Odd Restaurant Jobs in Honolulu

Chefs receive most of the attention, but there are also many lesser-known, yet fascinating, restaurant jobs. Meet some of the crew at local dining spots who have positions you may never have heard of.


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BY ADRIENNE LAFRANCE

The owner of the V-Lounge, Alejandro Briceno, in front of his secret weapon: an oven that operates at 1,200 degrees. It can cook a pizza in 90 seconds.

Photos: Mark Arbeit

Fire Stoker

Somewhere in the past couple of decades, people forgot how pizza was supposed to be. That is, at least, according to Alejandro Briceno, whose Neapolitan-style pies have created quite a buzz around town since V-Lounge opened last year. 

“To me, pizza got lost in some way and it became about the toppings,” says Briceno. “It’s not about the toppings, it’s about the crust. And if you want to get the crust just right, it’s all about the oven.”

As the denlike pizza joint’s owner, Briceno is the keeper of an oven he describes as his secret weapon: an Italian-inspired behemoth that operates at 1,200 degrees. It resembles Europe’s Old-World terra-cotta ovens, but was manufactured in California from refractory cement, which can withstand temperatures well into the thousands of degrees.

V-Lounge serves pies until 4 a.m., or until the day’s supply of fresh dough runs out, and Briceno spends much of his time tending the oven.

While it never fully cools, he is able to leave the oven unattended during off-hours because, without a chimney, closing the oven door means depriving any flames of necessary oxygen. He says the oven temperature dips no lower than about 200 degrees before he fires it up again the next day. Briceno burns kiawe wood from Molokai, which takes about a month and a half to dry.

“Taking care of the oven is a whole-day process,” says Briceno. “As long as we’re selling pizza, somebody has to be here taking care of it. And it’s not just adding wood, it’s the way you add the wood. You also need to know what happens if the wood is a little bit too wet or dry.”

Remarkably, the oven cooks pizza in 90 seconds, and those who swear by Briceno’s creations will tell you the pizza itself is mind-blowing enough to eat just as quickly. In May, he added three new pizzas to his menu, including a traditional bianca, or white, pie, and two others he describes as “local Italian fusion.”

“One has local cherry tomatoes, fontina cheese, basil and macadamia nuts,” he says. “The other one has Italian sausage, ricotta, Maui onions and chili flakes.”

In the end, Briceno says he hopes his approach—and his oven—will change the way people expect pizza to taste.

“I mean, the oven is what makes the pizza, and the way it cooks the pizza is what it’s about,” he says. “That’s what we believe in. No matter how much work it is, it’s worth it.”

V-Lounge, 1344 Kona St., 953-0007, vloungehawaii.com. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. until 4 a.m., or until the pizza dough runs out.

 


Not only does Nate Aoyagi know how to flambé  your dinner at Michel’s, he can do it without setting his tie on fire.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

Flame thrower

Order the lobster bisque at Michel’s, and the kitchen comes to you. For four decades, the French restaurant’s waiters have dazzled happy diners with a fiery flambé, running orange flames over thick morsels of Maine lobster meat in amber cognac.

Tableside preparation is one of the hallmarks at Michel’s, one of Honolulu’s institutions for fine dining. Since it opened in 1963, Michel’s has been famous for its oceanfront view, enormous open windows and tuxedoed waiters preparing gourmet cuisine beside meticulously set tables. While Michel’s no longer requires male guests to wear jackets, the experience and ambience is just as it’s always been, and earning the right to don the waiter’s tux is no easy feat.

“It’s incredibly extensive,” says Nate Aoyagi, who does everything from wait tables to bartend and manage Sunday brunch for Michel’s. “First of all, we rarely hire waiters from out of house. It’s something you work up to. Then, from the time you officially start training as a waiter, which can take anywhere from three to five months, you’re learning how to make several tableside dishes, and you have to be able to execute them perfectly.”

The bisque is just the beginning. Michel’s tableside preparations also include filet mignon and salmon, as well as desserts like cherries jubilee and bananas foster. The desserts are the most difficult, Aoyagi says, because of how easily they can burn. He knows from an early experience making a strawberry foie gras dessert.

“That one has a lot of liquor in it, port and cognac,” he says. “Because there’s no sugar or butter, the pan gets hot really quick, and the hotter your pan gets the bigger your flame gets. I actually set one of the ficus trees in the restaurant on fire. Everybody was OK.”

On a typical night, though, “OK” is an understatement. Aoyagi says one of his favorite things about working at Michel’s is seeing how diners react to the experience.

“People repeatedly tell you ‘thank you,’ which is rewarding. The food is great. The crew is great. You don’t find too many places where everybody is good at what they do and they get along.”

Michel’s, 2895 Kalakaua Ave., 923-6552, michelshawaii.com. Hours: Dinner served nightly, starting at 5:30 p.m.

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