Tojo: Vancouver’s Zen Master of Sushi (World)

If one ever needed a reason to go to Vancouver, eating at Tojo’s new restaurant at 1133 West Broadway is reason enough.  Tojo, you see, is not just a master sushi chef, he’s the veritable Picasso of sushi chefs. He can bend a slice of raw fish over a rectangle of rice in a way more satisfying than David Beckham can bend a soccer ball towards the goal on a free kick. He can color your palate with delicacies that make you want to sing a high C like Pavarotti. He can honestly say to newcomers sitting at his sushi bar for the first time, “You’ve never eaten here before? Then you’ve never had sushi.”

It is not his ego talking, it’s his charm. He’s a Zen master of sushi, a grand sommelier of sashimi, a Cezanne of crab, a Lamborghini of lobster, a Zorro of zucchini, a genie of giant clam, a sorcerer of scallops, a titan of tempura.

Think I’m exaggerating? Not even close.  Am I stretching hyperbole to the limit? Absolutely not. I’ve eaten at Tojo’s on three different trips to Vancouver, and believe me when I say that if I only have one night in that city before moving on, that night will be spent sitting across the sushi bar from Tojo.  I won’t order a single item.  I will let him prepare my dinner in small portions on artful plates until I can’t swallow another piece. After all, he’s the one who spent the morning selecting fish and crustaceans, so who better than he to choose the freshest, tastiest morsels to satisfy my palate?

How do I know he does his own fish shopping?  Because I went along with him one fine August morning. I figured if he allowed me to accompany him I’d get some insight into his mastery.  It would be like watching a great athlete prepare for a game, or a great actor for a part. It took a number of e-mails to make the arrangements, but once Tojo agreed, we knew we were in for something special. Luckily, my wife Hiromi is Japanese, so she could help with any translation if necessary. And the fact that my wife agrees with me about Tojo’s culinary expertise gave me that much more assurance that spending a morning with Tojo was the best way to spend our day in one of our favorite cities. Spending the evening eating the food we spent the morning collecting made it all the more special.

“We’ll go to Chinatown first,” Tojo said when he picked us up outside the Metropolitan Hotel in his Toyota Highlander hybrid.

Tojo often goes directly to where the fishermen dock to find his fish, and sometimes the fishermen bring their catch to him, but on this day he wanted to check out the crab, lobster and shellfish in the one seafood store he likes above all others in Chinatown. On the way I asked him how he came to settle in Vancouver. He was born in Kagoshima, south of Kishu, Japan in 1950 and learned to cook at an early age in Osaka. He apprenticed for 3 ½ years at the Oynoya restaurant where they served ryotei—high end traditional cooked food, including tempura. He then worked at a strictly sushi restaurant for eight months, but he wasn’t happy. Japanese restaurants were all very traditional. “They always served sashimi in the same order: tuna, white fish, octopus, salmon, squid. I didn’t like the Japanese system. Every restaurant, same food—no originality. It was too much stress, I wanted to be more creative.”  So in 1971, at the age of 21, Hidekazu Tojo crossed the Pacific and landed in Vancouver.

He found work in a restaurant, then in another, and soon was able to open his own. Diners who came to his restaurant became loyal disciples and through word of mouth Tojo soon became an institution. “Sometimes Japanese people would come and complain that I did not serve in the traditional way,” he said, “but that was OK. I told them it’s Tojo Traditional.” Part of Tojo’s tradition was the creation of the California roll, now a standard in American and Canadian sushi restaurants.

Before we arrived at Gar-lock Seafood & Meat Ltd in Chinatown I asked Tojo how he judged a sushi chef. “I look how they cut a radish,” he said. “I watch for the pure, smooth use of the knife. And I taste the clear soup, which seems simple but it’s hard to make. That’s how I judge. When you go to a restaurant the number one thing you look for is that the food is safe. Number two is that it tastes good. And number three is that it looks good. Same like when you buy a car.”

“What about the tamago, the cooked egg?” I asked. “I’ve always been told that one can judge a chef by that?”

“Not really,” Tojo laughed. “Tamago is for children. The ‘A’ sushi is uni (sea urchin), toro (fatty tuna), ikura (salmon egg), big shrimp, and anago (sea eel).  Then comes the ‘B’ sushi: yellowtail (hamachi), regular tuna (maguro), tako (octopus), tai (red snapper), and unagi (freshwater eel).  We call the ‘A’ sushi ‘father’ and the ‘B’ sushi ‘mother’ and the tamago, or ‘C’ sushi, ‘child.’”

As he began looking at the fish on ice at Gar-lock he said, “Very fresh fish smells like watermelon and cucumber.” He picked up a fish and inhaled. My wife joined him. To me, fish has a very fishy smell, but to these two, it was as if they were comparing roses and orchids.

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