Q&A with Vancouver’s top Japanese chef – Hidekazu Tojo
We’ve all read about Chef Tojo and the accolades for his award-winning restaurant, but did you know that he started cooking when he was only 7 years old? Or that he created the official Olympic Roll during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver? In this issue of the Club OpenRoad newsletter, we sat down for a quick Q&A with one of OpenRoad’s most well-known customers – Hidekazu Tojo of Tojo’s Restaurant.
1) You moved to Canada from Japan in 1971. What was behind your decision to move to Canada, and what made you choose Vancouver?
That time it didn’t matter where it was. I wanted to see and experience outside of Japan. At the time, it was only the businessmen from trading companies or the diplomatic people who could get out of Japan. There were few choices, but because I had background in cooking, I could go to big cities to become a cook.
Back then, I was working at a very high-end restaurant in Osaka, and the daughter of one of the geishas married a Canadian-born Japanese. They were looking for a young chef to open up a Japanese restaurant in Canada, so I said, “Yes, I’m interested!” They happened to be Vancouver-based. I once saw pictures of Spanish Banks, Stanley Park, and downtown Vancouver while I was still in Osaka, and I thought to myself, “This is beautiful!”
At the time I had a 2-year contract to work in Canada, and when I returned to Japan during my 2-week holiday, I decided I wanted to stay in Canada. What makes Vancouver special is that it’s very close to Japan, and also to the sea. I like seeing the mountains and the ocean every day. I’ve had many offers to open restaurants in cities like New York, London, Shanghai, Beijing, etc., but when people open up so many restaurants or businesses, they lose control of their lives. Vancouver is the best city, and I choose quality of life – a lifestyle where I can live comfortably, take time off and enjoy.
2) What is one advice you would give to someone wanting to become a sushi chef? Do you think there is an age limit to start learning?
To become any kind of chef, not just a sushi chef, or even for any kind of job, you must love what you do. You must have passion for it, and that’s it. For me, I like to be proud of my job and my role.
Age doesn’t matter. As long as you feel good, it doesn’t matter how old or how young you are. When I was about 7 years old, I started cooking. My brothers and sisters all thought it tasted good, and it made me very happy.
3) What sushi or types of dishes would you recommend during the summer season?
My philosophy is that I use as much local ingredients as I can. For Vancouver, I suggest a variety of cold and hot dishes for a balance. Now is a good season for zucchini flowers, so we use a lot of zucchini, stacked with scallop, or make it as a tempura. Also, a great cool dish would be a seafood salad or a cold noodle salad, using summer vegetables like eggplant, tomato, cucumber, daikon radish, and noodles. Japanese cooking always depends on weather. During the hot weather we make a lot of cold dishes, and in the winter we serve a lot of cooked dishes.
4) You spend most of your time at the restaurant. When you do have a bit of spare time, what do you like to do?
When I wake up, I take a look at the newspaper, watch the news on TV, enjoy some tea, and then I take a stroll in my neighbourhood for about one hour, rain or shine. After brunch, I phone all my suppliers and go shopping for ingredients. I come back to the restaurant, check on that day’s reservations, and then start preparing the dishes for that night.
When we are closed on Sundays, I go on my usual stroll around the neighbourhood in the morning. I have a small garden, so on my days off I like to work on my garden and trim the bonsai.
5) Who are some of your most famous customers at Tojo’s Restaurant?
Tom Cruise, Hilary Swank, and a few weeks ago, Roger Waters from Pink Floyd came. During their most recent visit, a few of the other players from the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team came. David Beckham came before that as well.
6) We were fortunate enough to have you at the grand opening of our OpenRoad Lexus Richmond store last year. The lineup for the exclusively made “Lexus Roll” was insane! Can you tell us what ingredients you used to create that roll and the inspiration behind it?
The Lexus logo is gold, so I used egg yolk to represent the gold, with local crab, scallop, salmon, BC spot prawn rolled together, topped with caviar. I used smoked salmon for an East-meets-West concept. I used local ingredients as much as possible.
My sushi and my food, it’s all original – no MSG, no farm fish. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, NBC asked me to create an Olympic Roll. I also created a BC Lion Roll, and also a Vancouver Whitecaps Roll. There’s also the Yoshi Roll, created for one of my employees who is making his way across Canada on a cycling trip to raise awareness and funds for the tsunami recovery efforts in Japan.
7) We hear that you drive a Toyota Highlander hybrid from OpenRoad. What’s the one thing you love most about your car?
As I said, I use local ingredients as much as possible, and all my creations are sustainable. I am an eco-friendly guy, so that’s why I enjoy my Highlander hybrid. It saves on gas, and is very comfortable. In a few more years, I’d like to buy a Lexus hybrid.