Chef Hilary Nguy came to Canada with his parents and seven siblings over forty years ago. In Vietnam, the Nguys were considered wealthy, but after the destruction of the Vietnam and Cambodian–Vietnamese wars, they converted their wealth into gold and got on a boat bound for a better life in Australia.
As Nguy explains it, at the time, it was not uncommon for those providing transportation to carefully calculate the worth of their passengers and take only the most lucrative candidates, hoping to cashing in – one way or another. Long story short, the Nguys were robbed and ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia before they could reach their destination. After some time, Canada took them in, and the family landed in Vancouver in 1979 when Nguy was two years old.
Hilary Nguy would eventually open Sushi Hil, the Main Street Japanese restaurant that Vancouverites are swooning over. But Chef Hil’s path to success had its share of hurdles. Read on to learn more about the person behind the sublime sushi at Sushi Hil…..
Where’d you grow up? Chinatown and East Van (Strathcona). I went to Tupper.
What three words would best describe you as a child? Know. It. All.
What was your relationship with food like when you were a kid? My mom was always cooking. Always. But there were so many of us kids we never actually sat down to eat; she just kept serving as we passed through the kitchen. But I loved the food. Really early, I started working for money to buy food. I’d pick berries and sell them, then take my money to A1 Chicken on Kingsway. All the other kids ordered French fries (cheap and shareable). I was the one who went for exotic dishes like lemon chicken and almond chicken. In grade 10 or 11, I was not loving school. I chose “Cafeteria” as an elective and thought, “This is something I could enjoy.” I wanted to work (much more than I wanted to go to school!) At that time, I didn’t know anything. I’d never heard of sushi, and I didn’t realize culinary school was a thing. I just tried to get a job. My first was at Pizza Hut. Then, I scooped ice cream at Baskin Robbins. But my first real kitchen job was as a line cook at an Irish Pub called “The Unicorn” at the Plaza of Nations. I made $8/hour; I was 17 years old. Before I knew it, I could run the night shift in the kitchen for the 300-seat restaurant. The learning curve was steep, but I could handle the pressure and liked learning.
Biggest lesson you learned in that role? Don’t go for the most expensive thing on the menu when you are told you can make yourself a staff meal (I went for the steak and caught shit for it).
After The Unicorn, Nguy left the industry to try his hand at assembly line work – it wasn’t for him. Around that time, a friend whose relative was opening a sushi restaurant put Nguy’s name forward as an apprentice.
As Nguy explains: “It was called Toby’s. I went in. I knew nothing about sushi, but I immediately loved it. It was artistic and technical. It was a challenge. Even though I had never even eaten sushi, I wanted to learn all about it. I saw the craft and everything that it could be. I was inspired. Lucky for me, they took me on!”
After Toby’s closed, Nguy landed at an ‘All You Can Eat’ sushi restaurant (first in the kitchen, and then as a server, where the money was better). At this point, Nguy was 20 years old.
This is when things went sideways: “I took the wrong path. I started selling drugs. And then I started doing them. I became an addict – heroin. I was on meth and working at times – but I knew I couldn’t continue to hold it together. And I didn’t. I spiralled from 20-25. I was on Hastings Street for a long time. I told my mom I was working on a train to explain my absence, but I think she knew.”
What changed? I tried a lot of things, and I asked my family for help. They sent me to a place in Kelowna for treatment. I was 25. One day, some speakers stood up and talked about their recovery stories, and a few of them resonated. I was the youngest in the crowd, and I remember asking myself, ‘Do I want to return to this program when I’m 40? Is this all I will be?’ That’s when I decided to start something new. It was a struggle. But I needed focus. My sister wanted to start a business, so I suggested a sushi restaurant because I had already worked in one and knew I could do it. Surprisingly, she took me on. It was very risky, but she did it. We made it happen together. It was called Temaki Sushi. I met my wife there. My relationship with her pushed me to be better as well.
How do you think addiction influenced your path as a chef? I don’t know about ‘as a chef,’ but it made me a better person. I started to appreciate everything so much more. I’ve worked really, really hard to overcome what I came through. But there is a constant pressure from inside me to continue to do it better.
Did you have a mentor? I had to do a lot of self-learning. I also tried to pick up skills from whatever chefs came through Temaki. I evolved my ways of thinking and my skills to adapt to the situation. That’s how I’ve done it the whole way along: I just kept my head down and stayed focused on improving one thing at a time, and as soon as I thought I had that one thing figured out, the next challenge would reveal itself. With sushi, you have to revere the craft, and a lot of determination.
Do you remember when you decided you wanted to become a chef? It was the day I first saw my dream car (a Porsche 911). I thought: ‘If I can become a chef, I will be able to own that car.’
And? I finally got it. In 2019. Black on black.
Does that mean you now consider yourself a “chef”? Some days. To be a good sushi chef takes a lifetime.
Open kitchen or closed kitchen – which suits your personality best? Both? (I have a bit of a split personality.) I love the sushi counter because I like seeing and interacting with my guests when they dine. But I’m also always on display, which can be challenging. Sometimes, I wonder how I would cook if I were in a closed kitchen. What if I didn’t have eyes on me? It’s a curious thing to think about.
