It’s not just pot luck that has made Vermicular a household name in Japan: the handmade cookware company has taken its products to the next level. It even has a shop, restaurant and café complex to showcase its premium pans.
Judging by the sharp architecture and immaculate interiors, you might expect Vermicular Village – a cookware showroom, shop, restaurant and café in Nagoya – to be the work of a young company making its mark on the design world. Not a bit of it: Vermicular is the brand name of a company that emerged from a family-run iron foundry that has been manufacturing in the city for more than 80 years. At the heart of this retail and hospitality operation are the cast-iron pots and frying pans that are being made a short drive away.
Vermicular’s origins date to 1936 when the Hijikata family founded Aichi Dobby, a foundry known for its skill in precision casting machine parts. When the latest recession hit, however, the company’s future looked precarious and it might have closed but for the determination of the third-generation heirs, Kuni and Tomo Hijikata.
The brothers were determined that the family business and its exceptional craft folk were not going to be consigned to history. Rolling up their sleeves, Kuni became a casting expert, while Tomo set about mastering precision engineering. The challenge was to shift the company’s skill set away from supplying parts for ships (a dead end at this point) to something that could revive its fortunes.
“The enamel we use doesn’t pass any smell onto the food. And because the seal is so tight, the umami and aroma are all kept inside. Nothing escapes”
Research pointed the brothers to the kitchen and, eventually, to the creation of an enamelled cast-iron cooking pot. Tomo realised that the foundry was uniquely positioned to make a pot with a perfectly fitted lid – no mean feat, as it turns out.
There are other household names in the enamelled cooking-pot business but none had cracked the problem of closing the gap between the pot and the lid. Simply put, in the immense heat of the casting process the iron warps. The brothers knew that they could do better. Three years and 10,000 attempts later (they had to create a new alloy and a new enamelling process) the team had solved the problem. The Vermicular gap – a mere 0.01mm – allowed for a near-perfect seal, which from a cooking point of view, means that the flavours stay in the pot. Ingredients need little extra flavouring, meat is unusually juicy and even the least competent cooks find that they can produce a delicious meal.
When the pot hit the market in 2010, influential food bloggers spread the word and before long there was a 15-month waiting list (in the early days, production was slower but now the company can make 20,000 pots a month). Shoppers loved the unusual colour palette too. This was partly a result of a commitment not to use cadmium. “To make a red or yellow – good colours for kitchen equipment – you need cadmium, which is a harmful substance,” says Kuni. “The craftsmen might inhale it when they’re blowing on the furnace or it will flow away in the wastewater, so we don’t use it.” Vermicular pots don’t use lead either.
The oven pot was followed by a rice cooker, the Musui-Kamado, which is now being used by everyone from home cooks to top-end Ginza sushi restaurants. To Western diners who don’t necessarily share (or understand) Japan’s obsession with perfectly cooked rice, the Musui-Kamado is marketed as the world’s first cast-iron induction cooker inspired by the traditional Japanese stove (or kamado). There are also ultralight, rust-free cast-iron frying pans with handcarved wooden handles.
Every product relies on the skill of the factory workers. Pots and lids are hand-machined (a sight to behold – the worker taps on the lid to judge, by ear, if there is even the slightest warping), which no other manufacturer bothers with. The Vermicular enamelling technique involves three rounds of handspraying, drying, finishing and baking each piece at 800C.
Sensitive Japanese palates appreciate the effort. Take the rice cooker, for instance. “If you use a regular rice cooker, the flavour of what it’s made from – usually rubber or aluminium – transfers to the rice,” says Kuni. “The enamel we use doesn’t pass any smell onto the food at all. And because the seal is so tight, the umami and aroma are all kept inside. Nothing escapes.” The frying pans have their own qualities, notably that moisture instantly evaporates from the enamelled surface, which means that soggy stir fries are a thing of the past.
The Hijikata brothers look at Vermicular as a lifestyle, hence the photogenic showroom and the artfully styled cookbooks, which are a big hit with pot-lovers. An in-house design team keeps a tight rein on the shops and branding, and the company also retains an executive chef, Naoki Toya, who comes up with recipes that show how to master the signature musui (waterless) cooking technique and get the best out of the products. There are collaborations with ceramic makers and art printers too.
Opening their showroom in Nagoya was an obvious choice for the brothers. “The closeness to the factory was one factor but the other was that this area – Nakagawa-ku – is where we grew up and went to school,” says Kuni. “Our grandfather lived right across the river from here. It’s our way of giving back to the neighbourhood.”
This autumn the company launched its latest product: the Oven Pot 2. Years of making the original oven pot – they’ve sold more than 630,000 – propelled the development of a new pot that is thinner, lighter and quicker. Chef Toya is already lining up recipes to show what the new pot can do (restaurant-quality fried rice, high-speed roasting and a rich curry in 45 minutes). Some customers love their hefty old oven pot but those who want to make the switch can bring in their pots to be recycled. The colours are as chic and muted as ever – an oyster grey or a soft pink among the choices.
Fans come to the showroom to buy pots, cookbooks and kitchen accessories; they can then go down the road to the Pot Made Bakery (yes, even buns can be made in the tiniest 10cm oven pot) or dine in the airy restaurant, appropriately called The Foundry, all overlooking a stretch of water.
The care and attention to detail shown by everyone, from the founders to the factory workers, is clear. This is more than a business; they are pouring their hearts into the Vermicular brand. “The factory has been open since 1936 and it has never closed,” says Kuni with pride. “That means a lot to us.”