Takashi Ito’s roots as a chef were laid in his childhood when he’d cook with his father on the weekends. Ito didn’t start down the usual career path towards becoming a chef, but began his education by going to law school in Tokyo. After a short trip to Canada, he decided that he wanted to immigrate, but that a law degree wouldn’t get him a job in Canada. Instead, he enrolled in culinary school while finishing his law degree and moved to Canada in 1980.
Canada's Chefs in Conversation: Chef Takashi Ito, Victoria B.C
Chef Takashi Ito combines his Japanese culinary roots with local B.C. ingredients and his 'playful creativity' in dishes at AURA in Victoria B.C.
Chef Takashi Ito
In terms of the influences that have shaped Ito as a chef, he mentions three distinct experiences. The first is the education he received at hospitality school in Japan. He says that although he didn’t realize the value of the lessons there originally, it became more apparent later on in his career.
The second influence he cites was his chef at the Radisson Hotel in Ottawa, Frits Marechal, with whom he worked for seven years. Ito explains, “He taught me, he molded me and we got along very well but he was very firm.” He says that Marechal didn't just teach him cooking skills, but the value of organizational and staffing skills when he was promoted to the position of sous chef.
Ito says that while it was a very traditional, hierarchical approach it had the advantage of never having to apply for a promotion. As Ito points out, “When the time comes, the chef will tell you, ‘Yeah you’re ready. You can go anywhere.’ “
A third major influence on Chef Ito was Chef Tony Murakami who is the chef at the St. Charles Golf and Country Club in Winnipeg and a recipient of the Order of Canada. The chef says that he hadn’t met Murakami personally until he was a judge at a culinary competition. For him, Murakami is an inspiration. As Ito says, “Since then he’s been my mentor, more because he’s always ahead of me. I’m always hoping that one day I’ll be like him.”
When it comes to his approach to cooking, Ito says that he’s very open-minded. He explains, “You know, I went make to Jamaica and I loved the jerk* there so I did my version of jerk and put it on the menu. I approach food freely and openly while thinking outside of the box.”
The chef says that when it comes to menu creation, he keeps files full of ideas he gets from reading books, watching television and other diverse influences. The ideas can be for dish presentation or flavours that Ito found interesting. When the menu changes happen, he'll develop those ideas into more concrete dishes.
Ito gives the example of the summer menu change and says, “Usually in June we change to the summer menu. Our process starts in April because the menu change includes training the cooks which takes a long time. I’ll start by opening up the file I’ve accumulated in the last two or three months and think about it.”
Chef Ito in the kitchen
The chef states that one of the things he really enjoys is creating menus for special events because, “in the restaurant, we do the same dishes hundreds of times. We get better at it but we also get bored. Whereas with special events, I have all the cooks around me watching me to see what I’m going to come up with next.”
He adds, “Something like that allows us to excel, to push ourselves and challenge ourselves. That isn’t to say that the guests become guinea pigs, but its about having fun for us and the guests.”
Another process that Ito enjoys is sourcing unique ingredients and high quality produce. He says that, while large suppliers work for some things, he still has to rely on farmers and purveyors with whom he has a connection for the more specialty or quality items. Ito says that he has good relationships with the farmers who provide greens, lettuces and other organic produce. He personally picks up ingredients from sources and says, “I have a place that makes bbq duck for me, a Mexican speciality place that I go to bi-weekly. I have a Middle Eastern place I go to. I bike to work so usually I take the bike with a big pannier on the back and pick it up myself.”
In terms of the traits that Chef Ito believes are important for a chef to have, he stresses the difference between being a good cook and being a good chef. He says that you rarely hear of a chef being fired because he can’t cook. He explains, “Chefs are often let go because they can’t control the other stuff.” Examples of that “other stuff” would include food costs, labour costs and people skills according to Ito.
He explains that having a balanced kitchen team between eager young cooks and veterans who come to perform a good job every day. He says, “If you have too much of either one of those, it’s no good.”
The traits Ito looks for in his staff depend at which level he’s hiring staff. He says that in a young cook he wants good energy levels, positivity while he wants veteran cooks, for example, to emphasize steady production and temperament, punctuality and responsibility.
Most importantly for the chef, however, is that he brings positive energy to his job. As he says, “When you’re having fun, people around you are having fun too. I want to make sure that I’m excited, I’m stimulated and I’m having fun myself.”
Ito talks about how he stays motivated in his career, even at the age of fifty-eight and after over thirty years in the industry. He points out that after such a long career, he doesn’t have anything left to prove, but that he still remains excited every day. He adds, “I go out to eat every time I hear someone say they had good food somewhere.”
*Jerk is a traditional Jamaican way of cooking and flavouring chicken and other meats.