An interview with Chef Hidekazu Tojo, Japanese Chef & Founder of Tojo’s Restaurant
Name: Chef Hidekazu Tojo | Occupation: Japanese Chef | Location: Vancouver, Canada
A Little Background…
Vancouver, Canada is known for its vibrant city, beautiful beaches, and glorious mountains. Tourists are often surprised to see local sushi restaurants on nearly every corner downtown, as Vancouverites enjoy Japanese fare on a regular basis. Chef Tojo is credited as inventing the California Roll, an inside-out sushi roll created in the 1970s. Cha Siu Papers Times’ contributor Geraldine Sangalang interviews Chef Hidekazu Tojo on his background, and how he brought sushi to Vancouver.
At the time, the concept of eating raw fish was foreign in North America, and the inside-out roll resulted from guest feedback that they were intimidated by the fish. Hearing these concerns, Chef Tojo wanted guests to enjoy his food without changing the fundamental ingredients, and so he put the fish inside the sushi rolls, masking the intimidating sight with rice on the outside, and delighting guests. Chef Tojo also created the BC Roll, which is a sushi roll filled with barbeque salmon skin, commonly served in Canadian sushi restaurants.
Image courtesy of Leila Kowk | Tojo’s Restaurant
1. You moved to Vancouver in 1971. There were only a few Japanese restaurants in Vancouver at the time. Can you share a glimpse of your initial days in Vancouver? Where did you work and where did you spend your personal time?
I worked at Jinya and spent a lot of time getting to know the local ingredients and culinary habits.
2. You were born in Kagoshima in 1950, 5 years after the devastating nuclear bombing. Kagoshima is around 550 KMs away from Hiroshima and around 375 KMs from Nagasaki. 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Japan. What memories do you have from that time? What was the impact on your childhood?
I have memories of family friends that had health conditions—particularly a friend of similar age growing up together.
3. What inspired you to open your restaurant? Tell us about the original menu.
I wanted to introduce Japanese cuisine to people in Vancouver, and what better way to do it than with exciting and enticing omakase?
Image courtesy of Geraldine Sangalang
4. Before sushi was mainstream, where did you source raw ingredients for your menu?
I would go to the local fisherman’s market, where I became known for having a very discerning taste and eye for quality. I began sharing Japanese filleting tips with fishermen and requested a higher quality and more preserved product. Because I was willing to pay more, suppliers obliged. Today, my relationships with local fishermen are just as strong.
5. You’re known for keeping up with Japanese Cuisine Trends. How are you able to do this from Vancouver?
I travel to Japan every year. I was recently very inspired by a temple stay and the food prepared by the monks, perhaps something we’ll see in a future menu. During my visits, I savoured both the new and the very old.
At the time, locals in Vancouver did not eat raw fish, not even seaweed. So cooked crab was a great way to introduce new people to trying sushi. This sensation which became widespread throughout North America became called the California Roll—a name given by Japanese media. —Chef Hidekazu Tojo, Founder of Tojo’s Restaurant
Image courtesy of Tojo’s Restaurant
6. Tell us the idea behind creating the California Roll and BC Roll here in Vancouver. How did you come up with the idea of naming the sushi after a State and Province?
The Tojo Roll was the first inside out roll. This roll featured Dungeness crab, spinach and seaweed on the inside (to hide it). At the time locals in Vancouver did not eat raw fish, not even seaweed. So cooked crab was a great way to introduce new people to trying sushi. This sensation which became widespread throughout North America became called the California Roll—a name given by Japanese media. This recent video gives a good story of that. BC is all about salmon, so there had to be an iconic roll celebrating one of the region’s most famous ingredients.
7. You hired Architect Colin Kwok for the new design of your restaurant. What was your vision for the aesthetic and ambience of the space?
We wanted it to be all about the open kitchen, and to have an interactive and open space.
Chef Tojo’s sees many regular guests and he makes an effort to keep introducing them to more Japanese cuisine, sometimes adapting to their particular palate, which we have come to know. For visitors from out of town, it’s all local—showing off the best BC ingredients using traditional techniques. —Chef Hidekazu Tojo, Founder of Tojo’s Restaurant
Image courtesy of Leila Kowk | Tojo’s Restaurant
8. Are you planning to expand your restaurant into other countries? Do you have an interest in creating a chain or opening new locations in Asia?
There have been many opportunities pr