He’s trained in Japan, specialized in classical French cuisine, and won accolades from Asia to Australia to Canada, yet EDO’s Executive Chef Ryo Ozawa still considers cooking his hobby.
ADAM WAXMAN: Do you remember the first dish you cooked that made you realize: “I’m great at this.” RYO OZAWA: Fifteen years ago, I had an exam at school to prepare some food. I chose the western cooking school—Italian cuisine—and I made squid ink pasta, veal carpaccio and seafood pescatore. I realized I wanted to be a chef. I wanted to cook western cuisine and I wanted to be very famous.
AW: What made you want to come to Canada? RO: The Canadian and Japanese governments cooperated to send Canadian food items to Japan. The Japanese Cooking Association sponsored a Japan-wide competition of 13,000 chefs: The Canadian Culinary Cup. The ingredients were from Canada. I won the competition and went on to Tokyo’s big tournament. Then I won there, and received a special gift to enjoy 10 days in Toronto. EDO was the sponsor of that trip. [EDO owner] Barry Chaim liked what I did and I liked his personality. I offered to join him. He said welcome.
AW: When you tried Japanese food in Toronto for the first time, what was your reaction? RO: I was surprised. North American thinking about Japanese food is sushi, teriyaki, tempura, that’s it. But Japanese food is not just those three things, but people are crazy about it. So if I make a traditional dish and want to teach the customer what the specialty is, some customers don’t want to try. Even with sushi, there are so many different kinds of fish. Some people find it interesting, but some people just want salmon and tuna.
AW: In some dishes you use Canadian ingredients, like maple. Is that what distinguishes your cooking style from a traditional Japanese chef? RO: My cooking style is not traditional. I’m not a traditional Japanese sushi chef, or a traditional Japanese kitchen chef, but I am traditional Japanese, so I know what it tastes like, and I have my skills for western cuisine, and I combine that with what the customer wants. I combine my personal experiences to serve the customer.
AW: Your cooking is innovative, and yet still true to its Japanese roots. RO: We need to increase peoples’ knowledge of Japanese food. I am Japanese, and I have a great Japanese staff, EDO is Japanese fine dining, Japanese-style cuisine. If people want to have sushi and tempura, their mind is prepared. Some customers want to try the traditional things, like grilled or braised fish. But with traditional fish, some customers have to be careful with the bones. It’s too risky for an all-traditional Japanese menu, but we welcome customer requests. We can make anything they like. My most important goal is that the customer enjoys our food. Of course, the second thing is, if I want to introduce and serve them new things, then the customer is also happy. O-makase is the specialty from me.
AW: What is o-makase? RO: It means you trust the chef to do anything they want, because there are so many choices of ingredients, even with fish—more than one hundred types. Most people want to try, but don’t know what they want to eat. That’s why you ask the chef to stay in your budget and create anything. This is a traditional Japanese way of dining. And when people come to EDO, they want to have a Japanese dining experience. But North Americans like to drink wine more than beer or sake, so I think about what is a good match with that wine. If you give pure Japanese food to the customer, the wine is too strong, it’s a difficult match. That’s what I’m doing now— not fusion, but the proper balance between my western cooking base and Japanese ingredients—so the flavours can be matched with the wine. Beef is also my specialty.
AW: Are there any restaurants in Japan comparable to what you do here? RO: In Japan we have clearer seasonal menus, with ingredients from the mountains, the vegetables and the ocean. We have to follow the season to create the menu. In North America, we have seasons too, but much of the food from Ontario, the United States, or China is not really “in season” here. Of course, in summertime, the tomatoes and peppers are very good, or in wintertime root vegetables are great. If it’s in season, say mango, soft shell crab, some seasonal vegetable or fish, we add it to the menu. In Japan, they’re more sensitive to the seasonal changes. And here, I find the best Canadian ingredients are salmon and lobster—the best in the world. In Japan, we have wild salmon, but they don’t have any fat, which is needed for cooking. Here, there’s very good fat from the fish, and the taste is sweet. They import salmon from here to Japan.
AW: What is your motivating philosophy? RO: Yes. The big picture. I always think about how a human eats three times a day. They must eat. That’s why we have two ways of keeping a business and keeping people happy. One: consistency in standard. Always maintain the same quality and taste. If I have a good item, I continue it for a long time and the customer enjoys. Second: the generation is changing and people want to try new things, and I have to update by season or by year. I need to have a flexible mind to change things. This is my thinking: consistency and new things, together.
AW: If you were not a chef, what would your dream occupation be? RO: In Japan I was a singer, and I almost decided to be a musician, but I already had a job as a chef apprentice. Music is complicated, so I chose my other passion.