Hidekazu Tojo: Vancouver’s Sushi Genius
Legend at work from tojos.com
Hidekazu Tojo’s mind must buzz like the Tokyo subway at rush hour. How else could this Vancouver chef have memorized recipes for some 2,000 traditional sushi dishes? But that’s not where his ingenuity ends.
In 1974, Tojo invented the B.C. Roll, featuring crisp barbecued salmon and sea-fresh raw tuna in a wasabi-soy sauce. As with many of his other creations, it’s become a staple of Japanese restaurants on the West Coast. Tojo’s namesake establishment on West Broadway has become a culinary leader since its 1988 debut, regularly attracting sushi connoisseurs.
Prime seating at Tojo’s is at the counter, where the master himself will improvise a $50-100 CDN meal for you based on your personal tastes and requests.
To truly appreciate Tojo, you must experience the texture of his Pacific Northwest Roll—fresh crabmeat and avocado topped with scallops and herring roe—beneath a sip of masukagami, the premium Niigata sake. You must relish the subtle placement of pine needles lending an aromatic zest to his rich smoked Canadian sable fish served in a bowl. From a surprising burst of mango to the tang of Tojo’s special sauce, it is flavorful attention to detail that sets this restaurant apart.
Plenty of celebrities appreciate the attention of Tojo and his ever-smiling staff. Film legends like Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, and Jeff Goldblum have tasted his creations. “You are truly a ‘maestro’ in the culinary arts,” cellist Yo Yo Ma told the chef.
We sat down with the perennial winner of Vancouver Magazine’s “Best Japanese” Award to discuss the origins of his groundbreaking cuisine, which integrates the best traditions of his homeland with fresh Pacific Northwest ingredients.
Growing up in your native village of Kagoshima, did you always know you wanted to work with food?
No. Many people ask me, “Why did you become a chef?” Well, my mother was no good as a cook, though my father was quite skilled. When I cooked for friends and neighbors in my teenage years, they always liked it, and they suggested I follow that path. I was very interested in architectural design, but I decided that becoming a chef was better for me.
So how did you pursue your goal?
After I graduated from high school, I went to Osaka because that’s where all the good chefs go. I did a five-year apprenticeship at a restaurant called Onoya, and then I came to Vancouver in 1971.
When you arrived here, how were the Japanese restaurants?
At that time, there were only five in Vancouver, and none of them were sushi bars. Zero! I only knew five Caucasian customers who would eat sashimi, and they stuck to tuna, because over here people knew about canned tuna.
Wow. What other differences were there compared to today?
They only served basic Japanese food: sukiyaki, shabishabu, tempura. Seating was only in private traditional rooms. During my time in Vancouver, the presence of Japanese restaurants has really exploded.
How did you come to open your own restaurant?
I worked at a very tiny place called Jinya for 14 years, with only four seats at the sushi bar. In 1988, the owner retired, so I had no choice: I had to open my own place. I had a lot of demand for it. People would say, “Tojo, I’d like to invest in you.” Even before I opened, many articles appeared in the media, so that was a big help too.
How long are you at Tojo’s each day?
Most days I spend about 12 hours. I enjoy it. When I do my best creations, people are very appreciative, and that makes me happy. I think most chefs feel the same way.
Tell me about your famous practice of omakase.
That means “chef’s arrangement.” I go shopping for the ingredients, and we decide on a special menu for each customer. Now, some of my best customers have been coming for more than 30 years. One gentleman is here every Wednesday. Every single time I make a new dish for him, with the same materials but a different sauce or style. With omakase, you don’t know what’s coming until you walk in the door! It’s more fun that way.
You’re also famous for finding fresh fish. What’s your secret?
When I was an apprentice, I made many mistakes. Sometimes I chose fish that looked nice, but when you tasted it, it was no good. So I gained experience. Today I have many suppliers. I go to Granville Island, Chinatown, Albion Fisheries, or straight to one of my fisherman friends. Every day I phone to see what’s available.
If you had stayed in Japan, do you think you would have been able to incorporate as many non-traditional ingredients?
I said from the start that I wanted to keep very good, traditional Japanese methods. But today, young people don’t appreciate every aspect of it. Food is always changing, every day. That’s why we need chefs!
What keeps you passionate about your work?
I like to make something new. That’s always my goal. Making the same thing every day would be no fun. I believe that we must challenge ourselves.
Obviously it’s helped you become a celebrity magnet.
All these celebrities visit Vancouver, and 85 percent of them come here. Some people stay in Vancouver one week and come every day, because we keep everything original and tasty.
Apparently you’ve hosted just about every big heavy metal band?
Everybody thinks bands like Aerosmith or KISS would be crazy. But no! They are just regular people. Now, the Rolling Stones, Mick and Keith, they were a bit different! Very funny guys, different from other musicians.
What do you do for relaxation?
I do yoga and meditation every morning. Sometimes I go fishing, skiing, or golfing. When I started golf, I was very serious, three or four times a week. But now I know I’ll never be a professional golfer! I’ve given up! [laughs]
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