Justin McKee had baked 258 cakes to get though coronavirus isolation in Tokyo, but cake 259 was different
You’re in lockdown, so you baked. So did your neighbours, and your colleagues — and the whole pandemic-rattled world. But you didn’t bake like Justin Mackee.
Isolated, lonely and with a massive heart, the Tokyo man — a risk consultant whose work dried up as COVID-19 bit Japan — decided he would fill his newly empty time by baking a cake, then selling and delivering that cake for charity.
He wondered if anyone would pay for the cake and whether, maybe, he’d be able to make a few, or even a dozen, to benefit the Japanese food bank, Second Harvest Japan.
He hoped the only cake in his repertoire — a carrot and banana loaf — would cut it. He gave his impromptu project a name, then introduced Let Tokyo Eat Cake via Instagram. He decided he’d take and post a photo of everybody to whom he delivered a cake.
He went to the local supermarket, then to the next store and then the next as he battled supply shortages to find the wholemeal flour he needed. And then, and only then, he prepared his tiny counter-top portable oven for the handful of cakes he envisaged making.
Eight weeks on, the 39-year-old has baked 262 cakes from his cramped central Tokyo kitchen, raising over $US8,800 for the nationwide charity.
Baking through isolation
Justin’s impromptu decision to turn his small kitchen into the hub of his own cottage industry has led him, loaded with cakes on his scooter, to mansions and soup kitchens, to strangers and old friends, and to a sort of social interaction he craved.
“This is very much a selfish endeavour in the sense that I’m isolating on my own and I’m really struggling. I’m just struggling at home, struggling with a recent break up, struggling with worrying about my own business,” he said.
His parents live an hour away, beside the surf and in view of Mt Fuji, his 97-year-oldobachan, or grandmother, in their full-time care. In less unusual times, he regularly takes the train to visit hisobachan, taking her for breakfast and a walk and to watch the waves.
“I couldn’t see my grandma. I love being able to do something for someone I care about and I couldn’t do that,” he said.
His days now begin with mixing the fruit, nuts and flour together for his loaves, with the first batch in his oven by 6am. By mid-afternoon and eight neatly wrapped cakes later, he begins around three hours of deliveries on his scooter to anywhere within Tokyo’s 23 wards.
Most cakes are bought as presents for others, often as surprises, and he has delivered dozens to local children’s cafes, orlocal charitable organisations that provides meals for the children of financially disadvantaged families. Along the way, he has photographed every recipient, an ever-expanding gallery of loaf-laden customers — and fleeting social moments — filling Instagram.
“I’ve met old friends I’ve not seen for nearly 10 years, award-winning actresses, globally renowned chefs, the 70-year-old parents of children who are based in the US, millennials who want to do something to help others and a lady who was searching Instagram for cakes,” he said.
“As brief as the interactions are is just how much positivity it gives me being able to see a smile and deliver a cake to someone I’ve never met.
“From the beginning I was taking a portrait of every single person and, looking at them after a week or two, I realised the portraits were wonderful because there’s a little bit of joy in every one of them.”
Visiting customer 259
But it was cake number 259, baked on Friday, that gave pause to his epic efforts in lockdown.
That loaf was baked for Justin’s most special customer yet. After three months apart and a steady fall in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, he was finally able to hand deliver a cake to his obachan in her home beside the beach.
“I can’t tell you how happy it made me,” he said of their reunion.
“The tears in my eyes, just from her holding my hand, took me by complete surprise.”