Baking a cake for a dog's birthday is an unusual request for a chef to carry out.
For Naoka Kojo, who has spent five years cooking ricotta hotcakes, scrambled eggs and burgers at Bills in Sydney's Surry Hills, there was an extra layer of difficulty – many of the people attending the celebration were chefs who'd worked at acclaimed restaurants like Chaco Bar and Sepia. There was the added pressure of having many hospitality professionals to impress.
Even though a dog's birthday isn't a typical function to cater for, it helped that the event also doubled as a housewarming party for the Sydney home Kojo had moved into with friend Caddie Mao. (Mao's pet was the birthday-celebrating dog in question.)
Although other people had contributed fancy dishes for the party – like lobster and wagyu beef – Kojo wanted to make something simple. The Basque cheesecake was having its moment, and she wanted to reinterpret it in the style of her native Japan – giving the batter an airier texture and emphasising the caramelised top. It was her first time cooking the dessert.
Mao remembers everyone gathering at this party last October, to sing happy birthday and blow out the candles atop the cake. "Everybody grabbed a piece and when they put it in their mouths, the room just went quiet," she says. Immediately, friends wanted to know, was Kojo selling this cake?
This didn't become a serious consideration until the pandemic hit and Kojo and Mao both found themselves out of work. Due to visa issues, they couldn't apply for government support, so they decided to draw on Kojo's cooking expertise and Mao’s marketing background and create 15 Centimeters: a Japanese artisanal cheesecake company. Its tagline – "15 cm of happiness" – is a reference to the diameter of their cakes.
They rented a commercial kitchen with top-of-the-line equipment and were surprised that they kept producing baking fails. "It was too ugly that we didn't want to sell it. It was like a hundred-year-old cake," says Mao, and laughs. She was confused as the batter-filled tins they placed in their "crappy old" home oven had turned out perfectly.
"Everybody grabbed a piece and when they put it in their mouths, the room just went quiet."
Over time, they learnt how to adjust to the commercial kitchen – and Kojo perfected the caramelised topping right down to the minute; but in the meantime, they had a lot of unsellable cheesecake – which they ate themselves and also sent next door. "We have five neighbours in our block," she says, "they keep getting cheesecake from us."
Once the housemates started 15 Centimetres, their audience widened far beyond their apartment complex.
They've even received orders from Asia and the US – despite the delivery range being only 20 kilometres from the team’s kitchen. Somehow, word has spread internationally and people are buying cake for loved ones in Sydney. A daughter in New York asked for a birthday cake to be sent to her mum. Someone in Shanghai ordered the dessert for her best friend. There was even a special request from a customer in Malaysia.
"She's got a friend who works in a hospital in Sydney and the friend was supposed to go back to Malaysia for holidays, but she couldn't, because of what was happening in the hospital and because of COVID." So, from Malaysia, came a long-distance gift: 15cm of cheesecake happiness to cheer up the overworked medical staffer's day.
A lot of orders go to medical students – and Kojo recently delivered the signature cheesecake to a nurse at Westmead Hospital. But, like some drop-offs, it turned out to be more complicated than expected.
"I tried to find the entrance, but there were so many entrances," she says. The chef was given directions to help her through the hospital maze – which turned out to be wrong and nowhere near where she needed to be. "It took me 30 minutes to figure out."
Despite the hurdles, the 15 Centimetres team has been rewarded with incredible loyalty. More than half of its customers reorder cakes – and the staff has gone from making 10 cakes a week to hundreds.
One client even orders five cakes at a time – and they're not even for him. "We have a regular, he is buying our cake for all his friends," says Mao. He's on a particularly strong conversion drive for mates who are fans of rival brand, Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake.
"My hairdresser loves Uncle Tetsu's, I tell her to throw Uncle Tetsu's in the bin, can you send a cake to her tomorrow?" he'll tell the 15 Centimetres crew.
He currently has four flavours (and counting) to choose from. There's the original version, a Belgian chocolate offering, a Tahitian lime cheesecake and a green tea option made with single-origin matcha from Yame, Japan, an area with nearly 1,000 years of tea-producing history.
The tea was sourced by Kei Tokiwa, who was working for Chaco Bar until he was let go due to the pandemic. He is also Mao and Kojo's housemate and has joined 15 Centimeters as their business development manager.
"We all thought, all matcha is built equally. But they're not,” he says. Tokiwa sourced green tea from a matcha master in Japan's Shizuoka tea-producing region – but even examples from renowned areas (like Uji in Kyoto) didn't translate well. "When you brew it into a normal tea, it's really beautiful. But when you cook it into a cheesecake, it's not what you want." It was too bitter and the colour didn’t hold.
The Yame tea had a nice balance, though, he says. "I think it also helps that it's a single origin matcha as well."
There are also new flavours in the works, too. One consistent feature will be the 15cm size, though, which they decided on because it is "the perfect size for everyone to enjoy", says Mao. It's not too big, but it's still satisfying, she believes. And good enough to inspire requests from other continents – and cheering enough to turn around a hospital worker's intense workday.