For executive chef Camus Hsu, cooking is an art form. Not only is taste essential to his Japanese dishes, but design and beauty are also a crucial part of presentation.
I meet Camus Hsu at Ohana-Ya Japanese Restaurant located at Gateway Shopping Centre on Hebert Road.
Although it is mid-afternoon, the shopping centre is packed with traffic and I nearly miss the understated restaurant sign decorated with a flower blossom.
His wife Carol politely ushers me into the restaurant. It is small and quiet with decorative touches from the Orient. A sushi bar faces the door and shelves are discreetly filled with a remarkable variety of Japanese beer brands and graceful saké bottles.
Camus, dressed in a smart black culinary uniform with a mandarin collar similar to those worn by television celebrity chefs, joins us and we sit at a wooden table for a long chat.
During our pleasant discussion, Hsu tells me he was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Edmonton with his parents at 16. Two uncles already lived here and the move reunited the families.
Despite Hong Kong’s international reputation as a global metropolitan centre, Hsu was happy to leave.
“There were too many people in Hong Kong and I didn’t like the weather. It’s hot, and wet and uncomfortable, especially in the spring.”
But his arrival in Edmonton was a culture shock and took getting used to.
“Communication was difficult. In Hong Kong, you learn a British style English. But here the pronunciation is different. I pretty much had to start from the beginning.”
After graduating from M.E. LaZerte High School, Hsu continued upgrading and landed a job in a bakery making buns, breads, cakes and a variety of desserts.
The experience galvanized his creative instincts and he enrolled in NAIT’s one-year pastry program. But the pastry career was short-lived.
“I had to wake up early in the morning and I struggled.”
Growing up in a one-child family, Hsu’s father was employed in the banking world and his mother in the fashion industry – both lucrative but competitive worlds.
“My grandmother took care of me and I would follow her around. Day-by-day I learned to cook from her.”
The teenage Hsu, uninterested in following his parents’ footsteps, instead discovered inspiration in celebrity chef, Martin Yan. The charming chef, best known for his Yan Can Cook television series, was syndicated in 50 countries.
Taking a cue from Yan, Hsu shifted his pastry experience into a hobby and picked up a job as line cook at Tokyo Express. He stayed for 10 years, rising through the ranks.
“In the beginning I worked in the kitchen making sushi. Before I left I was managing the restaurant, and when they expanded to a new location, I trained people.”
Tired of formulaic, franchise fare, Hsu and Carol took the plunge opening St. Albert’s O Hana-Ya in Sept. 2009.
Unlike French cuisine that relies heavily on sauces or the heavily spiced East Indian food, Hsu opts to serve basic, simple flavours.
“Japanese cooking is very natural. You don’t use a lot of seasonings. Japan is an island and you can catch seafood anywhere. And vegetables are cooked very plain and served in small portions,” Hsu said.
Carol adds it is also Japanese custom to serve different foods complementing the four seasons. The custom is a throwback to past eras when the isolated island nation limited trade with other countries, and citizens grew their own food year round.
In charge of his trendy restaurant’s destiny, Hsu’s culinary philosophy straddles precise Japanese traditions with modern consumers’ taste palettes.
“I keep things traditional, but I bring in new ideas. North American people like a different style of Japanese food. I just try to combine ideas. I will experiment and try to modify the taste for a customer. If they don’t like it, I throw it out.”
For instance, his signature dish, the Ohana-ya Blossom consists of three flower-shaped sashimi, a delicacy made from raw fish sliced into thin pieces. One flower is salmon filled with crab salad. The second blossom is chopped scallop wrapped in tuna, and the third is hamachi (yellowtail fish) accompanied by a spicy tuna centre.
Foodies looking for a traditional dish with a contemporary twist can try the Jalapeño Hamachi, a combination of yellowtail, jalapeño pepper and ponzu sauce or the Tuna Poke Roll, a blend of spicy tuna, crab salad and avocado.
And for the truly experimental, Hsu offers Tako, boiled octopus sliced in small pieces and served on rice.
Most of the ingredients are purchased locally and frozen fish are brought in from Vancouver. The only exceptions are yellowtail and red Ahi tuna flown in from Japan.
Alberta’s restaurant industry is seeing a belt tightening, however Hsu draws the line at compromising taste and integrity.
“I always focus on quality. There are lots of ways to make money, but I want customers to have passion for my food. And I’m very strict in the kitchen. That’s why I’m still open.”
Another reason could be that the menu regularly draws inspiration from Japan. Hsu and Carol have travelled to the island nation at least half a dozen times to absorb the culture and sample village foods. From one of their visits five years ago, they were encouraged to add Ramen noodles to the menu.
“It’s a trend in Canada. People like Japanese noodles. In Edmonton, Calgary, wherever you go, you see lots of noodle shops opening up.”
Carol suggests that the noodle popularity lies with the soup base and the lack of MSG.
“We simmer the broth for 24 hours to release the flavours,” she said.
It is no wonder this kind of dedication has attracted a loyal clientele from as far away as Fort McMurray. Is there any thought to opening a second location? Hsu says no.
“It’s hard to train someone who loves cooking. For most people it’s a career, it’s not from the bottom of their hearts. And that is important in making good food.”
I ask Hsu if he still bakes pastries. Laughingly, he replies not really. Still laughing he tells me he once made a special occasion sushi cake.
“I like to do things that have not been done before.”