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On the Pass: Ed Lam’s Yujiro

When tracing the historic sushi route between Japan and Canada, it isn’t Winnipeg that immediately springs to mind.
Yet, this landlocked city — where only 0.2 percent of its population of 834,678 identifies as Japanese, according to the 2021 Canadian Census — has a Yelp site listing 81 Japanese restaurants that serve sushi, among them Ed Lam’s Yujiro, where I recently enjoyed an exquisite eight-course omakase lunch.

So, how did Winnipeg develop its outsized love for Japanese cuisine? All roads lead back to Sadao Ono, who owned Edohei, the city’s first sushi restaurant, from 1988 to 2012.

Chef Ono is one of the pioneers of edomae sushi in Canada,

says Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson, executive chef of Vancouver’s Published on Main. A born-and-bred Winnipegger, he fondly remembers dining in Edohei’s then-exotic tatami room with his family on special occasions.

Later, when he was attending culinary school at Red River College Polytechnic, Ono would come and do demos. “Everyone had tons of respect for Ono.”

Now 73, Ono still teaches classes at the Japanese Cultural Association of Manitoba. Born in the Japanese prefecture Ibaraki-Ken, northeast of Tokyo, he came to Canada in 1972, sponsored by the legendary Shigeru Hirai, who had opened Maneki in 1969, one of Vancouver’s first sushi restaurants, and, later, Fujiya Japanese Foods.

Ono worked alongside the now-famous Hidekazu Tojo, who had been sponsored by the same restaurant two years earlier. Then, in 1975, Ono and his wife, Sachiko, moved to Winnipeg, where he took a job at Ichiban Steakhouse & Sushi Bar. “If I had stayed in Vancouver, I wouldn’t have opened my own restaurant,” he explains. “Too expensive, more headache…”

Still, Winnipeg posed its own share of challenges. The people knew nothing about sushi. All available fish were frozen. And then he had to watch it all being doused in soy sauce. “Everything soy sauce!”

After Ono closed Edohei, his legacy lived on through a coterie of top chefs that he had trained. Makoto Ono, his son, who opened the acclaimed French-Asian Gluttons, won the inaugural Canadian Culinary Championship in 2006 and later operated restaurants in Beijing, Hong Kong and Vancouver. There was also Cho Venevongsa, who owns Winnipeg’s acclaimed Wasabi restaurants; Don Hoang, who owned the now-closed Meiji Sushi and G. Martini Bar (where Vancouver’s Bo Li of The Fish Man got his start); and Masa Sugita, who has owned several Japanese restaurants in Winnipeg, including Yujiro, which he opened as a partnership with Lam.

Lam does not consider himself a direct descendant of Ono’s. But he does own a copy of what he considers the untold story behind Winnipeg’s Japanese restaurant explosion: Ono’s recipe book. “It’s been copied and passed around to everyone who worked for him. It’s just standard stuff — ponzu sauce, sunomono — that you can find all over the internet these days. But 20, 30 years ago, it was gold.”
Photograph by Winnipeg Free Press Sadao Ono. Winnipeg Free Press Archives