See how Will Grant began with sourdough, invigorating a new generation of sourdough chefs
Sourdough breads have taken our Covid Pandemic Lockdown World by storm. What better way is there to spend quarantine than by filling your home with the aroma of fresh baked sourdough bread? So many people have become Internet famous with their methods on baking with sourdough. As new as this is to the pandemic, sourdough has been in the United States since before the late 1800s, and it originated even further back. The first known written records of sourdough were written in hieroglyphs by the ancient Egyptians.
My family sourdough is like a sibling to me. With that sourdough I have helped open 13 different restaurants using it in every one, never refrigerating it, always leaving it at room temperature, feeding it once if not twice a day for over 37 years now. For 33 years we kept our use of this sourdough to ourselves, our secret ingredient that no one else could replicate! It wasn’t until I started taking over the pizzeria as a manager and started taking more management classes at the Pizza Expo and Tony Gemignani’s school did I realize that our secret recipe was really a secret weapon in differentiating ourselves from the competition.
I am very fortunate to have inherited an ancient sourdough that got its start in the Klondike Gold Rush. In the early 1980s my parents, Lee and Marti, started having backyard pizza competitions with close friends (the Hausmann family). They tried to make that amazing concoction that we all love so much! After a few months of trial and error they came up with a recipe using the Hausmann’s great-great grandfather’s sourdough starter, which at that time was already 90 years old. I remember my father taking his first bite of that sourdough pizza and looking at us all and saying in an Italian accent, “Now that’s a some pizza!” This pizza was way better than anything they had had before in the Pacific Northwest. And that’s how That’s A Some Pizza was born.
My first time really getting to know this ancient starter is when we first brought it to our first pizzeria for our opening week in 1984. We were using a giant plastic garbage can to mix and feed our starter and we had to transport it to the shop for opening day. It was the 80s and road laws have changed a bit since then, but it was my job as the smallest member of the That’s A Some crew to sit in the bed of the pickup truck to hold up the starter and make sure it didn’t tip over on the ride in. I was six years old and very proud to be helping out. I remember it well. It was a hot July day and we were about halfway to the shop on a bumpy dirt road and the weirdest thing happened. With a loud “POP” the top blew off of the garbage can and sourdough started streaming down the sides! I immediately went into panic mode and used my arms to scrape the starter up the sides of the can, trying to keep it off the floor of the truck. It didn’t take me long to become completely covered in that sourdough and realize A: there was no way to keep it contained, B: that the truck had stopped moving and C: that there was loud laughter coming from the cab of the truck. I was relieved that I wasn’t in trouble, but it wasn’t the last time I’d be covered in this sourdough starter.
So my life with sourdough starter started off with a bang. Being so young, it took me a few more years before really becoming passionate about cooking and pizza. It was in 1988 that my love for pizza really began. My parents took me with them to Europe for a two-month vacation to research Italian food before opening our first Italian dine-in restaurant. It was an amazing experience. I refused to eat any food but pizza. So for 60 days in a row I ate a margherita pizza every day. When we returned to the states, I had a whole new appreciation for pizza and Italian culture.
We hired a Sicilian Master Chef to help open our new restaurant and I started a cooking apprenticeship with him. For the next five years I slowly worked my way up each position in the back of the house, from dishwasher, to prep cook, to line cook, to sauté cook. I then left the kitchen and started working the front of the house. I continued the same process and worked from the bottom to the top spending a year in each position. By the end of this process, I had studied under five different chefs and some of the best front of the house managers in our county. But I was still hungry for more. I stepped away from the family business and started my own pizzeria. It did well, but I still wanted even more, so I sold my pizzeria and moved to the East Coast to work with a chain of Italian restaurants in New England called Bertucci’s. I spent a summer in the management training program helping run a restaurant in Peabody, Massachusetts. By the end of that summer, I was homesick for the Pacific Northwest and my family was having a hard time with one of our restaurants, so I came home to help.
Fast forward 15 years. My family retired, and it was my turn to take over. I wanted to make my family and community proud. Staying relevant in an over 30-year-old business can be challenging. So, I changed things up a bit; I decided to become a certified pizzaiolo. After a bunch of research, I decided the most qualified school in the United States was Tony’ Gemignani’s International School of Pizza. Going to Tony’s school was an amazing experience. It confirmed so much I already knew… but didn’t even have names for. Tony Gemignani and his right-hand woman, Laura Meyer, are amazing teachers and taught me a lot of things about different styles of pizza.
In 2017 my life changed forever. After becoming a certified pizzaiolo with Tony Gemignani I followed Tony’s advice and started cooking competitively. I used my sourdough and the techniques Tony taught me to win the prestigious Caputo Cup Non-Traditional title in Atlantic City at the Pizza & Pasta Northeast show. This first-place win and a second-place win by my store manager in the Traditional competition made That’s A Some Pizza the top-rated pizzeria in the United States!
If you’re interested in sourdough, join me at my seminar “Working with Sourdough” at Pizza Expo this August. I will show you how to adapt your pizza recipes to add sourdough the way my parents did. I’ll teach you different techniques like poolish and biga to get different flavor profiles in different styles of pizza. I’ll also cover feeding schedules and recipes to implement your use of starter. Most importantly I will give you the confidence of using the science the way Tony taught me to tinker with your dough and make the best dough possible for you and your business!
Will Lawrence-Grant owns and operates That’s a Some Pizza and Sourdough Willy’s, in Bainbridge Island and Kingston, Washington.