Hometown: Gostivar, Macedonia
In Japan: 8 years
Identity: Gelato server at Wa Cafe Saon
Fekri Dzemaili is a man with a passion, and that passion is gelato! Born in Macedonia, Fekri worked with the sweet icy treat for 17 out of the 26 years he lived in Italy, running his own gelato cafe for seven years in Pesaro near Rimini. It was there he met his wife from Fukuoka. Circumstances brought the couple to Japan and Fekri found work as a chef in Holland Village, Nagasaki. Later they moved to Fukuoka and Fekri worked for five years in another gelato shop. Nowadays, you’ll find him scooping with expertise at the stylish Wa Cafe Saon in Daimyo – a Japanese-styled version of the popular ViTO gelato cafes. In contrast to the other ViTO shops, Wa Cafe Saon is spacious and offers a relaxed space with an unique blend of Japanese and western design. The gelato served at Wa Cafe Saon features Kyushu inspired flavors- from Hakata amaou and Yame maccha to yuzu sourced from Oita. The use of pure and fine ingredients is what distinguishes their gelato from the rest. Fekri spends his spare time with his family, playing with this three-year-old son, who is a budding gelato fan too. He stresses how much he enjoys going to work; and who wouldn’t, with a chance to indulge in your favorite gelato, Illy coffee and the cafe’s cool interior. Fekri’s advice, “If you ever feel tired or down, have a gelato! It will make you smile!”
Tell us about your background. What brought you to Fukuoka?
I was born in Macedonia, but lived in Italy for 26 years. 17 of those 26 years I worked with gelato. When living in Bologna, Italy, I ran my own cafe for seven years. It was there that I met my wife, a Japanese woman from Fukuoka. We got together in Italy, and lived there until news came that her father had passed away in Japan. It was time for her to return to Japan, so we came together. At this point I wanted to do something new and exciting with my life, so the timing was right. When I first arrived in Japan, I lived in Nagasaki, working as a chef at Holland Village. Then I started working for another gelato company in Fukuoka, before starting work at ViTO and Wa Cafe Saon.
Wa Cafe Saon opened fairly recently – tell us about it! It looks different from the Vito cafes…
Well, the Wa Cafe Saon is more Japanese and more relaxed than the other ViTO stores. The Tenjin ViTO is more European, more Italian. It’s a place to grab a gelato on the go, whereas Wa Cafe Saon is a place to sit down and enjoy. The interior design of Wa Cafe Saon mixes modern European furniture with shop fittings that mimic traditional Japanese interiors. For example, the back wall of Wa Cafe Saon is built to resemble a traditional Japanese screen door.
What’s unique about the gelato served here?
Wa Cafe Saon has a range of Japanese flavors that are only available here in Daimyo, and not at any other ViTO cafes. These flavors- such as maccha green tea, black sesame, shirogoma white chocolate and yuzu are essentially Japanese. We also serve seasonal Japanese flavors. For the month of April and the start of Spring, we’re serving a special sakura (cherry-blossom) flavor.
How is gelato different from ice-cream?
If we’re talking about real gelato, the difference is simple: ice-cream is made with milk, gelato is made with fruit. In its true form, Italian gelato is made from 100% fruit. Because there is no milk, gelato is generally lower in calories than ice-cream. Here at the Wa Cafe Saon, the fruit flavors are made using 100% fruit, but we use milk in some of the Japanese inspired flavors. The milk we use is sourced locally from Aso. We use 100% quality ingredients in our gelato- there are no syrups and no artificial flavors.
Are you surprised about the popularity of gelato in Japan? Will the boom last?
Yes, gelato is very popular in Japan now! Although I can’t speak for other gelato stores, I truly believe that this company (ViTO) is making the best gelato in Fukuoka, if not Japan. Because the quality is so high, I do believe that our gelato will remain popular.
Who are your typical customers?
Here at Wa Cafe Saon, we have a more mature profile of customers in their 40s, whereas the Tenjin ViTO store attracts a much younger crowd. To generalise, gelato is usually more popular with women! However I feel that the relaxed style of Wa Cafe Saon makes it easier for a more mature crowd, including men, to visit. The Tenjin ViTO is more like Italy- customers can grab a quick gelato on the run- however the Daimyo store is designed for a “cafe-going” experience. You can sit down, enjoy the atmosphere and the gelato. We have many regular customers, who like to visit all of the different ViTO shops in Fukuoka, not just Wa Cafe Saon, for their different atmospheres and flavors.
You mentioned earlier some of the interesting gelato flavors on offer at Wa Cafe Saon, which are the most popular amongst Japanese?
As I said before, Wa Cafe Saon has a range of flavors no other store has. Our two premium flavors- Pistachio and Amaou – are amongst the most popular with Japanese people. I also find that the two sesame flavors (black sesame and shirogoma white chocolate) are loved by Japanese customers across all ages.
Our customers seem to appreciate the fact that the ingredients in our gelato are locally sourced. The yuzu is from Oita, the amaou is from Fukuoka, the maccha is from Yame and the milk is from Aso. There is a deliberate usage of Kyushu flavors and Kyushu ingredients. It’s what makes our store unique.
How about the most popular amongst non-Japanese?
Foreigners seem to like pistachio and chocolate the best. Pistachio is a winner amongst all nationalities!
And what’s your favorite flavor?
If I have to choose just one, it’s pistachio for me too!! But my personal favorite gelato is a combination of pistachio and gianduia chocolate (available at ViTO but not Wa Cafe Saon).
Are customers surprised to meet a European in a gelato shop in Fukuoka?
Yes, they’re surprised! They’re definitely surprised to see a Macedonian/Italian man in a gelato shop in Daimyo! Quite often, when customers discover my background, they want to practice their Italian with me!
Do you see any differences between the hospitality industries in Japan and Italy?
I actually find Japanese customers to be a little more demanding and expectant than Europeans. They inspect everything and place a lot of value in the quality of service. Of course the service industry in Japan is unique and very refined. In Italy, there is less importance placed on manners and respect in a gelato shop- it’s more of an “in and out” mentality!
What do you enjoy about working here?
The gelato! Honestly, working with gelato and illy coffee – my favorite brand of coffee- is great. I’m able to have both on hand for any time I might need them throughout the day!
ViTo is also a great company to work for because there is a great attitude within management. The management team is very internationally minded and there is an emphasis on staff enjoying their work, which is something you don’t often find in Japan. Everyday at work is really fun! And, if we ever start to feel tired or low on energy, a little gelato always bounces us back!
What do you do in your free time?
I like to play with my three-year-old son, and spend time with my family in the sun! I have two days off per week, so I always try to spend that time with my family.
Any last comments or messages for our readers?
If you ever feel tired or down, have a gelato! It will make you smile!
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn161, May 2012)