By Ergulen Toprak
When the 12-year-old apprentice first touched a piece of dough in his hometown Silvan, he would never imagine one day this experience would change his life forever. Hakki Akdeniz, 36, the World Pizza Champion, had to leave Turkey like millions of Kurds have done in the mid 1990’s, after the civil war escalated.
He was aiming to chase his dreams in New York but ended up becoming homeless instead. The magic wand that transformed his life was the pizza dough acrobatics show. His dream came true after winning the World Pizza Championship and opening his first pizza store. Afterwards, he managed to open seven more pizza stores by 2016. The US media uses Akdeniz’s story as a great example of the American dream to inspire millions.
When Akdeniz hosted an event for Star Wars Fan Club to hold a tribute for Carrie Fisher, who played “Princes Leia” in “Star Wars” and died on Tuesday, he was all over the US media again. “Star Wars” fans with movie costumes were invited to have pizza for free. Hundreds of people joined the event with their “Star Wars” costume to honor Fisher on Wednesday and Thursday.
Akdeniz made his famous acrobatics show for the press after giving a short speech in remembrance of Fisher and the “Star Wars” series. He has been a fan of it in since his childhood, as he said “I started learning English watching Star Wars back in my country. Princes Leia was an inspiration to me. This is why I wanted to serve free pizza to the Star Wars fans in the next 48 hours.”
Just a couple of hours after the event, his story was all around media, viewed millions of times in the US and the entire world. ABC, NBC, Fox TV, Wall Street Journal and other big media outlets and many some local news channels were among media that made the coverage and interviewed Akdeniz.
The US media loves Hakki Akdeniz and his story, and Akdeniz loves being on the media too as an icon to inspire people with his story. His most popular place called “Champion Pizza” located in Soho, Manhattan, is more like a news museum, which is filled with newspapers clippings of him and photos of Hollywood celebrities.
Akdeniz is very popular on social media, hundreds of thousands of people follow his personal and “Champion Pizza” accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. He likes to communicate with his followers, invites them to his stores and meets them in person. His recent show and interviews are booming up on the social media. Not only on social media, but also in his daily life he is always active and in touch with his customers, neighbors and the people he meets. His success came with his ambitious and his popularity.
The secret behind his ambitious and popularity is what he has been dreaming since his childhood. Akdeniz has been through a lot in Turkey, Canada or the US. He has never been given an opportunity to study. In order to help his family’s budget, he started working in his earlier ages, at a lahmajoun (lahmacun) store, similar to pizza, where he first became familiar with pizza dough in the middle of 1990’s.
It was very hard time for Turkey and the Kurds. Silvan and Diyarbakir were among the cities the civil war around the Kurdish issue escalated. Millions of people escaped from their home to Istanbul and other big Turkish cities and Europe. Hakki went to Canada where his brother was living and running a pizza store. He worked hard and learned a lot, but things did not go the way he expected.
After leaving his family behind in Diyarbakir, staying in a refugee camp in Canada and then being deported to the US, Akdeniz landed in New York in 2000 not knowing a soul and penniless.
This time he would have to leave his family in Canada, even his newborn son from his previous marriage. Akdeniz was not able to see his son, Serhad, for ten years since he was not allowed to enter Canada again. Struggling with the legal documents, Akdeniz would have to wait sixteen years to see his mother first in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, then in his hometown Diyarbakir, Turkey.
The fact that he did not have a job and a friend in his first months in New York City, he became homeless, and stayed in Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter, for 96 days. Years later, he would help the homeless people to show how much sharing and appreciating is important to him. Every night before they close the pizza stores, Akdeniz’s stuff collect all the pizzas not sold to the Bowery Mission, so homeless people could enjoy them.
After his homeless experience, he found a job as a janitor and worked hard for a while. Meanwhile, he was doing boxing too. He received a third place Golden Gloves medal. Though, his boxing story did not last long. He broke a few bones and he moved on to his pizza journey that became his destiny since then.
Akdeniz’s story quickly changed when he started working at a pizzeria, which would lead him to the pizza championship later on. He was so ambitious and pizza championship was his only chance. He had no option but to succeed. “When I first joined the pizza show I didn’t know what I was expected to do. I ended up being in the 87th place. I was so disappointed,” Akdeniz said. “I did not give up, though, I knew it could be the turning point in my life.”
Besides the taste, the pizza tournament requires a specific show. Akdeniz would stretch five pizza doughs for 12 inches in just forty-four seconds. Then he would turn the pizza dough on his hands like a basketball ball during his show.
“Depending on how long I could turn the dough I was given point. I began to do more by placing fire on the dough while I was blindfolded and lying on the floor,” Akdeniz said.
In only a few years, he was the winner of five American and three the World Pizza Championship between in 2005-2010. He was awarded a sum of money and given the scholarship to take a pizza course in Italy for two months to develop his skills on pizza.
He used that money to open his first pizza store, in 2009. Now, he has eight pizza stores in Soho and Lower East Side, Manhattan. “People like my pizza, otherwise I would not have a chance to open eight stores,” Akdeniz points out.
Akdeniz had a big success and his experience led him to rapidly grow his business, but apparently that is not enough for him as he says, “I want to do more.”
Akdeniz who has never found an opportunity to study in his childhood says he wants to open a pizza school for children who need help, so they can start their own business too in the future.
“I want to give children a chance, so they can chase their dreams, as well,” Akdeniz said.
“Remembering all I had to go through, I never regret anything in my past. In fact, everything I had to face was my destiny, which brought me today.”