Meet some of Vancouver’s gastronomic godfathers

They’ve seen our town evolve into the global food hub it is today

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      When new restaurants open around Metro Vancouver, the average consumer really only cares about two things: its menu and interior design. But at the heart of the tasty plates in which people indulge are the chefs who create the dishes—food experts honing their craft through years of experience in the kitchen.

      There are many talented individuals cooking across the city, but when it comes to the history and backbone of Vancouver’s diverse dining scene, there are only a handful of chefs and restaurateurs who can claim the title of restaurant legend.

      These people have been in the industry for decades, consistently serving up exceptional creations while nurturing the city’s young cooks. Here’s our nonexhaustive list of seven Vancouver restaurant legends who have seen the city evolve into a gastronomic hub—and when you combine the amount of time their restaurants have been around, it adds up to more than a century of impressive food service.

       

      Umberto Menghi opened his first restaurant in the early 1970s, and he’s still going strong today with the Tuscan-style Giardino.
      Mark Yuen

      Umberto Menghi

      Giardino (1328 Hornby Street)

      Before the Tuscan-style Giardino existed, there was Il Giardino just a few doors down, in the little yellow house on the corner of Hornby Street and Pacific Boulevard. Umberto Menghi—who ran more than a half-dozen dining establishments at one point in his career—was the mastermind behind the well-loved restaurant. Many of the city’s best-known chefs worked for him back in the day, eventually becoming successful in their own right.

      Menghi, originally from Tuscany, grew up in a household full of fresh and delicious fare. “My mom was a very good cook,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “When she made pasta, my brothers and sisters were all around the long table. We were always so involved because it was an event, a routine in Italian culture.”

      His early love for quality food stuck with him, along with his passion for cooking—and that’s what he believes is the key to success. “That passion is being extended to your customers, and that’s the goal of what you do. Without customers, you are nothing,” Menghi explained. “Once you’ve grown in the business, you’ll understand it’s like a theatre. You’re going out and putting on a show for your customers.”

      At the ripe old age of 20, Menghi opened his first restaurant in Vancouver. It was the early 1970s, and he was pretty much broke. He had no money to buy ingredients or kitchen appliances. But with the help of a loving community and friends, Menghi and his restaurant were on their way to success.

      For him, Vancouver has definitely changed drastically. “I think Vancouver can be competition for any city in North America. I find [it is] even better than New York or San Francisco. Especially because of all kinds here, you have the best Japanese, Italian, Chinese. You have such a choice.”

      On his days off, Menghi visits chef friends around town or enjoys cooking at home with family. He likes to eat a variety of cuisines, he said, but there are a few things he would never eat: snakes, scorpions, and bugs.

       

      Le Crocodile's Michel Jacob.
      Le Crocodile

      Michel Jacob

      Le Crocodile (100–909 Burrard Street)

      Fine French dining wasn’t always held in high regard in Vancouver—it may have been the cuisine of choice for Europe’s upper echelons but not for this little Pacific Northwest town 35 years ago. So when Michel Jacob opened Le Crocodile in 1983, he changed our city’s perception of quality French fare. “People were afraid to go to French restaurants because they were told it would overcharge and be snobbish, French-style,” Jacob told the Straight during an interview at his dining establishment. “People liked Italian restaurants because it was more relaxed. French restaurants didn’t really have a good reputation in the city.”

      After working in New York, France, Switzerland, and Germany, Jacob moved to Canada in 1977—to Montreal first, then Vancouver. He cooked with Umberto Menghi for a few years (they remain friends to this day) before getting into the restaurant business himself. Several notable names in the city’s culinary scene have apprenticed with Jacob: David Hawksworth, Ned Bell, and Rob Feenie.

      Jacob attributes Le Crocodile’s success to one key factor: consistency. To him, the most important thing is that a dish always tastes as good as it did the first time around. That’s why he has built up such a steady clientele, some of whom have been dining with him for more than two generations.

      Some of his dishes have been served since day one: signature items like crab cakes, onion tarts, soufflés, escargots, and frog legs will never be taken off the menu. “Our team may feel tired to cook it again,” Jacob said, “but I tell them that it’s much more difficult day in and day out to cook the same food every day…[and make it] as good as it was the day before. That’s being consistent.”

      The 63-year-old chef thinks he has enough energy for another decade in the kitchen, and he emphasizes that his team is what makes Le Crocodile run so smoothly. On his days off, he likes to check out local Chinese and Japanese food spots, as well as other restaurants run by talented newcomers. “The young chefs in Vancouver are tiptop, and the top 20 restaurants in Vancouver would be successful anywhere in the world,” Jacob said. “Vancouver has really changed so much from when I first came here.”

