An introduction to chef Takumi Saito, Sai Woo

by Samantha Bacchus McLeod

“I was never really good at making people smile, like with a sense of humour or any other way, but as I got better and better at cooking and I fed people I saw their smiles, so I thought wow this is a good way, my way to make people happy…!”

Chef Takumi Saito has been in the restaurant industry for 15 years, he started out in a professional kitchen where he trained under chef Seung-min Han, now 14 years later they are reunited. We caught up with the busy chef at Sai Woo Restaurant for a Q and A:

Why did you choose this industry?

“At first I started cooking because it was an easier and cheaper way to feed myself, I got into kitchen work really so I could have my meals and a paycheque so for me it was about surviving at the time.”

Was there a pivotal moment when you found yourself developing a passion for what you were doing?

“I was never really good at making people smile, like with a sense of humour or any other way, but as I got better and better at cooking and I fed people I saw their smiles, so I thought wow this is a good way, my way to make people happy and at the same time it just made me happy as well. So for me it was a win-win kind of thing and that is how I was hooked into cooking.

That was the start of a great thing, to be better and better, to make people smile even more I had to hone my skills, so I was competitive in the kitchen I had to test my skills I had to keep learning something new.”

Was that very difficult to achieve?

“My character trait is when I learn something new I want to master it, once I get to a place where I am completely satisfied with mastering something new, I want to move on and learn again, learn something else that I don’t know. I am always wanting to learn, it is what keeps me engaged and curious. I love learning new things and mastering it before I move onto to something else.”

Tell us a bit about your culinary journey?

“Well, my roots are traditional Japanese and North American-Japanese food. But I started out working in a Japanese-Korean kitchen which is where I met Han, and that is where I started learning about Korean cuisine because I was working with a lot of Korean chefs and they would make Korean staff meals and I got to learn a lot from these chefs about traditional family meals.

“After that I moved onto to more a fusion style of Japanese and north American cuisine, I got to see my traditional cuisine from a different perspective; how others approach the Japanese traditional food and turn that into a more western style. I learnt so much and I mastered a lot too.”

You spent some years out east, correct?

“Yes, I moved out to Toronto because I wanted to learn more about an urban non-coastal cuisine like what is popular in big cities. I got to learn about what is popular in Toronto, I learnt about French Italian and East Coast food.

“After that I went back to my roots in japan. I wanted to really learn about my traditional food. I worked in a Michelin star restaurant and there I learnt a lot about fermentation, amongst other things.

“So yeah, I have learnt so much about food and cooking in the past 15 years, like French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese too, and of course Canadian West Coast and East Coast styles.”

Wow, so what is next to learn?

“My next big thing to learn is Vietnamese cuisine, and that could happen if I hire some people here, I can learn from them and they can learn from me too. I am looking for people to join my team so we can start creating together…as soon as I get some more chefs, I will get to finish my new menu”.

Have you learnt a lot from chef Han?

You know, Han I go back to the start of my career, back when I worked with him I didn’t know anything so he was teaching me what he knows, his culinary knowledge, so yeah even though back then I wasn’t looking at a culinary career, like I said, I was trying to feed myself, and I was enjoying the family feeling one gets in a kitchen.

Tell us about the family part?

Well, I left home when I was 14 years old, I came to Canada as a high school student to study here, after I graduated I didn’t want to go back, I felt like this was my home. My parents told me if I wanted to stay I could, but I would have to financially support myself. Like I said, I loved it here so much, I agreed to find my own way and that is how I got into kitchens, really to feed myself, and well I found my passion too. And as I mentioned earlier, learning and cooking and eating with everyone in the kitchen, they became my family. So yeah I will always feel like home is in the kitchen.

Now that you and chef Han are reunited, do you have the same culinary vision?

Now, I am reunited with Han after 14 years and although we are on different cuisines…Han is more the Korean/Mediterranean/West Coast inspired cuisine guy…and I am more like a West-Coast/North American cuisine-with-a-bit-of-Asian twist kinda a guy…our vision is a little different when it comes to cuisines but we will always share the passion and the discovery of cooking and learning about new culinary influences and old culinary traditions.

The biggest things Han and I have in common is feeding people, and supporting local, that is the fuel that keeps us going and learning. For me, and Han, we will always definitely choose local and local organic as much as possible, we both have a healthy vision of food as it relates to people and planet.

You have mentioned how important local is to you, can you tell us some more?

What I love about local products is it comes from right here, fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood, every single day. We have great small farms suppling us every single day. Compare that to when I was in Toronto for 8 years…no fresh seafood and I love seafood, so after being spoiled here where we get it every day fresh, having to wait for it to be shipped to Toronto and eating a few days old seafood was not the best for me.

