Pizza Notes from Mckenzie


I’ve always felt like an imposter to the chef world. You won’t find any culinary degrees, outside experience, or previous kitchen jobs on my resume. I like cooking with an instant pot and I don’t own a collection of high-end knives, so when I was told I placed third in the world for pizza, I thought the judges made a mistake.


Dane and I opened Untamed in 2021 with the hopes of having great wine and food. Wine was Dane’s specialty: having made wine for large and small producers all over the world, his products were always consistently good. But food? We needed a chef for that.

Little did we know, Johnson City is not overflowing with chefs looking for a job. We began to think we were destined to open Untamed with an empty kitchen and no chef to work our excessively-expensive Italian pizza oven. Our dreams of house-made artisanal pizzas were quickly crashing. Someone had to cook, I volunteered. How hard could it be?

A good friend of mine, Chuck, owned several pizzerias before retiring from the restaurant industry. He gave me advice, reassurance, and best of all, his award winning pizza dough recipe. With a pizza oven, Chuck’s dough recipe, and a Kitchen Aid mixer brought from home, I was ready to open our restaurant.

Even with a chemistry degree, I had no idea the mastery that goes into crafting your own dough, baking your own pizza, and I most definitely had no idea about running a restaurant. So much trial and error went into the dough, the toppings, and most of all the baking. Our oven has several hot spots and a personality of its own. For every successfully round, golden pizza that I produced from our oven, ten more came out square and burnt.

beginners pizza: burnt on one side and wrong balance in toppings

The worst part in all of this learning stage was our “open” kitchen. When designing Untamed, we thought this window was a romantic view into the kitchen, flavoring the air with dough and marinara throughout the tasting room. Working behind it was anything but romantic. The eyes of the entire tasting room were watching my mistakes and cringing at the smell of the burnt menu item. I learned to cover up disappointment, and smile through utter panic. “Fake it until you make it” became my mantra.

The dreaded kitchen window.

After blood, sweat, tears, and 30,000 pizzas, the oven and myself finally came to an agreement to tolerate each other. I learned the science of mixing, proofing, baking, and creating a decent pizza. Untamed became a name known for good pizzas. Our kitchen grew in staff, ideas, equipment, and expertise – a big shout out to our new executive chef, Brayden Lacey.

International Pizza Competition 2024

Three years into this pizza life, it was time to compete and put our brand on the map. Although not completely confident, I knew we had a good product, so why not compete?

Brayden and I entered into the 2024 International Pizza Competition in Las Vegas with no clue what to expect. We flew with our own ingredients, including the Texas well water that is used for our dough. I prayed TSA would let us through with 25 pounds of flour, 15 pounds of water, and a Tupperware container full of pepperoni.

After arriving in one piece with all of our ingredients, we naturally sized up the competition. We met a small sampling of the 500 contestants including people from Canada, Switzerland, Vietnam, Japan, and Italy (of course).

Brayden competed in the Traditional Pizza Competition at 8am with our classic pepperoni pizza: Malbec marinara, mozzarella, and pepperoni. The results were released later that night and we were completely floored that he scored 18th in his division. Being in the top 25% of the competition was a huge sign of success for our little winery, especially when compared to our generational pizzeria competitors.

I competed the following day in the nontraditional category with a version of our signature South African Summer pizza: Malbec marinara, mozzarella, braised ham hocks, banana, braai salt, chives, and peppadews. The Italians made fun of my bananas when I pulled out the ingredients.

The results were released later that night and I was shocked to discover myself in 5th place, a spot good enough to launch me into the finals the following day.

Learning from mistakes made the day before, I competed with the same pizza. My goal was to come in at least 4th place, one place higher would give me validation that I was correcting the point deductions from the judges the day before.

The final scores:

Final Thoughts

I don’t know if this makes me a chef, but I do know firsthand of all the hard work that has gone into our pizzas and our Untamed kitchen. I am so proud of what we have built and what we are continuing to create.

Number 1 pizza in the world, we’re coming for you 2025!