       

      The innovative Hidekazu Tojo is known as the inventor of the California roll.
      Leila Kwok

      Hidekazu Tojo

      Tojo’s Restaurant (1133 West Broadway)

      In 2021, Hidekazu Tojo will celebrate his 50th year of being in Canada, and he already knows he’ll have a big party. But the renowned chef is no stranger to milestones: last year, the restaurant that bears his name had its 30th anniversary, which is an impressive feat that not many others in Vancouver can claim. Besides the fact that he invented the California roll (he calls it the Tojo roll at his restaurant), the Japanese chef is recognized for introducing innovative and creative sushi to Vancouver. His signature items include the Golden, Northern Lights, and B.C. rolls.

      Originally from a Japanese city called Kagoshima, Tojo relocated to Osaka after high school to train at high-end restaurants. He spent four years learning the art of kaiseki, which is a traditional Japanese cuisine that features intricate seasonal dishes.

      Opening a Japanese restaurant back in the 1980s wasn’t easy, because diners weren’t yet very open-minded. The back story that led to the creation of Tojo’s iconic California roll was simple: people didn’t like seaweed and raw fish, so he put the rice on the outside and used crabmeat in lieu of fresh fish. The rest is history.

      After decades of working in the food industry, Tojo still has a passion for cooking. He believes that making food that is delicious, original, and well-presented is the key to success. “I love it, my job,” Tojo told the Straight in an interview at his West Broadway dining spot. “Never stop challenging [yourself], and make new dishes all the time.”

      As one would expect, Tojo doesn’t go out for sushi and sashimi. But he is interested in visiting establishments opened by his peers, such as Cioppino’s, Grand Honour Restaurant, and even Zakkushi for Japanese skewers.

      Don’t expect the 69-year-old chef to be retiring anytime soon: Tojo still sees himself in the kitchen in the foreseeable future. “I like cooking and still have passion to meet and see people because I have lots of regular customers,” he said. “I would be fine cooking until I die. Maybe I work a few days a week, but I’m still interested in cooking. I love it.”

       

      John Bishop.
      Amanda Siebert

      John Bishop

      Bishop’s (2183 West 4th Avenue)

      Before eating locally and seasonally became the norm at quality Vancouver restaurants, John Bishop had already introduced this way of dining at his Kitsilano establishment known as Bishop’s. The seasoned chef and restaurateur has seen many things change in the city over the years, but none compares to how Vancouver’s palate has evolved.

      Originally from a small town in Wales, Bishop discovered early on that he really liked spending time in the kitchen with his mother. “The more I learned about food and cooking techniques and flavours, the more I became interested in food,” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “That led to me becoming a full-time chef.”

      He cooked in London and Ireland before moving to Canada in 1973. In case you haven’t noticed, many chefs who started out in Vancouver in the 1970s and ’80s worked for Umberto Menghi, and Bishop was no different. “I worked for Umberto for about 10 years,” Bishop said. “It was the busiest restaurant in town; there weren’t many, but it was considered one of the finest restaurants in the city at the time.”

      Although it seemed like an unachievable dream at the time, Bishop eventually opened his own restaurant, encouraged and partially financed by his dentist. Bishop’s made its debut in 1985, immediately establishing itself as a top-tier eatery. Its signature seasonal dishes made with locally sourced ingredients proved to be popular among customers, and were something unique in Vancouver’s fine-dining scene back in the day.

      “When I first came to Canada, the idea of fine dining [was] the chef designed the menu and that was the life of the restaurant,” Bishop explained. “If you were to change the menu, customers wouldn’t come back. The idea of changing a menu was unthinkable.”

      To him, creating successful dishes comes down to the ingredients. “I’ve always found food exciting, and now I’ve realized that a recipe is nothing without good ingredients,” he added. “They don’t have to be expensive, but they have to be as tasty and fresh as can be, and preferably not shipped 1,000 miles.”

      When he has time, he enjoys making comfort food at home and trying new recipes. Luckily for customers, the passion that he has for food and cooking hasn’t died. “There’s a time to quit, but I’m not there yet,” Bishop said.

       

      Pino Posteraro.
      Milk Creative Communications

      Giuseppe “Pino” Posteraro

      Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca (1133 Hamilton Street)

      His name is Giuseppe Posteraro, but everybody knows him as Pino, the chef and owner of Yaletown’s popular Cioppino’s. He was born and raised in Lago, Italy, where his first exposure to good food was growing up in the shadow of a mother who was formally trained and very talented in the kitchen. Before he entered the culinary world, he was a medical student—but that changed when he decided he wanted to see people happy instead of terminally ill.

