexpo via Instagram, 2019.
5. Last year, you won the Gold Medal for the London (European Pizza & Pasta Show) qualifiers --- Amazing! When did you first realize you had a talent for pizza acrobatics?
I didn’t really “start”, other people made me want to get into it. I didn’t realize how good I was, I guess. I just kind of was, “Oh, yeah. I can throw pizza up in the air and I can catch it. So, I guess I’m good?”.
We had all of our locations compete against each other - kind of like what they do in Vegas but a little bit less serious. I was probably nineteen and I just watched videos trying to get really good at it because no one really wanted to do the acrobatics. They said, “Tara, you’re pretty good. You should do it for us!”
I was like, “Well if I’m going to do it, I am going to need to win!”
I watched all of these videos where people were flipping pizzas on the ground and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is a whole other world I had no idea existed! I wasn’t expecting this.” So I went [to the competition] and just tried to do something that no one else was going to do. Both of the owners ended up standing out of their seat, saying, “Wow, we weren’t prepared for that! That is what they do in Vegas. As soon as you turn twenty-one, you’re going to Vegas so don’t stop practicing!”
I didn't actually imagine going to Vegas, so when it happened I was like, “Alright, this is real. This is crazy!”
6. We have seen your performances and there is no doubt that your routines require a heavy amount of dedication. On average, how much training has it taken for you to perform at your caliber?
I have been practicing acrobatics for about 4 years and usually in between competitions, I will practice probably every other night for two hours or so… it’s almost a daily-basis thing.
A lot of it is arm strength when whipping the doughs. I do a lot of stuff on the ground too, so when you are whipping the doughs between your legs and trying to juggle it underneath your back, your whole body is probably on fire after doing that for five minutes!
Learning how to hand-stand is probably the most physically exhausting thing I’ve had to do because you’re just standing in one spot, learning to push your whole body upside down. It’s like, “I’m not used to that. I eat pizza every day!”
6a. Do you practice at home, or at the pizzeria?
Surprisingly, I don’t make that many pizzas when I’m here! I’m usually stuck on the other side of the kitchen. So when I go and practice, I have to go home. I take my “practice doughs” and I sort of hang-out in the living room playing music. It’s therapeutic. Some people like yoga, other people like working out. I play with doughs in my living room!
7. What do you most enjoy about Pizza Acrobatics?
I think it’s a more fun and less serious side. What most of us pizza makers do is just focusing on putting orders out, making beautiful pies, and making people happy! Acrobatics is fun. Nobody is telling me what I need to do… it’s completely my own creativity. I think that is my favorite part about pizza acrobatics.
The people that also do the acrobatics are my favorite people because we are all into the same stuff when it comes down to it.
Everybody helps each other and that is what I like. When we are about to go onstage, that is when we get serious and competitive with each other, but after and before? It’s purely fun. Everybody teaches each other moves and helps explain [tricks]. I think that is a better part of my success, by mainly having people tell me what I am doing wrong and how to do it differently. That has made me who I am.
8. Who are your mentors in the pizza-making industry?
Tony Gemignani! He is everyone’s inspiration.
Also, Mike Bausch - he’s the owner of Andolini’s. He has kind of taken me under his wing in this whole competitive world. [Mike] has taught me the ropes and what to do. He lets me practice my routines without asking me anything, and a week before Vegas he’s going to be like, “Let me see your routine. Okay that’s good, but do this and this differently.”
I’m like, “Are you sure?” and he is like, “Yeah, do it!” During the competition, I do it and he is usually always right!
Source: @tarahattan via Instagram, 2019.
9. What is the greatest challenge and, in your opinion, best part of being an award-winning pizzaiola?
You constantly feel like you have to live up to more and more. I feel like I don’t ever want to be in some position where I am not growing. That is just a part of [pizza acrobatics], where you are searching for new and innovative ways to just keep doing something different. I don’t really know if there is a downside!
10. What else is next for you?
I am hoping that within the next year I will start doing my own events with a catering trailer… I still want to work for Andolini’s, which is everything I want in a restaurant. I do [want my own pizza business] but progressively!
I think that is the beauty of having all of these great people who have made mistakes, and I am still so young. I am twenty-three. I do want to open my own restaurant but timing is everything. I don’t want to push myself into something I am not ready for.