Tom Pizzica made a name for himself searching for the hottest wings, the most gigantic pizza or the most monstrous burger on the Food Network’s “Outrageous Food.” Before that gig, he headed up the kitchen at his parents’ hotel on the Eastern Shore. He came to Maryland from a small French restaurant in San Francisco, and when his girlfriend decided to go back to the city, he followed her. Pizzica competed as a contestant on season six of “Next Food Network Star,” and although he didn’t win, he was a finalist. Now, he’s the chef and owner of Big Chef Tom’s Belly Burger, where he serves burgers made of ground pork belly. He’ll be in town Saturday, June 5, for Off Broad Appétit, a benefit for FeedMore that brings chefs from across the country to show off in Richmond.
Style: What were you doing before the Food Network show?
Pizzica: When I left Maryland, I bought a $700 van in Camden, New Jersey. It had no tail lights, it had a kickass air-conditioning system, and it had no power brakes. This thing had holes in the floor. My thought was that I only needed to get this 3,000 miles and I could junk [it] when I got to California. A U-Haul would cost me thousands of dollars.
When I went to pick it up, they asked me where I was going. I said, “I’m going to San Francisco.” And they said, “I wouldn’t even go to the grocery store in this.”
I packed it to the gills, I had an engagement ring with me, I took my best friend and we did this road trip across America. The van made it — there were some miraculous moments where we thought it was over, but it pulled through.
I came to San Francisco and when I got there, I said, “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with my life.” My girlfriend told me about an open audition for the “Next Food Network Star.”
You finished the show as a finalist but got your own Food Network show anyway. How did that happen?
The way I look at it is that I didn’t win, but I never got kicked off. All of us knew [fellow contestant Aarti Sequeira] was going to win. … so I was plotting the whole time. I just had to do enough to attract attention and they’d want me for something else.
What was it like working on “Outrageous Food?” I was scrolling through the show page and there were a lot of burgers — a lot of gigantic burgers.
There were a lot of burgers, wings, pizza, things like that. They never really ran with the show the way I always wanted them to do. The Food Network wanted to stay away from the expensive stuff, but I thought that was stupid. That’s what people go to TV for — to escape. You know what I mean?
But I’m a small business owner now, and I just really liked the fact for these other small businesses, that when this thing aired, it was going to blow them up. That was the really rewarding part of it — you were really helping some of these folks out.
What came next?
They just never called me back. We finished filming the second season … it’s just a brutal life. I was waiting around for the phone to ring essentially. And the phone never rang. They didn’t want to tell me, “Hey, go fucking do something else with your life.” They should have! They just don’t do that. That’s what I wanted to hear! I was super depressed.
And then there was Belly Burger.
I had this concept to do the pork belly burger while I was on TV. I did an event for the Pork Board and did it as a demo in Napa. Burgers were really huge and pork belly was becoming really big in America. Everybody has a bacon burger or mixes it with other stuff, but nobody’s had the balls to just take pork belly, grind it, patty it and make a burger out of it.
What you going to cook for Off Broad Appétit?
I’m looking forward to cooking something other than burgers. I have a concept in my brain but I haven’t done it yet. I’m going to do a crispy sea scallop crusted with polenta, and then I’m going to do a pig parts and black lentil gravy with some pickled apricots. So, it’ll be rich, you’ll get the tartness from the apricot and obviously, scallops are amazing, especially when they’re fried and crispy. I’ve done all of the components, but never put them together. It should be tasty — I’m sure it’ll be tasty. You know, if something doesn’t work, we’ll adjust on the fly and we’ll do it. We have, what? Seven chefs? Six? We’ll do it.