There are many reasons to be impressed by Hidekazu Tojo, inventor of the California roll: the culinary awards he has raked in during his 40-plus years as a chef, his place in the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame, and his remarkable passion and energy – at 62, the legendary chef shows no signs of slowing down.
His legacy started with his mother, who was a vegetarian. This compelled Tojo to learn to cook for himself and his siblings, who clamoured for steak. After learning the basics at home in southern Japan, the young cook travelled to Osaka to study the intricacies of being a Japanese chef, before moving to Vancouver in 1971.
Tell me the origin of the California roll.
When I came to Vancouver, most Western people did not eat raw fish. When I went shopping for fish at stores back then, the fish was very fishy, very old. So I went to the fisherman wharf to get the very freshest. But even there, they would say, “Oh, I have fresh fish that I caught three or four days ago.” I explained that I needed fish caught that morning so I could serve it that afternoon.
Another thing Western people did not eat was seaweed, so I tried to hide it. I made the roll inside out. People loved it. A lot of people from out of town came to my restaurant – lots from Los Angeles – and they loved it. That’s how it got called the California roll. I was against Japanese tradition with the inside-out roll, but I liked it, and my customers liked it. And so it spread all over – even into Japan.
Are you playing around with any new ingredients?
Every couple of days, I go to the farmers market. A little while ago, I got this little pumpkin squash. I asked the farmer, “How do you cook this?” He told me to bake it or take the inside out, grind it with salt and you can make soup, like miso-based soup with the squash meat.
It sounds like you’re quite the healthy eater. Do you ever eat fast food or junk food?
Now that I am 62 years old, I am very, very careful. But I used to eat junk food. When I was young, I used to have fried chicken and hot dogs, of course.
What do you look for when you are shopping for fish and shellfish?
For crab and lobster, if two look like the same size, pick them up and judge their weight. Pick the heavy one. Pinch the legs: You want a hard shell. A hard, heavy one means lots of inside meat.
And for fish?
Push the stomach: You want it to be firm, just like a Ping Pong ball. You don’t want it to feel tired, like a flat tire. Then you check the gills: They should be very, very red. And the eyes should be very bright. You don’t want eyes that have white or grey in them. That means they are old.
What are the top three tools everyone should have in their kitchens at home
A good knife. Stainless-steel chopsticks. And a shaving stone.
What advice do you have for people who try to make their own sushi?
The best way is to buy fish from a Japanese fish market: They have a very high standard. Ask them for their recommendations. Knowledge is very important. When you buy the best ingredients, you are 80 per cent done. Then be original and use seasonal ingredients. For the fall, you can use more mushrooms, like pine mushrooms.
Okay, a few rapid-fire questions. Any foods you don’t like?
I like to try everything. But I don’t eat shark fin or blue-fin tuna.
Fresh vegetables, fruit and eggs. Sometimes, I eat a Japanese breakfast: dried seaweed, barbecued fish, lots of soy-bean product, miso soup and rice. But very small portions of everything. Japanese breakfasts take a long time.
Favourite type of sushi?
I love the sea urchin, I love the texture. And, of course, the taste is excellent. When it is fresh, it’s very sweet and creamy.
Pizza or hot dog?
Pizza, with mozzarella, tomato, mushrooms. I really like Italian food.
This interview has been condensed and edited.