Reheated: 'I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il'

Apologies to long-time Slice readers who may have seen this material already. In light of last night's news, we thought it'd be a disservice not to bring this story to the top of the page again with a quick reheat.

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So it appears that chubby pipsqueak Kim Jong Il has reared his nattily-coiffed and nutty—and now nuclear—head late yesterday with news of his country's successful test of a nuclear weapon.

Our more voracious readers may have seen this story before, or elsewhere, perhaps even years ago, but we think it's worth highlighting here. What is it? It's an Italian pizzaiolo's story about making pizza for a man who, dare we say, is one of the few human beings we'd deny the pleasure of ever putting pizza to palate, if we had our wish. That man, of course, is Kim Jong Il. Through the systematic exploitation of a nation, this ill-suited nutjob was able to enjoy the fruits of Italian tradition while his countrymen and women feasted on grass and tree bark. Here are excerpts from Ermanno Furlanis's account of his 2001 trip to a "distant land" to sling slices for a sadistic slavedriver.

...suddenly, and rather rudely at that, my mobile phone rang. The voice on the other end dispensed with the usual preliminaries, and immediately inquired whether I would be available to do a training course in a "distant land"....

It turned out that my caller was a high-ranking cook in one of Northern Italy's swankiest hotels—a Chef with a capital C. He informed me that he had been approached by a group of foreign diplomats who were interested in organizing culinary demonstrations of Italian regional cooking—they were particularly interested in pizza. At first he refused to reveal just where this country was, but he did let on that we would be hired to demonstrate Italian cooking, which is famous for being cheap, nutritious and easy to prepare, in a land which was currently in deep trouble.

This news set my fantasy roaming. In that country, I thought, people would have to learn to cook Italian style because they were in the grip of famine or because they were opening up their economy to the free market. I had no idea where such a place could be and my interlocutor laughed to see my confusion. Finally he provided a hint: "It's a communist country in the Far East".

"Vietnam?" I asked. "North Korea," he shot back...

A few days later I was called in for my confirmation. This second meeting was over quickly. We were told that we would be leaving in 15 days. We asked what we were supposed to do for the ingredients and utensils which we would need to prepare our dishes and which we could not substitute with ingredients in Korea. They just told us to write out an order for a wholesaler and to have the merchandise together with the bill sent to them.

They especially stressed that we should spare no expense. At the end of this we were handed envelopes with our compensation - all cash and in advance. This led me to believe that we were dealing with a government, even though they were at pains to refer to a hypothetical "company".

Mr. Furlanis and crew then travel to Pyongyang, where they are put up in a magnificent governmental residence and given a tour of the surrealistically monumental capital before being whisked to the coast to set up shop for Kim's pizza party.

To our right we could see the ocean and a gorgeous white sandy beach, so well raked it looked like cement dust; on our left at the foot of a hill there was a pond with water lilies floating on it; behind the pond ascending up the hillside in a semi-circle like an amphitheater was group of buildings. The first of these was the center with its kitchens on the ground floor; above that a longish two-storey building which appeared to be locked up. Obviously, this was off-limits for us. To the left of that three smaller buildings, each with their own kitchen. The kitchens in each of these places were elaborately equipped, reflecting what must be a veritable obsession with good food. Further on there was a high wall and gate which none of us ever dared to cross. Near the main gate and not far from the beach the barracks for the soldiers lay behind yet another wall....

My class immediately wanted to get down to business and asked me to make a pizza for them right away. I told them this would be impossible because my dough had to sit for at least 24 hours. Their answer was that a professional of my standing should be able to pull off any feat asked of him. I was given four hours.

20041001NKToon.jpgFortunately, I had brought with me a natural leaven especially for unforeseen circumstances such as this and I was able to carry out my preparations. The dough turned out perfectly, but then maybe I was just lucky. While I worked, my pupils, pen and notebook in hand, took down every detail while the rest of the staff, a dozen people or so, gathered round to watch the proceedings in an absorbed silence. At one point Mr Yi even asked to count the olives I used and to measure the distance between them. I don't know if he was just pulling my leg, but he looked totally serious....

During the next uneventful few days I slipped into comfortable routine. All day I was only expected to prepare 10 or 20 pizzas, and this usually took me no more than a couple of hours. My pupils gravely noted down the most trivial details and gradually began doing much of the work themselves, picking up my techniques with amazing rapidity....

