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Behind the Line: Emancipated chef

Hidekazu Tojo reinvents menu-making necessity with omakase

By Lauren Kramer
May 01, 2010

Most chefs don't get to unleash their creative talents every night and serve their customers whatever they feel like cooking. But in Vancouver, British Columbia, Hidekazu Tojo, chef and owner of Tojo's Restaurant, has made this his trademark and built a profitable, highly reputable restaurant from his insistence on creative liberty in the kitchen.

Tojo's is best known for omakase, the Japanese word for "it's up to you," and used in reference to a menu selected by the chef. Diners can order à la carte or select omakase, in which case they choose to spend $70, $80, $120 or $200 per person and entrust the chef to 
arrange a selection of hot and cold dishes for their meal. Seventy percent of Tojo's diners choose omakase and it's a choice that benefits both the business and the diners, he says.

"One thing I hate seeing in a restaurant is the amount of food that goes to waste when people leave it uneaten on their plates," says the chef who has served the emperor and empress of Japan, twice received the Zagat Extraordinary Award and tutored Martha Stewart on sushi preparation. "The benefit of omakase dining is a significant reduction of that waste. When they arrive, we ask diners if they have food allergies or particular food aversions , and then we take care of the rest."

Tojo moved to Vancouver in 1971 from Osaka, Japan, and insisted from the beginning that the seafood he served be wild and that other proteins be organic. "My philosophy has always been to use local ingredients as much as possible," he says. "For example, when king crab season is over, that's when we stop serving it. Eighty percent of our seafood is local and we serve seasonal produce. All that is more expensive. But it's also a higher quality of food."

On a cold April day Tojo was heading out to purchase scallops from Vancouver Island and king crab from the Queen Charlotte Islands.

"Since it is spring we might make scallops with cherry blossom sauce and oyster mushrooms for dinner tonight," he says. "I'll serve the crabmeat with fresh asparagus and the legs will be good for a nigiri-style king crab roll."

An omakase menu might begin with a first course of soup, followed by seared organic beef marinated in soy sauce and citrus juice and served tataki-style. After that you might get West Coast tuna sashimi or a selection of sushi, followed by green tea crème brûlée and then a pineapple-apple sorbet to clean the palate. But it's all speculation, because no two omakase meals are ever the same.

But diners don't have to order omakase to try food unique to Tojo's. The à la carte menu features a Pacific Northwest Roll, for example, which consists of West Coast Dungeness crab, avocado, scallop and flying fish roe. There's a 
Celebration 2010 roll featuring crab, pineapple and asparagus with tuna, salmon, red snapper, spinach and egg. And the Great Canadian Roll contains lobster from Atlantic Canada, asparagus and smoked Paci-fic salmon.

Tojo selects the majority of his seafood from the 10 to 20 varieties locally available in British Columbia. But for his regular customers who visit the restaurant weekly and want to try something different, he imports mackerel, smelt and squid from Tokyo, working with a local seafood distributor.

When he opened Tojo's in 1988, Japanese restaurants were already commonplace in Vancouver and today there are several hundred. But the restaurant has not been affected by the competition nor by the recession, Tojo says, and the 155-seat restaurant does brisk business serving 175 to 200 people per night on the weekend and up to 120 on 
a weekday.

"I'm not catering to the masses, but rather to a small group of people who really appreciate quality," he says. "It's like clothes or cars - you pay for what you get but the quality is different. My focus is people who really appreciate gourmet food. I don't want to serve the same food as another restaurant because there's no creativity there. I may take the same ingredient, but I'll cook it my style in a way they've not seen or tasted before. 
At Tojo's we also try to 
educate diners about when to use certain accompaniments like soy sauce and when to refrain.

"We're not just about collecting money," he adds. "We want to teach our diners about Japanese culture at the same time."

As he looks toward the future, Tojo plans to focus more on sourcing sustainable seafood and to increase the quantity of vegetables 
in his dishes. But there will be no changes to the omakase concept. After all, he reckons it's worked for 22 years - why mess with a good thing?


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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