Authenticity and its pursuit is one of the guiding principles of Pizza 4P’s. Constantly challenging themselves to find new ways to express the concept and to think deeply about its meaning, the founders have been drawing inspiration and insights from collaborating with Vietnam-based artisans and craftsmen who share Pizza 4P’s passion for purity, simplicity and refinement.
In our first article for the Attitude of Authenticity series, we interview Keinosuke (Kei) Konuki, a Japanese cheese artisan making high-quality fresh cheeses in Dalat. Kei’s superb burrata is known by Vietnam’s connoisseurs as Pizza 4P’s signature product giving its pizzas and salads their subtle creaminess. But the journey to today’s flawless perfection wasn’t easy.
When starting 10 years ago, Kei went through a long and gruelling series of false starts trying and failing to get the quality right. In this interview he gives a detailed account of his experience that led, through trial and error and incremental improvements, to the refined product customers have come to know and love. As Kei parts the curtain on Pizza 4P’s cheese-making processes, he shares his story of inspired craftsmanship, tireless ambition and meticulous work that goes into creating a truly authentic product.
What inspired you to become a cheesemaker?
I’ve always been interested in Vietnam and came here to study the language. This is when I discovered a Japanese blogger living in Vietnam and writing these truly original posts about his experience opening a restaurant and about his passion for pizza. The blogger who inspired me so much was Mr. Masuko, Pizza 4P’s founder, of course. By a lucky coincidence, he asked me to join Pizza 4P’s as a cheesemaker and I jumped at the opportunity. I studied processed agricultural products in a university in Vietnam, so it was a familiar territory.
How did you learn to make cheese?
I started by doing online research, reading books and watching others do it. As nobody was making fresh cheese in Vietnam 10 years ago, I didn’t have any insights to draw on and my first attempts were rather clumsy. Cheese wouldn’t solidify and stretch or mozzarella would turn out hard as a rock. We wouldn't dream to serve such a substandard product at a restaurant of course!
At that time, I was working out of a Pizza 4P’s kitchen. Day after day I would be in my makeshift corner “factory” trying to achieve the perfect consistency and taste through trial and error.
It took me half a year to get where we wanted to be with mozzarella, but it took much longer to get the camembert right since it needs maturing. I established a process to keep me on track: daily journal entries, taking photos and fine-turning the method. But it wasn’t enough. Finally, I decided to apprentice under a famous cheesemaker in Hokkaido, Japan to deepen my learning.
Why did you start producing cheese in Dalat?
In cheese-making the technique is extremely important, but so is the quality of milk. In the beginning, I sourced milk from a farm in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City, but kept searching for alternatives and quickly realized that Dalat milk was superior. Dalat is cooler as it is located in a mountainous area, meaning the climate is much more suitable for cattle.
So, I took the plunge and moved production to Dalat. At first I didn't have any contacts in the community and local farmers were reluctant to supply a small restaurant they had never heard of. They were used to working with milk-processing companies, not retailers. But I persevered and kept knocking on doors until I was able to establish cordial relationships with the farmers. I think they sensed my passion and it worked in my favor.
What makes Pizza 4P’s cheeses so delicious?
Our product is locally produced, while most of the cheeses you find in Vietnam are imported. So, I think our strongest point is that the ingredients are produced in Vietnam ensuring freshness.
Also the fact that we are getting direct and immediate feedback from the customers trying our cheeses at the restaurants. We listen and we improve. As Vietnam’s cheesemaking pioneers, we have always been the first ones to take the initiative, take action, innovate.
There are many manual processes involved in cheese-making. Could it be another secret to deliciousness?
Manual processes allow us to focus on details, so we are able to create more delicate products. However, manual labor is not necessarily superior. For example, when we think about environmental problems, automation is better when you factor in energy savings. So, we should really be challenging the notion that doing things by hand is always better.
It is important to establish an efficient production system where machinery is introduced not just for the sake of modernization but because we’ve established that this particular part of the process can be done more efficiently through automation. We always consider the environmental effects when choosing between manual labor and machinery, for example.
How do you maintain quality?
Working at a cheese factory, we don’t get to see the customers enjoying our product. I think it’s important for the team to witness the look of pure joy when diners bite into a slice of pizza topped with our mozzarella or cut into our burrata, so every now and then I take them to our restaurants and let them take it all in. We also run cheese-making workshops and other customer-engagement events.
What does authenticity mean to you personally?
It is important to constantly try new things and approaches, to not get stuck in stereotypes. There are traditional ways to make cheese, of course, and France and Italy take the lead here. Unlike Europe, making cheese in Vietnam where there are very few players means that the exchange of knowledge and expertise is quite limited.
We rely on trial and error a lot and that, of course, takes time and effort. But it’s through this continuous process of improvement that our originality and uniqueness is born. Our current production process may be less than perfect, but if we continue to trust our instincts and create products without compromise, the brand’s value will only gain from this approach. I believe this is our strength and our way of creating something authentic.
Tell us about your plans.
As we have started to produce cream cheese, we’re thinking about making our own cheesecakes and tarts. We are currently researching mature-type blue cheese and vegan cheese production processes and will focus on tackling environmental issues inherent in dairy farming. I can’t give you the details at this point, but you can definitely expect something unprecedented as usual!
We’re also planning to build a new factory where visitors will have the chance to see the entire process of making cheese and join in workshops, among other things. As Pizza 4P’s focuses on providing edutainment (education through the means of entertainment), my ambition is to create an environment where our customers can learn while having fun.
At the very heart of Kei’s success is his drive to master the technique despite the challenging circumstances and lack of resources, as well as his ability to trust his gut feeling and instincts. Creamy bundles of burrata and the beautiful alabaster orbs of mozzarella coming out of Kei’s factory are a labor of love and the result of years spent researching and improving formulas and techniques. We hope you find his journey as inspiring as we do.