Downstairs at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, tucked away in the hotel’s east wing, not far from the entrance to the staff cafeteria lies a portal to an experience unlike any other in Jasper.
An ornately designed curtain covers a small entryway (watch your head!). Cross the threshold and you are in the domain of Jasper’s most hospitable culinary ambassador, master sushi chef Tatsuhiko Okazaki.
Okazaki, known as Mr. Oka or Oka-san to those who’ve been fortunate enough to sit at his bar, is the proprietor, chef and star of Oka Sushi, Jasper’s longest-running eminant dining experience. On April 21, Okazaki celebrated two decades of serving up foodgasms to customers thanks to his delicately sliced, exquisitely presented and always fresh sushi dishes. But as any of those patrons know, the Oka Sushi experience is about so much more than the food.
“How are you?” comes Okazaki’s initial warm greeting, as JoAnn Black—the attentive, friendly and no-nonsense server and assistant who has been at Oka-san’s side since he originally set up shop at JPL 20 years ago—confirms your booking. Sitting down at Okazaki’s sushi bar for the first time is a bit like being invited into a secret club: you’ve heard whispers about its existence, but never really understood what made it so special. When you finally get to sit down in front of the cutting board, it doesn’t take long for you to realize you are in the presence of not only an itamae—a master sushi chef—but a master of the art of hospitality. It’s as though Okazaki was born into the business.
As it turns out, he was.
In 1958, in a boutique hotel in Zaō Onsen, Japan, Tatsuhiko Okazaki came into this world. The youngest of three children, Okazaki witnessed his parents’ interactions with their customers during his formative years. Decades later, those observations would be the foundation of his service standards.
“I watched my parents with their customers,” he said. “I saw it was very important to have good relationships.”
To that end, Okazaki only has two rules: treat every customer equally and always maintain a deep appreciation for their business. Those philosophies sound easy enough, but in an industry where some guests expect VIP attention at the expense of others, and with a clientele base that ranges from top food critics to first-time sushi tasters, it’s a testament to Okazaki’s character that he doesn’t compromise his values.
“President coming, king or queen, doesn’t matter,” Okazaki smiles. “Movie star, same. All customers are Oka Sushi customers. First come, first serve.”
That egalitarian principle lies at the heart of the Oka experience. The quarters are tight; there are only eight seats around the bar and another two at the “date table.” As a result, customers are inclined to engage with each other. In fact, Okazaki encourages it. Almost on a nightly basis the 60-year-old is playing matchmaker with folks who would have never otherwise interacted. His tried-and-true jokes (“you’re from Australia? My parents were born in the Blue Mountains! Kidding!”) act as welcome icebreakers that immediately put guests at ease and give them permission to connect.
“You can have a new friend beside you,” he smiles. “I like that.”
Although JoAnn will tell you his one-liners haven’t changed in 20 years, today’s sushi lovers’ needs have evolved significantly, Okazaki says. Sashimi has replaced California rolls as the most popular item ordered (“we used to use two pots of rice every night, now we only use half”) and guests are much more educated when it comes to Japanese food in general.
Certainly in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Okazaki has been a big part of that sea-change. After all, how many other high end dining experiences can boast an incredible 20 years of service with their chef taking zero days off (holidays and regular closures excepted)? Okazaki is truly the iron man of the culinary world, taking care of his body and his health so that he can come in to work every shift, without fail. At home, if there’s spring cleaning or car repairs to take care of, his hands—which, like his immaculate cuts of fresh fish, are always on display—are gloved.
“I have to protect my hands. Good reason not to do yard work,” he laughed.
In reality, Oka’s working constantly. He is a believer in constant improvement. After each shift, he said, he takes time to reflect on what he could have done a little bit better. Sometimes it’s an extra engagement with a patron, sometimes it’s helping a rookie sushi diner get the most out of their first experience with raw fish.
That dedication to his customers is what has helped set Okazaki apart for 20 years. His charity chopsticks program (which has brought $30,000 to local organizations since its inception 10 years ago) is a testament to his community commitment; his five star ratings and passionate local following is proof of his excellence in food quality. However, it is the intangibles—his infectious energy, hilarious body language and love of classic rock, for example—which make guests from all over the world recount their experience with delight.
To Okazaki, it’s an honour. As his parents taught him, every customer is the most important.
Bob Covey // firstname.lastname@example.org