Before the imposing means at his disposal, our Chef had waxed euphoric. He asked me to prepare a list of things and ingredients to order from Italy all of which amounted to many thousands of dollars. Everything arrived punctually in a matter of a few days. On one occasion, after looking over a brochure I had brought with me, Mr Pak got the sudden bright idea to order a prefabricated kiln. After first inquiring whether I would be able to build such a thing myself, he chose the most expensive model available and asked me to telephone and order it right away. It was only because the company was closed for holidays that we avoided another colossal waste of money. Every now and then a kind of courier would show up from some corner of the world. I saw him twice unloading two enormous boxes containing an assortment of 20 very costly French cheeses, and one box of prized French wines. That evening, dinner - a feast worthy of Petronius' Satyricon - was served with an excellent Burgundy and delicacies from around the world. As an Italian I could not refrain from objecting, and three days later fresh from Italy a shipment of Barolo arrived....

Mr Om told me to get ready because the next day we would be cooking at the seaside on a boat. When I expressed my doubts about this he cut me short with his usual smile and a urged me "not to worry". The next morning a cabin cruiser topped with a salon and kitchen was sent to pick us up like a private water taxi. The writing on her stern read: "Capri Miami-Florida". Ah, the mysteries of international politics!...

20041001Quote.jpgWe sped along for about half an hour to the languid notes of Korean music past the islands and islets that form an archipelago in front of the base. At last a kind of a semi-mobile, floating amusement park appeared before us which was able to anchor in different places every day. It was made up of two waterslides which dropped down into a swimming pool. On the other side of the pool there was a two-storey building with an observation deck on the roof. I doubt if even Federico Fellini could have concocted something of this magnitude. We did not draw near this floating fun fair, and our guides even tried to prevent us from gawking at it. They went so far as to physically, though partly in jest, turn our heads aside with their hands. About half a mile further on we came to a big ship which lay anchored in sea. The heart of this ocean liner was, needless to say, a fully equipped kitchen fitted with huge windows overlooking the sea and where it would be our pleasure to work....

Tied to the side the ship was a pontoon raft upon which I beheld a most miraculous sight. In truth, I could hardly believe my eyes. They had brought out my entire pizzeria and all its accessories in one piece. All that was left was for me to do was to start cooking. Shortly before the great luncheon banquet the air suddenly came alive with a stir. I had just finished preparing my pizzas when I noticed that everybody in the kitchen seemed to be caught up in an inexplicable flurry of agitation. They almost used force to drag me away from the kitchen windows into in a comfortable salon for a beer.

I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the Chef, who was performing a very delicate operation at the time, was less amenable to being distracted from his task. He had to lose his temper with his pupils to keep them from pulling him away. But by then his suspicions were aroused and he insisted on staying where he was at all costs. His instincts had been right.

On the other side of the darkened window of the kitchen, crossing the gangway which led from the cruiser to a luxurious suite overhead was the Man in the murals, the successor of the Creator of the idea of juche (self-reliance), whose girth gave the measure of his power, followed by his entourage. The Leader-hero was immediately recognizable by the distinctive cut of his hair, a style of his own, unique not only in Korea but in the rest of the world. I am not in the position to say whether it really was Him, but our Chef, who had no reason to fib, was, for the space of several minutes, utterly speechless. He came into the salon where I was sitting looking quite beside himself. After listening to the description of the vision he had been privileged to witness I tried to calm him down him and offered a maekchu, the sweet Korean beer. He said he felt as if he had seen God, and I still envy him this experience.

In the interest of drawing this epic tale to a close, I'll tell you that Kim, if it was indeed Kim, objected to a lamb dish the cooks prepared (too salty) but found nothing wrong with the pizza. Mr. Furlanis and crew never met Mr. Kim personally and, as far as his story goes, we have no idea if the North Koreans made good use out of the pizza knowledge they gained from the Italians. Likely, they were called there on Kim's whim, a sudden yen for pizza, which seemed to have turned just as quickly to Pakistani food, as Mr. Furlanis explains:

Our cook had to be back in Italy by a certain date and raised the question of our return. In order to gain time they allowed us each to send home a fax. Then, one day at lunchtime we made the acquaintance of a new colleague, a Pakistani chef just off the plane from Karachi. Well, we thought, now it's his turn.

The story continues for a few more paragraphs, detailing sightseeing trips to a magnificent museum in Pyongyang and the journey home. If you, dear reader, have had your curiousity aroused by the (admittedly winded) excerpts here, consider reading the whole, fascinating, three-part account. You'll find the links below.

I Made Pizza for Kim Jong-il, Part 1: Welcome to Megalopolis
I Made Pizza for Kim Jong-il, Part 2: Hot Ovens by the Seaside
I Made Pizza for Kim Jong-il, Part 3: The Great Man Eats

A Washington Post story about Kim's former sushi chef and his tell-all book: Dear Leader, On a Platter.

And here's another account of the weirdness of Kim's Korea, from Seoul-based English teacher who was able to make a trip to Pyongyang.

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