Industry Award - Back of House

Hidekazu Tojo

Hidekazu Tojo

Hidekazu Tojo was born in post-war Japan (near the stunningly beautiful volcanic mountain named Sakurajima in Kagoshima, at the southernmost tip of Japan). As a young man he traveled to Osaka where he apprenticed at Onoya,a famously traditional Riyokan. During years of 16-hour days there he perfected his uncanny skill for selecting the best and freshest fish. At the Onoya he also developed an encyclopaedic repertoire of some 2000 traditional Japanese recipes, which even today he has fresh in his head.

Recognizing that his own passion for inventiveness was leading him beyond the conventional expectations of mainstream Japanese cuisine, Tojo chose to come to North America, where he felt that a multicultural population without preconceptions would be more receptive to his ideas. He found his perfect audience in Vancouver.

Vancouver in the early 1970s had only four Japanese restaurants, and Tojo's first original dishes were aimed at helping locals learn how to appreciate the world of Japanese cuisine. His Tojo tuna (maguro ai) and Tojo-maki (inside-out version of what would become known as "California roll") created a bridge. His dishes enabled locals unfamiliar with sushi and sashimi to enter a new world. Increasingly, fresh local ingredients unknown or very rare in Japan found pride of place in his new recipes: Gindara (broiled black cod, now known as sablefish), baked local oysters, local albacore tuna, asparagus, and, famously, salmon. Tojo's barbecued salmon-skin roll, first created in 1974, can today be found in virtually every Japanese restaurant on the West Coast, under the name of "BC roll". He was also the first to introduce smoked salmon into Japanese cuisine.

As the head chef of the tiny Jinya restaurant Tojo-san presided over Japanese food's phenomenal growth in popularity in the 1980s. As more and more diners appeared with expectations of the now-standard sushi repertoire, Tojo began to surprise them (and delight those less eager to eat raw fish) with a wider range of cooked dishes, and with traditional dishes that even Japanese visitors recognized as rare and special back home.

On October 6, 1988 Tojo opened Tojo's Restaurant. Here he welcomes the stars of Hollywood North, visiting executives of Japanese corporations, pilgrims who have read reviews of his restaurant in publications from around the world, North American politicians and, as always, an expanding loyal community of Vancouver oldtimers and regulars. He treats each with respectful equanimity mixed with infectious laughter, assuming that each shares his appreciation of freshness and originality.

It is at Tojo's that he has perfected the practice of Omakase, a variation of the traditional Japanese practice of kaiseki. In Tojo's version it is subtle interactive dance involving the diner's dietary preferences and budget, the freshest seasonal ingredients of the region, and the chef's inventiveness. At Tojo's it is possible to eat here every week for years and never to encounter the same meal twice.

It is here, too, that Tojo has begun to train a new generation of chefs, sharing the discipline of his own training and the insights of a lifetime devoted to creativity. Today a tightly-knit team of gifted young chefs from around the world assist him behind the sushi counter and in the kitchen. They compete with one another to concoct new dishes, new sushi and deserts to match the example of their master. And the result is pure delight for those of us lucky enough to eat here.

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