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The Japanification of Pizza

This is a story about lineage and legacy, about the past and the future. It’s also a story about pizza, and it starts around 40 years ago with a Japanese man called Susumu Kakinuma.

In the early eighties, Susumu spent a year in Naples, Italy, unable to find work or apprenticeships.  Obsessed with Neapolitan pizza, he ate it every single day, sometimes more than once, teaching his palate to remember every texture and flavour, every last piece of charred crust and every stretch of melted Italian Mozzarella.  After his year was up, he knew his calling was to bring Neapolitan pizza back to his home city, back to Tokyo.

However, what he brought back to Tokyo was not a just Neapolitan pizza – it was something different, something more.  The thing with the Japanese is they really are the best in the world at absorbing and understanding other cultures and techniques and refining them in their own image.  They are not inventors; they are craftsmen.

Master Susumu Kakinuma - photo courtesy of Wall Street Journal

Master Susumu Kakinuma – photo courtesy of Wall Street Journal

No, craftsman is not the right word either.  The Japanese word is “shokunin” which encapsulates the total commitment and dedication one has towards full mastery of their skills.  However, it’s important to note that shokunin not only expects extraordinary technical skills but also demands a certain attitude and social consciousness.  The shokunin has a social obligation to perform their skills at the very best of their ability for the welfare of their society. It’s an extremely important distinction. You don’t get that at your local shawarma stand or fish and chip shop.

Susumu himself said in an interview once, “Japanese people are really free.  They are beholden to no single point of view.” After 20 years of understanding, practicing, and perfecting his art, Susumu’s pizzas are truly unique and are a thing of beauty.  Tokyo Neapolitan pizza was born.

A perfect Tokyo Neapolitan pizza is defined by a Japanese crafted wood-burning oven, an extra throw of salt, and a delicateness of dough that extends to the edge of the oven charred crust.

Serving only two variations, Margherita or Marinara, Susumu’s pizzas are like Jazz music.  Just in the same way you know you are listening to Herbie Hancock on the piano or Charlie Parker on the saxophone, you know you are eating a pizza made by the hand of Susumu.  Lighter, more delicate than the pizzas found in Naples, his goal is not to bastardize the base ingredients, but to pull the richest inherent flavours from the ingredients at hand.

This is why Master Susumu Kakinuma is known as the Prime Minister of Pizza, and perhaps unlike those Italian pizza makers in the 1980’s, Master Susumu feels a responsibility to pass on his learning to others, so the craft can continue long after his own oven goes cold.  It’s a responsibility ingrained in the culture of the Japanese shokunin.  It is known as The Way.  A right and correct way of doing things.  His students, or deshi, spend months, sometimes years training with him before they go off and open their own pizzerias.

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Although not a direct deshi of Master Susumu, Hisanori Yamamoto runs Da Isa, a highly celebrated pizzeria in Tokyo.  Ironically, for three years running, Hisanori was a winner at the World Pizza Cup competition held in Naples, Italy.  Master Susumu, arguably, has been the catalyst and muse for the single-minded obsession with perfecting the pizza making process for an entire generation of pizzaiolo.

Had it been any other country, one might be tempted to simply franchise their name out to many locations across the globe. However, to be a shokunin is to rise above the narrow thoughts of competition, and to have an understanding that you will never have peace, nor reach the apex of your craft, until you learn that you are only really competing against yourself. That is why there are so many independently successful pizzerias across Japan, many able to trace their lineage back to Master Susumu.

One student, Kengo Inoue, now runs his own place, Pizza Dada in the ancient Japanese capital, Kamakura. Another student, Shougo Yamaguchi used to sit at the counter of Master Susumu’s pizzeria and watch the Prime Minister perfect his craft, writing down everything he saw in a little notebook on his way home. Shougo now runs his own place, Frey’s Famous Pizzeria.

Tsubasa Tamaki - photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Tsubasa Tamaki – photo courtesy of The Japan Times

However, our Dubai story continues with yet another student, Tsubasa Tamaki, who trained in Master Susumu’s pizzeria for five long, hard years. He now runs his own place, Pizza Studio Tamaki in Tokyo. The quality of his pizza is so high that people say Tamaki is the student that has surpassed his master in technical skills and application. He has never been to Italy, and yet using a blend of US and Japanese flour, his dough has an intricate balance of flavour and texture that makes every pizza sing.  His pizzas are, by all accounts, spectacular.

When Dubai based restaurateur Samer Hamadeh and his partners, first reached out to Tamaki-San to bring Tokyo Neapolitan pizza to Dubai, Tamaki-San agreed to train someone in The Way. “Send me an Italian – they know pizza,” he instructed. When questioned why not a Japanese seeing as he was Japanese himself, he was dismissive – “Yes, but I am special, no-one else like me.  Send me Italian.”

So, an Italian was sent. Luigi, a true blue, born and bred Naples boy, and experienced pizzaiolo in his own right, flew to Tokyo to learn from Tamaki-san, a new breed of highly specialised shokunin. Luigi was to become a deshi once again.

After half a year of an intense, accelerated apprenticeship in Tokyo, Luigi is ready to bring Tokyo Neapolitan pizza to Dubai.  There is evidence that Tamaki-san’s single-minded obsession has rubbed off.  Throughout the day, Luigi-san documents oven temperature, humidity levels, water quality and several other seemingly innocuous variables, because over time, he will learn what the optimum environment is for the perfect Neapolitan pizza.

The pizza masters in Tokyo open their doors every day of the year, so their ovens never go cold.  Luigi carefully feeds beech wood into his Japanese made pizza oven, and the flames warm the cold stone for the first time.  There is an expectation for Luigi to continue this story that started 40 years ago by a Japanese man called Susumu Kakinuma.

I, for one, look forward to the next chapter.

You can find Luigi and his Tokyo Neapolitan pizza at Tokyopolitan located inside Akiba Dori at D3 Dubai, opening soon.

Instagram accounts – @Akibadori & @tokyopolitan

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