published Friday, October 4th, 2013

Chattanooga pizza tosser swings for world championship title

Bradley Johnson demonstrates his abilities Thursday using an artificial pizza dough at Mellow Mushroom. Johnson is competing in Las Vegas this weekend for a spot on the U.S. Pizza Team and a chance to go to the world pizza-tossing world championship.
Bradley Johnson demonstrates his abilities Thursday using an artificial pizza dough at Mellow Mushroom. Johnson is competing in Las Vegas this weekend for a spot on the U.S. Pizza Team and a chance to go to the world pizza-tossing world championship.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Bradley Johnson makes pizza dough dance.

He took the floor in Italy at the Pizza World Championships in a black tie and sunglasses and flipped, spun, tossed and stretched pizza dough in a freestyle acrobatics routine set to the tune of The Blues Brothers' "Soul Man."

Ten judges sat in front of him. A camera zoomed in on his moves and projected them on a large screen for the crowd of about 300 spectators. He had to stay in a 20-foot by 20-foot performance arena.

"I was nervous," he said. "It was one of the most nervous times I've ever done it. But it was a lot of fun."

The 23-year-old Chattanoogan competed against 400 of the world's best pizza tossers and chefs during the five-day competition in April. The judges looked at technique, speed, choreography and crowd participation.

His Blues Brothers routine earned 399 of a possible 500 points -- good enough for eighth place. But not quite good enough for the competitive UTC accounting major.

"I was happy since it was my first time there, but I wanted to be top three," he said.

So he's trying again. Johnson is flying today to compete in the American Pizza Championship in Las Vegas.

He'll perform in three categories: fastest pie maker, largest dough stretch and freestyle acrobatics. If he takes first place in any category, he'll earn a free trip to Italy for the 2014 world championships as a member of the U.S. Pizza Team.

If he misses first place, he'll probably cough up the $2,600 and pay out of pocket to compete. Because it's just that fun.

"I've learned a lot of new tricks," he said. "A lot of them came from that competition. That was one of the best parts, getting to meet the different acrobats from the different countries, because the styles between the countries change."

Johnson, a shift leader at the Mellow Mushroom restaurant on Broad Street, used to spend four or five hours a day practicing with Throw Dough -- soft plastic pies that act like real dough -- but now he spends only about five hours a week practicing.

He and other chefs at Mellow Mushroom sometimes toss real dough when making pizza for customers.

"Everyone tries it, but he's the only one with his skill," said Jesse Taylor, Mellow Mushroom manager. "It started when we were trying to find the fastest way to whip out the dough, and then it turned into an entertainment thing."

Johnson said he loves the look on diners' faces when he starts pulling tricks with the pizza dough. He can throw it between his legs, above his head, or roll

it down one arm and across his back to his other arm.

"Kids around here make it a lot of fun, especially when you're just making pizza in the kitchen," he said. "To see their faces and how amused they are by it is great."

What advice does the world-champion hopeful have for would-be pizza tossers?

"Be one with the dough," Johnson said.

He added that he hopes he'll still be throwing pizza in 10 years.

"One of my goals after I graduate is to open a pizzeria," he said. "So I do see myself doing it long-term."

As he heads to Vegas today, he's planning to compete with a routine set to Wild Cherry's "Play that Funky Music."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury joined the Times Free Press as a business reporter in January 2013, after starting with the paper as a general assignment intern in July 2012. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint Hill Times. Outside the newsroom, Shelly enjoys ...

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