      He opened Cioppino’s in 1999 and will be celebrating its 20th anniversary later this year. It’s no secret that running a restaurant isn’t an easy task, so this milestone is a big achievement for him. “For me, success has been being able to provide for my family and another 45 families for the last 20 years and be there for them,” Posteraro told the Straight in an interview at his dining establishment.

      Posteraro’s regular customers visit his restaurant for the international experience that he offers—mainstay dishes, like his sablefish with Asian flavours, could not be taken off the menu without a customer revolution taking place.

      He credits his success to having a firm hand as a chef, because that hand guarantees quality food every night, and also kindness to staff and restaurant patrons. “If you understand early enough that food isn’t about yourself but a bigger picture—it’s about people who provide the ingredients and people who eat your food and people who have a perception of understanding your food—it makes it much easier,” Posteraro said.

      On his days off, the Italian-born chef enjoys visiting his friend Hidekazu Tojo as well as other restaurants around the city, although Italian spots aren’t on his agenda.

      Besides mentoring and advising young chefs to stay humble and keep working hard in a city full of people with discerning palates, he hopes to continue to be a trendsetter in Vancouver’s food sphere. “I have enough young people that would take over no problem, but I still think I have lots to do and lots to give,” Posteraro said.

        

      Ricky and Raj Sharma.
      Raga Restaurant

      Ricky and Raj Sharma

      Raga Restaurant (1177 West Broadway)

      This West Broadway Indian restaurant has existed for almost 40 years, and the owners have seen its neighbour across the street change from a Jimmy Pattison car dealership to a Toys “R” Us. Raga Restaurant opened its doors in 1981, then was taken over by an uncle and nephew duo, Ricky and Raj Sharma, a few years later.

      For the Sharmas, customers are their top priority. It’s the reason Raga tries to stay consistent for their returning guests. “We haven’t changed the chef’s recipes since 1981,” Ricky Sharma told the Straight at his family-run dining spot. “If someone comes in to try one dish, and they come back a year later, it will taste exactly the same.”

      Its East Indian flavours have proven to be very popular among local and international patrons, and the restaurant has seen its fair share of star power: celebrities like Mel Gibson, Bryan Adams, Goldie Hawn, and Mickey Rooney have walked through its doors.

      Raga’s signature dishes—like butter chicken or lamb, prawns, and chicken with masala sauce—are hot picks. According to its owners, the restaurant’s authentic Indian menu items have definitely become better received as the city’s appreciation for global flavours has grown.

      “Back then, a lot of people liked to stick to the basics,” Sharma said. “Over the years, people are opening up a lot more rather than just focusing on one or two dishes that are popular, and they find they really like it.”

      Running a restaurant often means you don’t have much free time to explore other tasty spots around town, but when the Sharmas aren’t eating Indian food, they like visiting chains like Boston Pizza.

      In the next five to 10 years, Raga’s owners want to still be serving up great Indian food. “Hopefully, with everybody’s blessings, we can continue what we’re doing and be consistent and still be around for a while,” Sharma said. 

       

      Koon Bo's signature shredded chicken salad.
      Tammy Kwan

      Wu Yong Zhong

      Koon Bo Restaurant (5682 Fraser Street)

      Tucked away in a tiny strip mall at 41st Avenue and Fraser Street is Koon Bo Restaurant, a locally run Chinese eatery that has been serving up quality Cantonese-style dishes for more than two decades. Chef and owner Wu Yong Zhong opened Koon Bo in 1998, creating traditional plates that quench the appetite of customers from Hong Kong and China’s Guangdong province.

      Although many authentic Vancouver Chinese restaurants are visited by customers with diverse backgrounds, some hidden gems like Wu’s establishment are still unknown to many Vancouverites. “About 100 percent of my customers were Chinese when I first opened, and there are still very few westerners who come and try my restaurant unless they come with Chinese friends who bring them here,” Wu told the Straight during a phone interview.

      Wu keeps humble about himself and his restaurant—he is adamant that there are others that are better and better-known—but that’s what makes him and Koon Bo significant: its quiet, unassuming existence still attracts die-hard customers after 20 years, and it has outlived many other Chinese restaurants in Metro Vancouver.

      The 51-year-old chef has a few well-loved dishes up his sleeve: shredded chicken salad (it’s not rare to see each table order this classic item on any given night), roast squab, and roast duck, which requires advance ordering. “The preorder helps us figure out how much to make so we don’t waste any extra,” Wu explained. “On weekend nights, we usually sell more than a dozen.”

      Even though the China-born chef deals with Chinese food every day, he still enjoys eating Cantonese food when he has time off. Don’t ask him if he has a favourite spot, though, because he doesn’t. “I just go out and try other people’s restaurants in Vancouver, Richmond, and Burnaby,” Wu said. “It’s good to compare and see other people’s standards.”

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