Describe the kitchen tool/implement that you’re the most sentimental about. Where did you get it? What’s the story? I love my broom. I do not like dirty floors, so I always have a good broom handy… but that’s not sentimental, just obsessive. I guess the tool that has sentimental value would be my first knife. I bought it on my honeymoon. I lost my wallet the night before I went to buy it, but somehow we figured it out. It’s a Yanagi (Sushi Knife) from Tsukiji Market. I don’t use it much anymore, but I keep it around.
Other than sushi, what is your favourite type of cuisine to cook? Sashimi.
Besides sushi and sashimi, what is your favourite food to eat? I like everything, but I’m most drawn to Italian. Italian cooking uses fresh ingredients and presents them in a simple form. That act of perfecting simplicity speaks to me.
What’s the one dreaded kitchen task you’d be glad to staff out to someone else so you never have to do it again? Inventory. No patience for it.
If money was no object and you had the night off, where would you take your co-workers for dinner tonight? Eleven Madison Park (NYC). Were you thinking local? You said if money was no object… I took it literally!
How did you last burn/cut yourself? Someone tied a towel on the handle of the cooler to a teapot. So when I closed the cooler door, the boiling teapot fell on me. It took me a minute to comprehend what happened. Actually, I’m still trying to comprehend what happened!
Name your all-time favourite three ingredients. Fish, rice, and love.
The place you last travelled to? Mexico.
Did you bring anything home from this trip? If so, what? Mosquito bites and an empty stomach (we were in Cancun). Enough said.
Are you superstitious? Do you have any good luck charms or rituals? There is a false bonsai tree that I keep close to everywhere I am cooking. I bought it when I was at Temaki, and it came with me when I left. I bring it to catering gigs and events; it’s always close by. [Stands up, takes two steps backward, and produces bonsai.]
What is the seasonal ingredient that gets you most excited? Sun. I love it when the sun comes back.
Three books that made an impact on you in your formative years? Garfield; The Great Brain; AA.
What trend have you followed that you now miss or regret? I miss hair gel and regret my FOB (‘Fresh Off the Boat’) hairstyle.
Your go-to, no-frills place to eat? I like Pho. I crave it. I hit a different spot every Sunday.
Shoe of choice? Vessis. (This is not a sponsored plug!)
Do you have a favourite photograph from your youth? Yes! There is one of me, hitting a jump serve on the volleyball court when I was in high school. It’s in the yearbook.
Dogs or cats? Cats. We have two (Oreo and Oshi)… we might even be getting a third.
What neighbourhood are you living in, and why do you like it? Burnaby North. What makes me like it the most is that I can still afford it.
What keeps you up at night? Bad service.
What do you do when you can’t sleep? I tend to watch ‘Kitchen Nightmares’.
What’s for breakfast at home? Coffee (I’m terrible at cooking at home).
What is Vancouver missing in terms of cuisine? I haven’t had any Russian food in Vancouver. Is there any? What is ‘Russian Food’? I don’t know if we are ‘missing’ it; I just haven’t seen it.
How did Sushi Hil happen? Honestly, I was pretty comfortable at Temaki, but a series of events made it obvious that the time had come to decide: stay or begin something new. My wife, Moon, said, “You’ve always wanted to do your own thing. Maybe now is the time.” We didn’t have the money, but I knew she was right. It was time. I saw a missing gap between run-of-the-mill sushi places that were all the same (party trays and bentos) and high-end experiences, and I asked myself where I fit in. I wanted an intimate space – somewhere casual but serving high quality and consistent products. We looked at a lot of spaces. At first, the space we took felt a little too small. But I had already decided, so I had to make it work. I went with my gut, and it felt right. It was the best thing I could have done.
So, now that you are starting to feel more established, what’s next? I’ve been doing some consulting for Aritzia and Cactus Club. Taking my head out of my own business to share my knowledge with these teams has had the added benefit of giving me perspective, and has helped me to refocus on and redefine what Sushi Hil is about.
What does that look like? What is getting cut (in this already small space with an already concise menu)? One question that has been on my mind a lot is: ‘To omakase or not to omakase?’ I appreciate the craft and the experience of getting to know the chef through his choices and pairings. Omakase does showcase you as a chef, but what does it do for a business in the long run? Part of what I like about my location is that we are a neighbourhood place. I like seeing repeat faces. The cost of omakase is naturally higher, which makes me wonder, would a higher price point mean I would see fewer repeat customers? And if I try to do both a la carte and omakase, one will suffer. I can’t improve on both equally. And I want to improve. So, for now, I have decided not to do omakase, and to focus on the consistency of my a la carte offerings. I think it has been the right call.
The way I see it, You are only as good as your last meal, and being consistent is vital. Particularly with sushi. Why? Because we are using ingredients we don’t cook, you can’t mask or alter anything. We have to adapt and learn how to work with the ingredients to express them most naturally. I want a simple menu; I want a sushi focus. I want to keep improving on that.
I’m self-taught. I’m not even Japanese. I’ve developed my own style. Right now, my focus is on refining it and making sure that I’m not trying to be or do things that aren’t me.