Known for creating the California roll, Tojo still loves experimenting with new ingredients

The Japanese government appointed Vancouver chef Hidekazu Tojo the title of goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine on Thursday, an honour bestowed to only 13 chefs outside of Japan. Chef Tojo, known for inventing the California roll, has run Tojo’s Restaurant in Vancouver since 1988. As a young man, he apprenticed in Osaka at Ohnoya restaurant before moving to Canada in 1971. Now, Tojo prides himself on pushing the boundaries of traditional Japanese cuisine by continually experimenting and surprising his customers with new ingredients. We caught up with him to learn a bit more about the local star chef. We heard you were appointed to serve as the goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine. How do you feel about that? The Japanese government has recognized my hard work. So, you know, great. It's a great honour. When did you hear the news? This year, February 28, they asked me, ‘Chef Tojo will you take it?’ And I said, ‘okay.’ Because I’ve worked here 45 years. Today Japanese food is a heritage. So maybe we can do more promotion. I like the relationship to Canadian taste, and Japanese food is a special skill and knowledge, and I use local ingredients, that’s my thing. What does this new role entail? I think they want me to still work to help introduce local people to Japanese techniques for cooking. For the last five years, lots of people have gone to Japan. Ten years ago only six million people, but today more than 20 million. So, almost three times more people visit Japan. You know, people like the food. People are interested in the food, interested in the culture and the history, fashion, that kind of thing. How did your invention of the California roll come about? I came in 1971 and at that time, sushi was not popular in Vancouver, in North America. But when I made it, what was happening was people didn’t like that there was seaweed. ‘Ooo seaweed, oh yuck.’ But I hid the seaweed, put it inside out, then it was a hit. I was breaking the traditional way, because many people don’t like it inside out. But here in Vancouver, people like it. People had never been to Japan, they liked it, but in Japan, for many Japanese people it’s not popular. So, I’m breaking the tradition quietly. Then many other people came to Vancouver and saw this was a great idea, then they called it the ‘California roll,’ but we call it the ‘Tojo roll’ or the ‘B.C. roll.’ How has Vancouver’s food scene evolved since you started here in the ’70s? At that time there were only a few very high-end restaurants. Today, they have changed lots, improved lots. People are stepping out from traditional ways in preparing the food. Now they are using local ingredients. Everyone has become more creative. All young people are very, very creative and have really improved. I travel lots, but Vancouver has very good-quality restaurants. What are your thoughts on the Vancouver food audience? When I go to other restaurants, there are lots of Japanese influences attached. That’s good. We help each other. Asian influence, European influence, North American influence, it’s all good. I think in Vancouver, more people are looking for very healthy food and also using local ingredients. You know, sustainability and fresh ingredients. Vancouver people are very cool, and they know when they’re going shopping what is healthy and tasty. Maybe I can help. What’s your favourite dish to make? I don’t have one particular dish. It depends on many factors. For example, in the summertime I like a cooler dish, in the winter a warmer dish. Like steam cooking on a very cold night. When I go shopping at the market, I think, ‘oh, this is an interesting ingredient.’ I buy it, then I try it, then I test it, then success. And then I’m very, very happy, and I get it for all of my staff, and I introduce it to my regular customers. Do you still experiment a lot with your cooking? All the time. That’s why I go everywhere for shopping. I like to use new ingredients and introduce new tastes. What’s your most popular dish? Last week it was spot prawn. B.C. spot prawn is very popular, but it’s already finished. So my recommendation now is for salmon, halibut. I then go shopping and see, ‘oh, this is great and fresh’. I use more seasonal ingredients as much as possible. What inspires your cooking? I’m a challenger and I am very interested in new dishes all the time. Because we have lots of regular customers, some people come twice a week, three times a week, they’re looking for something new. New flavours, new presentation, that kind of thing. That’s why I’m very happy, and the customers are very happy. Tojo's Great Canadian roll Tojo's Great Canadian roll