Having Her Pie And Eating It, Too: Introducing Pie Queen Amya Miller
The Best Ingredient To A Pie Is The Joy Of Making It
“If you enjoy what you do, people notice and it shows in the end result.” For Tokyo-based American Amya Miller this is baking pies, helping tsunami-devastated Tohoku, and sharing her delicious products with the world.
A slice of pie is a treat at any time, but as the weather cools down and fall beckons, there is something about this season that makes it particularly tempting. Tokyo-based American Amya Miller is the new “Pie Queen” in town and she has all your needs covered. Saturday usually finds Miller selling her delicious handmade baked goods at the Farmer’s Market in front of Ark Hills in Tokyo, and she makes pies and cakes to order through her Pie Queen website.
This month, you can also meet her at the Taste of Tokyo, a popular gourmet event gathering the best international food in Tokyo. It runs from September 22 to 24 at the Ishi to Hikari no Hiroba near Tokyo Big Sight in Odaiba.
If Miller’s name sounds familiar, it wouldn’t be surprising. Since the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, she has frequently been the “voice” for Tohoku in the English media through her work with the town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture. Rikuzentakata was one of the hardest-hit communities, losing 1,700 citizens in the tsunami. Having spent her childhood in Japan, Miller was keen to volunteer her services and the town mayor, Futoshi Toba, asked her to join his staff. In ongoing efforts to bring Tohoku’s voice to the world, Miller was appointed as the town’s global public relations director, then special adviser to the mayor — and now a principal consultant.
Savvy Tokyo catches up with Miller to learn how she combines two completely different lines of work and why pies matter.
What led you to start a home baking business?
The work in Rikuzentakata for the past six and a half years has been incredibly meaningful and seriously intense. I found that my life was not balanced at all. I worked all the time and played little. Then my husband and I moved into an apartment in Tokyo that had an oven. I threw together a pie the night we moved in before we even had the bed set up. The food I missed most from home was pie. I just could not find anything in Japan that came close to what I considered a real pie.
Another major reason I started Pie Queen was because I needed something goofy in my life. If I bomb a project in Rikuzentakata, the consequences are severe: funding is denied and people don’t get what they need. If I burn a pie, I just make another one. No one gets hurt and certainly, no needs to know.
We eat with our eyes first, so I want what I make to be both attractive and delicious.
Where do you get your ideas?
My inspiration comes from whatever is in season. I’m also a firm believer in color. Rhubarb, for example, needs to be made into a pie because, in principle, anything that is hot pink and edible should be made into a pie. We eat with our eyes first, so I want what I make to be both attractive and delicious.
How have you been promoting your new business?
Friends in Tokyo have been really supportive in helping to spread the word. I’m at Ark Hills every Saturday and that’s certainly been a big part of bringing in business traffic as well. Also, very simply, people miss pie! Knowing it’s going to be very close to what they’re used to —that “taste of home”— is a big attraction for a lot of foreigners. It’s amazing where the orders come from. I get messages such as, “I heard about you from so-and-so,” and I have no idea who this so-and-so person is, but I’m flattered.
How are you balancing Pie Queen with your ongoing work in Tohoku?
Initially, the plan was to gradually switch over to full-time pie and less work up north but that hasn’t worked out the way I’d planned. I now have two 3/4-time jobs. I’m okay because one is just a ton of fun and the other is extremely meaningful. I do hope, though, that over time I’ll be able to switch to full-time baking. I need more of that in my life.
It must be asked — how do you resist the temptation to eat all these delicious things you bake?
I have no willpower to resist my chocolate chip cookies. I have four to-die-for recipes and if I make these to sell, then I must sample the merchandise — quality control, you see. However, then I force myself to skip a meal or do extra work out at the gym as penance. Pies are easier to resist because I can’t sell pie by the slice due to Japan’s food safety laws. Once a pie is baked it goes out as a whole pie.
As for my husband, he just does not like pie. (I don’t think I knew that about him when we married.) That’s how he avoids the extra calories. He does manage to find his way into to kitchen when chocolate chip cookies are made. He refers to his sampling of the merchandise as “contributing to science” which is his own code for “this is why I have to eat your cookies.” All I know is, the more he eats the less there is for me. That’s fine. As long as I have enough to sell, I’m okay.
Have you noticed any differences between the preferences of Japanese and foreign customers?
Other than the obvious sweetness factor, foreign customers generally are far more interested in the fruit-based pies, whereas the Japanese customers are more interested in the breads, scones, and cookies. Pecan pie is popular with everyone and this surprises me because I thought it would be too sweet for the Japanese. It is very new to the Japanese but it is a serious hit.
What will you be doing with Pie Queen in the near future?
I’ll obviously have major Halloween, Christmas and Valentines campaigns. I’ll also get more creative on how to use apples this fall, and offer a lot of pumpkin flavors. And I’ll have a lot of Christmas/holiday-themed cookies and pastries in late November and December. It’ll be fun. I’ve missed real Christmas baking. The kitchen is going to smell wonderful.
Tell us more about the Taste of Tokyo event.
It’s a real honor to be invited to participate in Taste of Tokyo. I’ll be selling apple pies, lemon tarts, and chocolate chip cookies in the “World Zone.” Last year, over 200,000 people went, so they’re expecting more this year. It’s going to be a crazy time leading up to it!
My secret to pie making is to enjoy the process.
What is your own favorite pie?
Rhubarb, partly because of the color and partly because that mouth-puckering tang and sweetness is something I can’t find anywhere else. Close favorites are peach, apricot, apple, blackberry……see, I’m hopeless. I just absolutely love pie!
Any special baking tips to share?
My secret to pie making is to enjoy the process. I’m not trying to be all unicorns-and-butterflies when I say, “If you enjoy what you do, people notice and it shows in the end result.” When the end result is pie, in my case at least, I think my love of what I’m doing comes through with the perfect magical flavor combination resulting in an exquisite pie … even if I do say so myself. I’ve waited a long time for this, but I’m now doing what I want. Working with those who still desperately need support in Tohoku and baking pies and cookies in my kitchen that make people swoon — I’ve got it made.
For more information on how to order Amya’s pies, see her website here.
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