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Anyone who first sits across the bar from the diminutive, bell-shaped Hidekazu Tojo comes away knowing they’ve had a life-changing gustatory experience. Plates of exquisitely delicate sushi mosaics, each a reinvention of a classic, come fast and furious. “Always consistent in his execution, he can make a simple plate look as beautiful as it tastes,” said one judge. “He told me, ‘Japanese chefs don’t need a food stylist,’ and when our plates came out, I had to agree.” He works magic on the stovetop, too: witness his smoked black cod in a slightly sweet fish broth, gossamer tempura-battered albacore tuna, and Dungeness crab cakes.
Born in Kagoshim, in 1950, Tojo learned to cook in Osaka. At 21 he came to Vancouver, where he found a place at Jinya, then the city’s premier Japanese establishment. In 1988 he opened his room at 777 W. Broadway, moving to 1133 W. Broadway two years ago. “He single-handedly brought not only sushi but an awareness of Japanese cuisine to the city,” says Vikram Vij, who did the same for Indian cuisine. “Tojo paved the way for all great sushi chefs in town.” Not to say diligence doesn’t leave room for mischievousness. “There’s always a funny story to tell after a night with Tojo,” says Vij. “He’ll be grabbing or pinching you somewhere he’s not supposed to, and it’s always like, ‘Tojo, c’mon, we’re in the public eye.’ He doesn’t care. He does his own thing.” His own thing includes sweeping the Best Japanese category since it was introduced in 1992. Which makes him the incontrovertible choice for this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award.