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Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010

British pie man to pass on pastry prowess to new owner

We've all heard the tale of a pie man selling his wares to a certain Simple Simon. But this time, the pie man is selling the whole shop.

News photo
Love at first bite: Gerry O'Donnell and one of his pies. TREVOR MOGG PHOTO

"The main reason is I'm 66 and I want to retire," says Gerry O'Donnell, owner and chef of Kyoto shop Jerry's Pies, perhaps Japan's best-known purveyor of British-style savory and sweet pies.

"I have my heart set on the Philippines. Japan is great but it's too expensive for someone without a pension like me."

Pie is an essential part of British cuisine: a thick pastry casing filled with traditional combinations such as steak and vegetables with gravy or chicken and onion in a creamy sauce, with dessert pies including apple and cinnamon or blueberry and custard. They were once nigh on impossible to find in Japan; the opening of O'Donnell's kitchen in January 2006 and its accompanying online mail-order service in 2008 have gone some way to remedying this ruinous situation.

Born in Newcastle, England, O'Donnell moved to Kyoto in 1992 after stints in London and Edmonton, Canada. He worked as an English teacher and, to satisfy his cravings for an essential British home comfort, began making meat pies at home. It was after a fellow teacher trumpeted his love for O'Donnell's pies that he tried selling some to a local British-style pub and was met with saliva-drenched smiles.

Jerry's Pies now supplies pubs and cafes all around Japan. A far cry from the small domestic oven O'Donnell used to make those first batches, it is now furnished with "all the big equipment" and produces hundreds of pies a month. Purchased directly, from the shop or online, these sell for ¥300 to ¥600 each, depending on the size, and can be defrosted and cooked in a microwave or oven. Varieties include beef and beer, curry meat, chicken and mushroom, vegetable and cheese and several dessert pies.

"I started off selling to expats in pubs," says O'Donnell. "Then when I opened the shop, I had lots of walk-in Japanese customers who wanted to try something different. Finally, after appearing on regional and national TV, I started a home page."

Of course, the British pie is almost entirely alien to most Japanese, whose exposure to genuine English cuisine tends to stretch about as far as fish and chips. Not that this is any fault of the Japanese consumers themselves: Authentic British food is simply not a mainstream concern in Japan. It's fair to say that O'Donnell faced a few hurdles; despite this, he has resisted "localizing" his fare to suit the Japanese palate. (He did, however, change the spelling of his business' name to "Jerry," since "Gerry" may have been mispronounced by the locals as "geri" [diarrhea].)

"Some Japanese customers thought pies were some kind of pizza or cake," says O'Donnell, who mans his shop as well as tending the kitchen. He says he found that "women were very willing to taste new things; men tend to be more conservative."

Peter Derrick, 68, is a regular customer of Jerry's Pies. Hailing from Nogales, Arizona, he is a university professor in Kyoto who has lived in England in the past. He makes weekly visits to O'Donnell's shop (as opposed to buying online or at a pub or cafe) and says that they are "for the most part better" than those he ate during his time in England.

"I would say my favorite is the apple pie," says Derrick. "However, his recent custard peach is a close second."

Derrick is not alone in that sentiment: O'Donnell reveals that apple and cinnamon "has been the hands-down best seller. I suspect that all men, women and children of every age, race and religion are hard-wired to like apple and cinnamon pie."

This is further borne out by a quick perusal of the Japanese food listings websites, such as Tabelog, where Japanese customers have left overwhelmingly positive reviews of Jerry's that often mention the sweet pies as well as the savory. That such a niche product can find acceptance with not only expats but also domestic foodies is high praise indeed.

This is not lost on O'Donnell, who says that the highlights of his five years as a pie man have been "meeting lots of very nice people, getting new customers, and watching business grow little by little until you realize that you have succeeded."

This writer will be one of many who will mourn the loss of Jerry's Pies when O'Donnell retires to the Philippines — as will O'Donnell himself. He insists that the buyer of his business — for whom he is currently searching — will keep it going. "This is not the end of British pies in Japan," he proclaims evocatively.

"His shop is something of a tourist attraction around here," says Derrick. "He says either the new owner will continue making his kind of pie or, if he if can't sell (the business), he'll continue making them himself."

Whether you're interested in taking over O'Donnell's little business or simply tasting one of his wares, it seems you had better not dally.

And who knows, maybe a whole new community will discover the joys of apple and cinnamon pie after O'Donnell retires. "I may start another Jerry's Pies in the Philippines," he says. "Except there, someone else will do the work — not me!"

For more information, visit www.jerryspies.com. Orders placed during October will receive a 20 percent discount.

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