Behind the praised natural fermentation pizzas, starters and drinks from the famous and trendy Casa do Rio de Janeiro there is a trajectory that many people do not imagine.
About to complete 10 years of its beginning, the history of Iron and Flour is the result of a bet by an American, born in New York , son of a Chinese mother and a Japanese father. the chef I know Shiroma completes a decade in Brazil in 2023 and brought in his luggage only the determination and desire to live in a different country after falling in love with a carioca.
From pizzas sold in a mobile wood-fired oven, made of iron, in neighborhoods that are not touristy for a foreigner – and without speaking a word of Portuguese – came the opening of four units of the brand that are now located in trendy Leblon, Ipanema, Botafogo and Barra da Tijuca. The path to success, however, begins after plans are frustrated when landing in Rio.
The Story of Chef Sei Shihoma
After leaving renowned advertising clients in the Big Apple behind, Sei arrived in the Marvelous City with only a reserve of his savings. He thought he would soon get a job in the area, but jokes that he earned a total of “zero reais or dollars” in Brazilian marketing.
Not speaking the language, he saw that he would have to take action to manage to stay in the new country. “Going back to my mother’s house, in the United States, and saying that it didn’t work was definitely not an option”, she points out.
His parents, immigrants, owned one of the first Japanese restaurants in New York, the SUBI Japanase Restaurant which was open from 1983 to 2009. The chef, who was born in 1986, grew up on the establishment’s premises and brings back his best memories from there.
“I spent part of my life at the restaurant, doing homework at the office, watching how the delivery people prepared the cartons and how my father and mother managed everything. I remember a lot the cold room, the egg count and all the sectors. That came very naturally to me,” he recalls, who helped his parents translate the menu into English.
When he reached college age, he chose to study English Literature. She enjoyed writing and thought that communication was her future. To pay the tuition, she took jobs in restaurants in the city. In the kitchen, even without any specific gastronomy course, she stood out wherever she went.
“I’ve done a little bit of everything in different types of restaurants, but I found myself in the kitchen. It was where newly arrived immigrants from all over the world were. I never studied, but I lived the routine of my parents’ business a lot and I already knew basic things. I also always ate very well. My schedule with my father was to visit and visit wonderful restaurants in the city, so he replicated many things he knew”, he points out.
“One day that really stood out for me was when I asked the chef to create the special dish of the day. He let me and I made one based on artichokes, which was the most popular and talked about. In the rare moments I had of creativity, I realized I had talent,” he recalls.
Despite this, the kitchen was not the protagonist of his life. He landed good jobs as a freelance writer for major advertising companies. He lived in the neighborhood of brooklyn and at the beginning of Airbnb, where hosts received guests in their own homes, he had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Among them, a Brazilian, from Rio de Janeiro, from the neighborhood of Andaraí, a suburb of the city.
“I really wanted to get to know Brazil and I was welcomed by him and his family with a barbecue. I loved the country,” he says.
Coincidence – or not – months later, Sei fell in love with a Brazilian who was studying in New York. Who was she? A carioca. Which neighborhood? From Andaraí, even from the only Brazilian he knew. He, who, despite his successful career, no longer wanted to live in the United States took courage and left for the country that would become his home until today.
From the wood-fired iron oven through the streets of Rio to the first unit
After not finding a job in the marketing area, he thought about possibilities to undertake. Soon his story with the kitchen came as one of the solutions. He didn’t have the money to open a restaurant and thought about exploring street food, strong in his hometown. “But what would I sell?”, she questioned.
“I saw a lot of carts selling hot dogs and yakissoba. I even considered selling Ramen, but Rio de Janeiro is too hot, it wouldn’t work. I thought: why not pizza?”, he recalls.
He became obsessed with the idea of having a mobile oven and taking it to the streets of Rio. It was then, behind a locksmith that he developed the idea. “I would speak and friends would translate for the locksmith. We needed an oven that could withstand the impact of the street and the solution was to build it with iron. Thus, Ferro e Farinha was born”.
The secret that a lot of people don’t know: the chef didn’t know how to make pizza! I understood the theory, but I had never made one from beginning to end, much less in a wood oven – and iron. He started his research on the internet and his first experiments were a failure. Rio’s hot climate hindered the development of many recipes he was researching.
“I decided that I would make an exclusively carioca pasta and that was the one that worked. It’s not a fixed recipe. Adjustments are needed according to the seasons. I got to a point where it was slightly crunchy and I could eat it with my hands, respecting one of my biggest beliefs: that the customer can eat however he wants”, she points out.
The first flavor developed was Domenico, which is still on the restaurant’s menu. It was inspired by the traditional margarita flavor, with cheese and tomato. Between the construction of the furnace and the test, there were six months. The biggest challenge now was: how could I sell the pizzas?
