Lucky Sushi

25 years ago Yutaka Shishido came to British Columbia with a simple goal: to live the “snowboard bum” lifestyle. There is no arguing that Canada is one of the best places in the world to snowboard. Because of the location of the Tantalus range it creates the perfect conditions for some of the most magnificent and magical snow. If you are one of the lucky ones who has experienced the waist-high powder to carve out  some of those coveted turns through trees and down ancient glaciers, you are truly blessed.

Yutaka started out his ski-bum life as a ski technician on Zao Mountain, Japan, which he describes as a “spooky” place because of its ancient history. Over 1000 years ago it was home to monks; a very spiritual place where “snow monsters” are alive and well. Mount Zao is a volcanic mountain range which also offers the country’s most acidic thermal waters. When ski-town-hopping life in Japan felt like it had past its peak, Yutaka took the advice of friends and attained a working holiday visa for Canada. His destination was Whistler, British Columbia, and he sought to get away from the strict culture and rigorous study of the educational system in Japan.

“ Snowboards are not just pieces of wood, steel and fibreglass. They are the tools of escape, a medium for personal expression, a way to challenge fears, push limits and share incredible experiences with your friends” -Unknown

With no proficiency in English upon his arrival, Yutaka acquired a position as a teppanyaki chef out of necessity. Don’t feel too sorry of Mr. Shishido though: if you have ever been to Whistler or are currently still living that mountain life you are fully aware that there are no shortage of Japanese cuisine restaurants to choose from. Training to be Teppan Chef, a teppanyaki chef is a style of cuisine the uses an iron grill to cook in front of the guests. And folks, you know that I am talking flying shrimp and onion volcanos.

Living and working in Whistler for that first year was amazing. In fact, Yutaka loved it so much he decided to stay. Unable to renew his visa, his employer agreed to pay him under the table as an illegal immigrant. “I am an illegal alien… was for a long time. At least four years,” he giggles. What more could a young man ask for? Life was full adventure, snowboarding, and mountain biking. The years went by and eventually Yutaka met his wife at the restaurant they were both working at.

This is the point in the article where you will realize that Yutaka is the luckiest man in the world and for all of you internationals still awaiting for your permanent residences for Canada I apologize. After working in Canada illegally for over four years, Yutaka married his wife Sunny and three months later acquired his PR. I don’t want to dampen your dreams, but this is a rare case. Even after marrying a Canadian Citizen it can still take years to get your PR – if it happens at all. “I asked do I need permission to work? Then they give me permission right away.” Yutaka was also blacklisted at the US border due to his shady history with immigration, though once again he managed to get lucky. He was crossing the border with his three beautiful daughters and a “nice lady” took him off the blacklist due to his wife and children’s citizenship status and his permanent residency. “I am always lucky”.

After his time as a Tappan Chef, Yutaka moved on to a sushi restaurant doing basic prep work and cleaning when a master sushi chef from Vancouver came in to help out the owner. Eager to learn, Yutaka pestered the poor man until he agreed to teach him the art of sushi. Lucky again to be able to learn from a sushi master, an opportunity a lot of my fellow chefs would dream of.

Being a dad in the morning and working stints at every sushi restaurant in Whistler at night, life was busy. To add to this, ownership changes of his current sushi joint pointed him towards change. As luck would have it (and doesn’t it always seem to for Yutaka?), his neighbour, a very prevalent chef in the community, had an opportunity for him. One of the oldest fine dining restaurants in Whistler village offered him a position at the oyster bar to start doing sushi where currently a white French man was producing the sushi. “Some people don’t trust a white guy making sushi”, Yutaka says, and I know I don’t – but that’s another story. “It was a big step”. This was a fine dining restaurant with a great reputation that turned over very large numbers. “You have to be informed of the customer, you have be skilled, and you have to have a good memory. That’s all my Master told me about being a good sushi chef. Have a good memory and be memorable. Once they get in front of you have to remember what they like, you have to train yourself, you have to focus”. What makes for an amazing sushi experience – especially in a sushi bar that you have been to before – is that the chefs remember how you like your sushi, whether you like extra lemon on your box sushi, or no cucumber please, or “I will take all the wasabi and pickled ginger I can get”. From his time in a fine dining restaurant he learned a lot about professionalism, friendships, passions, and cultures. Yutaka attributes a lot of who he is now to his experiences there, and is forever grateful.

As time goes by and his children get older, he wants to be more involved in is children’s lives. They are starting to show an interest in cooking and are the cruelest of judges when it comes to their dad’s cooking. Yutaka is currently revamping a slower-paces ramen bar, a task that is allowing him that precious time. As I walked into my interview with Yutaka he was talking, laughing and what I can only assume was banter. They were speaking Japanese as I arrived and he seemed very relaxed and at home in his new digs. “It is the joy of teaching people.” Yutaka feels at home when he gets to do his own thing, and he is inspired to challenge.

Yutaka Shishido is one of the most jolly people you will ever meet. He is always down for a chat and is truly interested in the lives of everyone he works with. I will be looking forward to another bowl of ramen next time I’m craving a few turns on those wise old mountains.

Me: “Yutaka. What’s the dream now?”

Yutaka: “Just trying to make this restaurant the best I can and then maybe my own thing”

Me: “ Own place?! Can I come at some stage???”

Yutaka: “Sure.”

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