Daisuke Nakamura – one of Okinawa’s most loved chefs
Okinawan chef Daisuke Nakamura is revered as one of the Japanese island’s most loved chefs. He is chef-owner of Ardor, which specialises in seafood fished from the surrounding waters but cooked in ways that are more common in Europe, as well as pizza restaurant Bacar, where his pizza menu is strictly limited to perfect renditions of Marinara and Margherita.
We speak to chef Daisuke about Japanese pizza – considered the best in Asia – and Okinawan cuisine.
By Victoria Burrows
Not many Westerners might be aware that Japan is known as probably the best place to get pizza in Asia – do you agree and why do you think this is so?
Yes, I agree. Neapolitan pizza came into Japan about 20 years ago. At that time, food-sensitive Japanese media and consumers fell in love with it and it became a hot topic. Then, many young people started to get attracted by Neapolitan pizza. Some of them learned how to bake pizza in Naples, or in Japan and opened their pizzerias. The trend started in urban cities first and spread to other regions later. I think that Neapolitan pizza has definitely established well in Japan at certain level.
In addition, Japanese people originally tend to respect tradition and culture. I think many Japanese chefs do also respect Italian food culture. Such mindset led to imitate the original recipe first, then came to pursue more sophisticated skill to bake better pizza.
You trained at the lauded Savoy Pizza in Tokyo – what was that like?
Mr. Kakinuma, one of the pioneers who introduced Neapolitan pizza to Japan, was (and is?) my teacher. He opened Savoy Nakameguro in 1995 (present “Seirinkan” since 2007).
He has unique view of the world and he is a very charismatic, multi-talented person. I learned a lot of things besides pizza and I received great influence from him not only in the kitchen but also my private life.
Few years after working under him, he decided to open other branches. He assigned me to a startup team of new stores and I helped with two launchings, of Savoy Mishuk and, Savoy Azabujuban. I learned a lot of things at the pizza oven as well as how to deliver my skills to my juniors. All those experiences improved me a lot.
Ultimately, when I decided to stand on my own two legs, I can thank Mr. Kakinuma for teaching me not just how to make pizza but also for pushing me forward to do what I want to do and express myself to live. After I returned to Okinawa, I think this precious experience led me to start up Bacar, later made my catering team The Scarpetters, and made Restaurant Ardor.
At Bacar, you only serve Marinara and Margherita pizzas. Why only these two?
It’s simply because I want my guests to taste the dough itself.
Margherita and Marinara are the traditional, basic forms of any pizza, which use carefully selected, minimal ingredients. Because of this simplicity, the condition of the dough’s fermentation and baking directly reflects the skill and experience of the chef.
The more I bake pizza, the more I gradually come to understand its true meaning.
The pizza we serve in Bacar is not supposed to entertain our guests with the toppings first, but with the dough itself. Because of this, I am very focused on the preparation of the dough, the timing of baking, and the fermentation conditions, all of which are affected by the season. Every day and with every pizza, I focus on each moment while observing the condition of the dough’s fermentation as well as the flow of business operation, and the temperature of the oven.
The dough, wood fire and the person who is baking the pizza are all alive. They will never be the same again and I think it’s the job of the pizza man to pick up on changes and coordinate everything well.
I get that.
Another reason our pizza menu is so simple is that, as more toppings are added on the dough, you need to prioritise the heating of the toppings, and you can’t just take the pizza out from the oven when you think it’s best for the dough. So the dough may lose moisture and might end up dry.
Since it’s simple, I must be precise each time. Not only me but my team need to face pressure, which is necessary to produce good things. I appreciate this kind of pressure.
In most pizzerias, you see the pizza menu and choose the toppings you want, such as mushrooms and fresh cream, with topping of eggs, or plenty of truffle oil. This is also a fun part of eating pizza and I’m not against it. I think there’s no “correct” answer for pizza.
Actually, my catering team called The Scarpetters set up at various locations, such as the seaside or the basketball stadium, and their concept is different from Bacar. We serve GO-YA Bismarck, which is inspired by the Okinawan home dish, Goya Champloo, which is fried bitter melons.
Some would say you have raised making pizza to an artform.
I like drawing. Recently I drew pictures on the show-plates which our guests can enjoy with their eyes before the food comes. These are my art pieces.
One time, I asked my teacher Mr. Kakinuma, “Why is the price of Margherita and Marinara the same? The cost of making them is different.” He said: “When you want to buy a picture you like, do you care about the cost of the paint?” This pizza is my artwork, equivalent to a picture, and the price reflects the skill which I have gained through experience.
Cost management is very important. But at the same time, I’m trying to make pizza that is also an edible art piece with sensibility, skill as well as experience.
You’re a native Okinawan; how would you describe Okinawan cuisine?
Okinawa is known as an island of longevity. Okinawans have historically always eaten pork, locally grown vegetables and fish, and have had a simple and healthy food culture.
With the bitter experience of World War Two, eating habits and family bonds changed. The economy had to be rebuilt, and Western food culture became more accepted. This happened not only in Okinawa, but I think on our island there are fewer places where you can eat proper Okinawan cuisine.
Although I am mainly involved in Western cuisine, I expect many new chefs and restaurant owners will come forward in the future and take over traditional Okinawan cuisine, from casual dishes to court cuisine.
Do you use traditional Okinawan ingredients and/or cooking styles at Ardor?
Okinawan food doesn’t have to only be traditional. Expanding the possibilities of ingredients in Okinawa, and expanding the choices of local dining experiences, also contribute to Okinawa’s new food culture and we believe that it’s the role of our generation.
At Ardor, we gather reliable native Okinawan chefs specialised in Spanish cuisines or Italian cuisines. Some of them trained in Tokyo or Italy.
I think it’s possible to merge the cooking methods of Italy and Spain with Okinawan ingredients because we have experienced the essence of foreign culture and cooking. Also, our dishes reflect the landscape we have seen and felt while using seasonal domestic and European ingredients that are balanced well in our dishes.
From the moment our guests open the door at Ardor to the first bite of our cuisine, we hope they feel like they are travelling somewhere. If that’s how our diners feel, then I would say our concept is well delivered.
Thank you, Daisuke, and we wish you continuing success with the art of pizza-making and your work at Ardor.