He started by parking his car in a few places, but he sold very few. The bureaucracy of having a license also knocked on the door, not least because his activity did not fit into any of the available categories.
With the help of family and friends, he started publicizing the places he would previously be. “I did some crazy promotions. She told people to refer another 10, who would get a discount on the pizza, which was sold at R$ 15 ”, she says.
The format worked. When Sei arrived at one of the first announced destinations, there were already 20 customers waiting for him. Business got better and better to the point that many left angry because sometimes they had run out of pizzas.
“Many influencers of the time and chefs got to know me and liked what I offered. I think the story also got attention. An American, Chinese, Japanese, who didn’t speak Portuguese, selling pizzas in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro”, he recalls with a laugh. Another thing I always say to anyone who owns a business is: work hard and pray hard !”, he completes.
The four units and the menu
In view of the potential it had at hand, it began to look for points to open its physical store. Despite the success, the amount he earned was just enough to buy more ingredients for the next batches. It was then that he found a 25m² spot in the Catete neighborhood and decided to bet his savings on the space.
“I made a sketch of how I wanted it and put together a plan with my own hand. I knew where I wanted the oven, the counter, and a bathroom to be. I opened the doors at the end of that year. Some journalists started to visit and a very nice article came out in a vehicle in the city. The day after this publication, at 6:30 pm, there were already people in line waiting for Ferro e Farinha to open”, he recalls.
With only three employees, 10 seats at the counter and a few tables on the sidewalk, the place was booming. It was a favorite spot for actors, chefs and journalists in Rio de Janeiro. It sold more than 100 pizzas a night. He started to dream bigger, but only in 2019 did he open his second unit in Leblon , which started out in a different format. Sei proposed a partnership with the owner of the point, which is in the trendy Dias Ferreira. Modern and with a bar welcoming customers, in addition to pizzas, starters and drinks started to be very successful in this unit.
Everything was going great until the pandemic hit. Like many entrepreneurs, he decided to bet on delivery, which until then had not been available. Once again it was a success. This provided not only the continuity of the units, but also the opening of new ones. The one in Catete closed to open in Botafogo and today, in addition to them, the youngest daughters are in Ipanema and on Barra da Tijuca .
Today, Sei sum in all stores and office about 100 employees . are more than 10,000 pizzas sold and 2,500kg of flour used per month . And of course, a point that cannot fail to be highlighted: he learned to speak Portuguese perfectly during this time.
The Ferro e Farinha units offer more than pizza. They bring starters, drinks and desserts on the menu. At the bar, the menu brings a mix of originals with classics. The best seller is Sexo ao Sul, with Gin Gordons, tonic, tangerine mix, strawberry and picate honey (R$ 35).
Among the starters, the chef recommends the garlic bread, made over wood with grana padano, mozzarella and parsley (R$ 44) and the octopus carpaccio, with tomato vinaigrette, oyster mayonnaise, arugula and cheese served with toast ( BRL 52). Besides them, Flor de Burrata, made with burrata in a roasted crust, tomato, basil and grana padano (R$ 56) and filet mignon tartare (R$ 52) are popular.
Among the rounds there are 13 original options, the highlights are: Domenico, with tomato sauce, fior de latte, grana padano, roasted basil and olive oil (R$ 50); the Adobo Verde, which has cabbage marinated in soy sauce and ginger, spicy honey and confit garlic (R$55) and the Spiced Picnic, with ricotta, grana padano, gorgonzola and spicy honey (R$59). They are offered in individual sizes, but their portion is generous and often ends up serving two people.
On the menu, there are suggestions for separate complements to be eaten with the rim, such as marinated tomatoes (R$ 6); garlic cream with cheese (R$ 7); spicy honey (R$7) and watercress pesto (R$6). There is also the option of a tasting with a little of each (R$ 19).
Finally, six dessert options, including a sweet pizza. Caramelized apple pie in puff pastry also baked in a wood-fired oven (R$37) and “Tinder Egg”, a dessert with a “surprise egg” (R$41) promise to surprise when leaving the venue.
What’s new: SUIBI Japanase Restaurant, from New York to Rio de Janeiro
To top off his ten years in Brazil, Sei has new plans. After becoming a partner at the bar Stuzzi, he wants to open the restaurant his parents had in New York in Rio de Janeiro. If all goes well, locals and visitors to the city will be able to learn a little about the chef’s roots in the new SUBI Japanase Restaurant still this year.
Source: CNN Brasil
Johanna Foster is an expert opinion writer with over 7 years of experience. She has a reputation for delivering insightful and thought-provoking articles on a variety of subjects. Her work can be found on some of the top online news websites, and she is currently lending her voice to the world stock market.