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Salaryman becomes pizza man, serves up Tokyo's best slices
How a Tokyo desk jockey moved from shuffling papers to shoveling pizzas
Chef Yutaka Hazama stands in the meter-wide kitchen of his pizza truck, Bakka, and describes how one year ago he built up the self-confidence, brick by brick, to ditch a secure office job.
He then took those bricks and made them into an experimental wood-fired oven in a friend’s garden. Then he started testing fire, hot coals, dough and toppings, until eventually he was satisfied.
“You know how many brands of canned tomatoes there are?” he asks. “Me neither. But I ordered as many as I could off the Internet to try.” He mimes tiredly licking his fingers.
Then he took out a hefty loan for the truck and oven, and got cooking ...
It’s 10 p.m. Friday night at a vacant block in the seedy, crawling heart of Shibuya.
This is the lane where you can buy adult toys, “legal herbs,” puppies and kittens and a quickie in a rental room between bouts of karaoke.
The drinking crowd is drifting thicker past Hazama’s truck with its outdoor furniture. Tottering girls on heels stop to take cell phone photos of the blazing oven inside the sleek chocolate-brown vehicle.
Salarymen and college students stumble over the gravel to grab a stool under one of the canopies. Many seem attracted by the prices: the small Marinara is ¥450 (U$5.65), the large special Margherita ¥1,300.
The pizza is cooked in minutes and Hazama hands it steaming through the window. His fuel is nara oak and sugi cedar -- the harder wood for long slow heat, the cedar for a flaming finish.
The mottled crust is chewy yet crisp, thin and slightly gelatinous through the base, with a taut, toasty rim. The tomato sauce is perfectly balanced: tart, salty and sweet.
Hazama’s recommendation -- with prosciutto, rocket and truffle oil -- is rather complicated. The special Margherita, with fresh cherry tomatoes, is a thing of joy.
Hazama says he’s self-taught, but also had some help.
While planning to quit his old job he looked up the best pizza maker he could find.
That was Akinari Makishima, who in 2010 was the first Japanese chef to win the international pizza competition run by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (Association for Genuine Neapolitan Pizza).
“I just called Makishima and he was hiring,” says Hazama.
For about a month off and on, he worked with Makishima in his spare time at Cesari in Nagoya. Hazama figured the rest out himself.
Two months after launching Bakka this March, he flew to Naples and entered the same competition. He placed a respectable 29th out of a global field of 150. He’s 27 years old. There’s plenty of time for improvement.
Authenticity? He’s grappled with it. His answer is this: “If you want an exact Neapolitan pizza in Tokyo, go to Da Isa [in Naka Meguro],” he advises. “There is no difference.”
But he’s not interested in cloning.
His dough is made from domestic flour (Da Isa uses Caputo from Naples). He tweaks the texture so it’s a little more chewy than in the homeland.
Hazama says his seasoning and toppings are tailored to Tokyo palates.
The lot has filled with customers. The surroundings may be squalid, but they’re in balance too.
Voices are shouting and laughing. Distorted dance music pumps out of tiny speakers beside the truck. The generator drones in counterpoint.
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Now I’m sharing a table with a young foursome and a friend who’s just arrived with a glint in his eye.
It’s only a few hours since I told him about Bakka -- remarkably, he hadn’t heard of it -- and he looks ready to start posting.
But he’s a gentleman blogger. “Don’t worry I won’t post yet,” he says, before adding mischievously, “Thought you’d be gone by now.”
He orders a side dish of sausages and the prosciutto pizza, and drinks some ¥400 red wine from a paper cup, which he pronounces “Not rotgut.”
It’s noisy and convivial and our conversation turns briefly to gratitude -- for being able to sit here on this summer evening eating cheaply and authentically, and lapping up the passing circus.
And for the perennial wonders of Tokyo food culture -- its self-regulating chaos, its inclusiveness of all social statuses, generations, genres and genders.
Regardless of their ethnic diversity, the more parochial dining scenes of say, Sydney or London, simply don’t offer this laid-back mix.
Earlier in the evening I spoke with Hazama’s wife, Ayumi, over the plastic-covered table.
She had come to help him out. It’s bonus season and the salarymen could get demanding.
“I’m proud of him because I met him when he was in his previous job and one day he just said he wants to do this, and now he’s built it up to this level, from scratch,” she says.
“Not many people can do something like that.”
Everything seems to have fallen into place. Hazama agrees.
“I’m happy,” he calls out in English from the truck window, then corrects himself. “No! I mean, lucky!”
“Yes lucky!” says Ayumi. “Happy is the name of our dog.”
Pizza Bakka: Open Sunday to Friday from around 6:30 p.m.–11 p.m. It’s in the lane running between Dogenzaka and Kurosawa guitar store. Dogenzaka 2-25-15, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 70 6640 5126.
More on CNNGo: Don't break the bank: Japan's superb cheap eats