September 27, 2019 |
“Somehow eating pizza made me nostalgic for a past I didn’t know” says 60-year old Susumu Kakinuma, the master behind Seirinkan, Tokyo’s oldest hot spot for pizza.
Like other Japanese his age, his first pizza experience had been in a kissaten, a style of Japanese coffee shop, where pizza is served that is made from thick, spongy white dough, much like its American counterpart. Kakinuma then remembers the slow infiltration of American chains that followed: Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Shakey’s.
But it wasn’t until a trip to Italy that he saw and tasted his future. A decade after his first trip to the motherland of pizza, when he decided to leave his job, he returned to Italy. He did not start to work at a pizzeria, as would have been the standard for Japanese like him learning foreign cuisines, but instead he decided to just eat and observe and absorb as much of the life and the culture as possible.
“What I learned is that pizza is part of everyday life in Italy. It is not special. I knew I couldn’t make the same pizza for Japanese. Why then should I learn from a famous pizzaiolo in Naples if I can’t duplicate the same pizza in Tokyo?” he says.
When setting up his restaurants Savoy and later Seirinkan, Kakinuma wasn’t interested in authenticity or the Italian way of pizza- making. The only thing he cared about was doing his own thing.
And that meant to set up a pizzeria that is not driven by an Italian aesthetic. He once said to a guest: “Look around. There’s no Italian stuff on the walls. We don’t say buona sera and ciao to our customers. It’s not Neapolitan pizza. It’s Kakinuma pizza!” To this day, Kakinuma serves only two (yes 2!) types of Pizza at his restaurants the original “M & M”s: margherita and marinara.
His customers report that they never see anyone else in the kitchen besides Kakinuma touch the pizza. And his fans and former apprentices call him the godfather of Japan’s pizza culture. He is the one who showed the country how special pizza can be when made by a master.
In Japan in general and in Tokyo specifically the number of Neapolitan-style pizzerias has grown exponentially during over the past ten years. Even the famous Pizzeria from Naples “L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele” now has a branch in Japan to secure a slice of the Japanese pizza market pie. The one thing that most of these newer Japanese pizzerias have in common is that a surprising number of the very best pizza chefs in Tokyo still trace their lineage directly to Susumu Kakinuma and his disciplined approach to pizza.
Initially, Japan discovered the world’s most popular food just a couple of generations ago. It first arrived in Kobe in 1944, with an Italian navy crew. Almost ten years later, the army veteran and jack of all trades Nicola Zappetti opened a pizzeria in Roppongi and managed to attract even royalty such as then Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko. This was the ignition that put pizza officially on the map in Japan.
Following Zapetti’s success in his Roppongi venue, the early years of pizza in the rest of the country were far less promising as they were driven more by American commercialism than Italian authenticity. Frozen pizza from the States arrived in Japanese supermarkets in the 60’s, followed by Domino’s in 80’s. Real wood-fired pizza started showing up in Tokyo in the early 80’s as well and then the country took notice and the Japanese began to crack the code.
But what is the reason that Japanese pizzaioli are now among the world’s best at making pizza?
The answer to this question is the same as when you are looking at why the Japanese whisky is now on par or even surpassing the classic scotch and why sushi in a small Japanese food stall is as good as it gets. The Japanese call it shokunin.
A shokunin is an artisan who dedicates his or her life to the pursuit of a single craft, such as forging Katana blades, sculpting ceramic sake glasses or butchering bluefin tuna. The specificity of the focus stems from a humble belief, deeply ingrained in the Japanese mentality that there is and must always be room for constant improvement. One lifetime is never enough to truly master a craft, so when the rest of the world would be happy with 90 percent, a shokunin looks at life as an endless march toward 100. Japan’s most famous shokunin these days is the 83-year old Jiro Ono, who has been immortalized and made famous in contemporary popular culture in David Gelb’s Netflix documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.
Susumu Kakinuma and his followers have become the shokunin of pizza and through their very own approaches and constant strive towards perfection, they have created the movement of Japanese Neapolitan pizza.