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

Then he turned over a plastic crate and used it as a step-ladder to reach the tanks where the lobsters and crabs were napping. He reached in and pulled out a crab and said he liked that one because it weighed around two pounds, so there was a lot of meat inside. With the lobsters, he turned them over to identify their sex.  He preferred the males because they had more meat. With the females, there was space for their eggs, which meant less pure meat. With the giant clams he poked around a tank and found a nice fat one. “Watch,” he said as he squeezed it, shrinking it considerably as the water came shooting out. “You do this before they weigh it, costs less,” he laughed.

As he picked and chose among the various tanks his phone rang. One of his suppliers at Angel Seafoods in East Vancouver was calling to let him know that they just brought in a bluefin tuna. This was exciting news for Tojo, who finished his business at Gar-lock, where he estimated that he spent $10,000 a month, and we headed over to Angel’s to take a look at the bluefin, which could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 depending on the quality, the freshness, and the oil content.

“Do they always call you first?” I asked, wondering about the pecking order among Japanese sushi chefs in Vancouver.

“They know I will come right away,” he said. “It’s good to get there first.”

Just how good we soon found out. The tuna’s head and fin had been cut but not the body. They were waiting for Tojo to arrive. He inspected the fin, to judge the fat and oil content, and then once they cut the large fish in half they handed us a few slices to eat. The dark red flesh practically melted in our mouths. It was so tasty there was no need for soy sauce or wasabi. “Don’t worry, you’ll have more tonight,” Tojo promised.

Tojo figured that he buys 35,000 pounds of albacore tuna and 15,000 pounds of salmon each year. The bluefin tuna is the most expensive fish and is also in danger of extinction because it’s so highly prized. He told us that the Food Channel wanted to send him to Japan to film him there and that he had a lot of offers to spread his name–by opening up a chain of Tojo restaurants or by packaging “Tojo” sea food—but his wife didn’t like the idea and neither did he. “I have a house, a car, what else do I need?  I have fourteen chefs at the restaurant, I make money, I share with everyone.” He also has a daughter who is a city planner in Vancouver and a son who works for Lehman Brothers in Japan.

“Let’s go to Granville Island,” Tojo said happily. “We can look at the fish, fruit and vegetables, and then I will show you where they make sake locally.”

You could see why Tojo loved Vancouver. He maneuvered through the city like an old pro, knowing which streets to take and which to avoid, as well as where to park. He might just be the world’s happiest man. He rarely went to the movies or watched television, he told us. He liked to golf or go fishing with friends on their boats or at their private clubs. He could make a good living anywhere in the world, but has no desire to live anywhere but where he lives. He’s content doing what he does, what he loves to do.

He examined the colorful produce in the marketplace but didn’t buy any vegetables because he grows his own, to ensure that they’re fresh, safe and not chemically treated. But the sake store, run by a former employee of his, was a delight because they made good rice wine. “I will show you tonight,” he said.

When he dropped us off at our hotel he warned us, “Don’t eat much for lunch.”

He didn’t have to worry. We planned on leaving a lot of room for dinner.

Before Tojo moved to his new restaurant he worked on the same street on West Broadway, across the Granville Bridge from downtown Vancouver. It wasn’t a hip area like Robson Street, where tourists gathered to shop and visit the Art Gallery and eat at the dozens of fancy restaurants.  Tojo’s previous location was so low-key you felt like you were entering an office building, which you were, and taking the elevator to the second floor. The booths were ordinary, the sushi bar took up the center of the room, and first-time visitors had no idea that they were entering the domain of a master chef.  The new restaurant is very different inside, though outside it’s still a bit obscure. At 68,000 square feet it can seat 160 people. There’s a separate comfortable bar to quench your thirst as you wait to be seated. And if you’re lucky enough to get a seat at the sushi bar you can watch Tojo and his sushi chefs at work.

If Tojo serves you, he will ask you first, “What did you eat today?”  “What don’t you like?” is his next question. Then he will ask you if you have ever eaten at his restaurant before.  If you trust him—and you should—then you will let him feed you.  That’s what we did.

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