Vancouver’s Next Great Chefs: Koji Zenimaru, Kingyo Izakaya

If you’re going to cut fish wearing a Mexican wrestling mask, you’d better watch your fingers. Koji Zenimaru knows this; he’s had practice. Sushi Lucha Libre is a semi-frequent gag at Kingyo Izakaya on Denman, where staff highjinks share centre stage with playful small plates. Vancouver’s izakaya explosion over the past 10 years has introduced the everyday nosh of Osaka and Tokyo to local palates, as well as something more significant: a sense of whimsy. To Zenimaru and floor manager Yasuhiro Hayashi, the raucous atmosphere, with shouted arishimases and orders barked carny-style to the kitchen, is every bit as important as the food. “We want the restaurant to be an amusement park.”  

Zenimaru grew up in Osaka, cooking in restaurants from the age of 16 and spending several years honing his knife skills behind a sushi counter. Five years ago he landed at Guu on Robson Street and became immersed in the world of Vancouver izakaya, which was markedly different from back home. Zenimaru says in Japan most izakaya are conservative haunts where salarymen knock back an after-work sake or three. The food is often an afterthought. Somehow in its trip across the Pacific, food became a playground.

The dishes at Kingyo betray many influences, a subtle folding-together of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cuisines. Other chefs have taken notice—many of their after-service meals are taken along the city’s izakaya corridor, from the west end of Robson Street through Denman. Zenimaru and Hayashi are the showmen of the group, and admit their antics are concocted to amuse themselves as much as their customers. Zenimaru laughs: “We don’t want to be normal!”