Hidekazu Tojo created the California Roll and helped whet overseas appetite for Japanese cuisine

By Tim Hornyak

One of the quintessential experiences for travellers to Japan is dining on authentic sushi. As a global industry worth billions, it’s one of Japan’s most successful exports, so it’s no wonder that tourists have flocked to sushi’s homeland. Ironically enough, however, one of the most influential figures in its boom is a Vancouver chef, who turned tradition on its head.

Hidekazu Tojo was born in Kagoshima Prefecture in 1950 to parents who usually ate fish and chicken. As a teenager he began cooking dinner for his family so he could try dishes he saw his classmates eating. After high school, he moved to Osaka and trained as a chef at a ryotei — a high-class, traditional restaurant — called Ohonoya. Fond of experimenting in the kitchen, Tojo felt limited by the strictures of traditional Japanese cuisine. Long having had a dream of living overseas, Tojo got his chance in 1971, when he saw an ad seeking Japanese chefs at restaurants in Vancouver. He packed his bags and left the country, only 21 years old. 

Reinventing the roll

Tojo did long stints at Maneki and Jinya, two Japanese restaurants in Vancouver, and in­tro­duced omakase (chef’s choice) menus. But he saw room for innovation by rein­vent­ing makizushi rolled sushi, traditionally made with rice, seafood and other ingredients wrapped in seaweed.

“When I came to Vancouver, there were only four Japanese restaurants, and the popular dishes were tempura and teriyaki — there wasn’t any sushi,” says Tojo. “Canadians did not like the idea of raw fish, or even seaweed. I used the inside-out roll method to hide the seaweed and used cooked Dungeness crab, which Canadians really enjoy.”

With sleight of hand, and by catering to local tastes, Tojo had a hit. The Inside-out Tojo Roll, consisting of Dungeness crab, wasabi, special mayonnaise, spinach, avocado, egg omelette and sesame seeds, proved so popular that it became a global standard — called the California Roll, because early fans were from Los Angeles. Other Tojo creations include the BC Roll with barbequed salmon skin, and the Golden Roll, wrapped in an egg crepe.

“Canadians did not like the idea of raw fish, or even seaweed. I used the inside-out roll method to hide the seaweed.”

Hidekazu Tojo

Tojo met with great success after he opened his own restaurant in 1988, and has earned numerous awards from the likes of the online restaurant guide and reviewer of restaurants Zagat and The Wall Street Journal; celebrity patrons include Guns N’ Roses. Tojo’s popularity mir­rored that of sushi itself, of which he is very proud. But he says global sushi has also placed a strain on marine resources and led to many producers using substandard ingredients. In a reflection of his dedication to quality, in 2016 the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries appointed Tojo a goodwill ambassador of Japanese cuisine, one of only 13 overseas.

“I have been teaching people about Japanese food culture informally, without the title, at events, interviews and every night with cus­tomers, since first coming to Canada,” says Tojo. “In my experience, people are curious and open and love to learn, and are becoming more so over the years.”

Staying hungry (and humble)

Despite his fame, Tojo resisted the temptation to open more than one restaurant, preferring to concentrate on cooking instead of business. Success for him means repeat customers. He’s focused on quality and serving regulars from a menu that includes surprises like unakyu temaki sushi (barbequed freshwater eel, or unagi, and cucumber, or kyuri, in a sushi temaki, or sushi roll), and the Great Canadian Roll (Atlantic lobster, asparagus and smoked Pacific salmon). 

“By getting to know my customers I’ve been able to introduce them to very authentic Japanese flavours, just sometimes in a way that’s specifically designed for them,” says Tojo. 

Tojo still has strong ties to Japan, and returns every year to keep abreast of culinary trends. Following a 2019 trip to Koyasan, the moun­tain­top Buddhist sanctuary in Wakayama Prefecture, he has become more interested in shojin ryori, the traditional vegetarian and vegan cuisine of Buddhist temples. Who knows what kind of new bridges he can build between Japan and Canada through that? 

“The two countries have a very strong rela­tion­ship, and share many key values, such as appreciation of nature, cultural openness and learning, social responsibility and strong com­mu­nity,” says Tojo, adding: “The success of sushi demonstrates people’s appreciation for Japanese food; interest, understanding and acceptance of Japanese culture; and globally, openness to other cultures.”