Also, again in comparison to out east, everything seemed to be on trend in Toronto so if there is some new trend in New York city they would bring that in, the focus was not on as much local foods, as we are here. I mean us Vancouverites, we love local foods and our local foods are grown within 30 minutes from where we live, it is rare we have to go more than an hour away to get fresh home grown foods.

Are you going to focus on plant-based items too?

I will definitely be focussing on providing more vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options. That was one thing I was lacking in my culinary training, catering to individuals with lifestyle choices and food intolerances and allergies.

And I mean that comes from my personal health issue because I am lactose intolerant so I definitely have a deeper understanding of peoples individual culinary needs and how a chef in a restaurant can help them by modifying dishes, and creating interesting options, for guests with specific needs. I mean, I know when I have not been able o have something or a version of something that my dining companion is having, it really sucks.

We can look forward to…?

Having a lot more variety of dishes with a definite Vancouver inspired Asian cuisine twist. You are going to try a lot of things I have learnt from my culinary travels, all made with a lot of love and local/local organic products from British Columbia. It will be your quintessential Vancouver culinary mash-up.

I spent it seems like my whole life here, all my friends are here and we spend a lot of time in the outdoors mushroom foraging, fishing, visiting local farms and farmers markets and really enjoying seasonal life. I am very inspired by British Columbia’s foods and when I plate things it is my life and British Columbia in one story on a plate. Each little thing is a part of me, my culinary training and local bounty.

So, seasonal is a massive deal for you?

I like locally grown seasonal foods because there is a reason why seasonal items are tasty. It Is fresh and it is at its best right there in the moment, in perfect harmony with the air we breathe and the water we drink.

But when you taste produce that is not in season you can taste the other elements, like when we freeze or preserve vegetable you can taste it, the fermentation, the canning process. You know? Preserving is good for later uses, but seasonal foods is just…perfect in their season! Right now we have so many mushrooms growing, and chestnuts and squashes and pumpkins. Don’t get me wrong, I mean you can get anything out of season, foods grown in other places but it is still processed more than it should be, I want our guests to really experience, taste, enjoy what we have in season right now.

That is my goal to bring that seasonal life as much as possible. Like why buy fish from the other side of the country or from another country when we can pick it up from right here, fresh off the boat, right?

The new menu will always reflect the season, like right now for example the new spring rolls is filled with autumn and when the spring comes it will be all about spring vegetables and fragrant herbs and lighter seasonings.

Do you think BC products marry well with Asian cuisines?

When you create with local products and Asian influences there is a special harmony, and that is based on Asian cuisines being lightly seasoned and so the produce speaks for itself. So that is one of the reasons why I am working on more lightly done foods, like in cleaner, healthier, lighter broths.

Tell us about why you chose Sai Woo as the place for you?

When I first stepped into Sai Woo – I knew it was here for a while, but the first time I came in to meet with Han – I was struck by how beautiful the interior is. I loved the vibe, and the open kitchen and the kitchen equipment! I really just loved it, I just thought it was like all perfect.

I don’t know the reason why the previous owner sold it, but it means something when it is out of the thousands of chefs in Vancouver that it was Han who bought it. And what are the chances of me running into him randomly and him offering me the position to run the kitchen?

I believe in things that happen for a reason and I think this is my chance to get myself out there, and to show my city, let my city see what I can bring to it based on my culinary travels and food experiences. I love it and I love learning, and really Sai Woo is a true representation of Vancouver, and of me too, it is our Western and Asian influences and my culinary adventures and my love of Vancouver…all of it is coming together under one roof.

Chef Takumi Saito, Sai Woo Restaurant

Last word on supporting local?

I am looking forward to connecting with all our local suppliers. We have to support each other. With natural disasters and market prices constantly rising, labour cost rising, and we are just now emerging from a pandemic, I think it is very important chefs reconnect with local suppliers and we can all say “hey what can we do for each other?”. Right now it is a bit tough for everyone, but soon it will be better…as long as we keep supporting each other.

Fun things to do?

I am always cooking at home, I like visiting farmers markets and Granville Island.
“I love to spend time with my special someone, I like to cook her dinners, try out my new seasonal menu items I am working on.
“I love to box at Quinit, that is where I smash bags and let off steam before coming in to work. I love that start to my day, then the whole day falls into a more focussed pace.

What should we expect in the coming months?

I am excited to have people come in and try out our new menu and the seasonal menus I will always create…Sai Woo is about being an ever-changing ever-constant Vancouver and just like Vancouver it will always be growing, and changing, but it will always be rooted in local seasonal products.

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