From the bustling food-stall in Singapore to the five-star hotel in Los Angeles, the California Roll is a popular dish, with its filling of imitation crab, cucumber, and avocado perfectly cushioned by rice. What is not well known is that it evolved from a dish invented by Vancouver’s award-winning Japanese Chef Tojo.
In the 1970s, Westerners in Vancouver would often choose Tempura or Teriyaki when ordering Japanese dishes. Sushi, with its seaweed wrapper and often rawfish filling, was unfamiliar to Westerners. Hoping to share his appreciation for sushi, Chef Tojo came up with a new configuration—a sushi roll with the seaweed tucked inside. Some may think the new roll went against tradition, but Chef Tojo, with his inside-out sushi, created a new tradition. “I put your culture first,” Chef Tojo says, as he shares with us how, in his early days as a chef, his free time was spent researching different ethnicities and their dietary preferences. Jews, for example, do not eat shellfish, while Muslims don’t eat pork. Perhaps it is this consideration of others that allows him to be flexible like bamboo and to share with his guests the core of his culture, a culture of humility and kindness.
“The American Dream”
Tojo said he hasn’t always been like this. When he first set foot in Canada, he had a typical “American Dream”—a dream of opening restaurants across the country, each bearing his name. What reconnected him to the core of his culture was a book called Kaseiki, by Yasushi Inoue, an acclaimed writer and perennial Nobel candidate. “[Now] I’m looking for more quality [in] life,” Tojo says. To Chef Tojo, a life of quality is balanced and joyful. With this in mind, he shifted his intention towards creating an authentic experience for his customers, one of joy and happiness.
One moment of joy comes in the form of an imitated unagi. Many times, behind the bar of his kitchen, Tojo would encounter Japanese businessmen who had also immigrated to North America. They would often lament of their cravings for unagi, a Japanese freshwater eel popular in Japan. Back in the 1970s, unagi was not accessible overseas, as there were no proper packaging and advanced transportation systems to keep the fish fresh. “I told them, ‘No unagi,’” says Tojo. But he gave it some thought and finally came up with something to please them. “Okay, maybe [with] salmon skin, barbeque… [I can] make it unagi style.” The customers loved his imitation unagi. His unagi-style salmon is also used in another famous invention of Chef Tojo’s—the B.C. Roll—paying homage to B.C., Canada, where it was invented.
A lasting legacy
Chef Tojo’s is a unique success story. He renounced his dreams of being a top chef so that he could live a humble life of balance. But he managed to, unintentionally, achieve his dreams. In 2016, Chef Tojo was honoured by the Japanese government as a Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese cuisine, a title appointed to only 21 individuals around the world each year. His restaurant has received several awards, and he has appeared on many TV programs. The California and B.C. rolls have become staple choices at sushi restaurants around the world, illustrating his international impact on Japanese cuisine. Chef Tojo’s perspectives and deep understanding of many types of people have allowed his cuisine to be a cultural bridge. “Food is art,” he says. “I like how Japanese culture, Asian culture, can work together with Western culture. That is my focus.”