The Culinary Couple You Haven’t Heard Of—Yet
Robynne Mai‘i and Chuck Bussler plan to open their first restaurant, Fête, in Chinatown in February.
Robynne Mai‘i and Chuck Bussler are planning to open their first restaurant in Chinatown in February 2016.
Photo: Courtesy of Robynne Mai‘i
Robynne Mai‘i and Chuck Bussler aren’t names familiar to local foodies.
Not yet, anyway.
But this couple has the kind of impressive resumé—including ties to Hawai‘i—that makes opening a restaurant in Chinatown a not entirely crazy endeavor.
Mai‘i, who graduated from ‘Iolani School and the culinary program at Kapi‘olani Community College, has worked for 3660 on the Rise and Padovani’s Grill in Honolulu, as well as for Rocco DiSpirito’s Union Pacific in New York and the Waldorf Astoria New York. For two years, she worked at Gourmet Magazine, taught culinary and pastry arts at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, and developed a culinary degree program for City University of New York. Her husband, Bussler, has worked for chef/restaurateur Hugh Acheson, whose fame skyrocketed as a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, and at Peter Hoffman’s Savoy in New York, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill Farm and Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune.
They moved to Kaimukī last year, with plans to open a restaurant. They looked at spaces in Kaimukī, Kaka‘ako and Kapahulu before stumbling upon the ground floor of Real Office Centers at the corner of Nu‘uanu Avenue and Hotel Street in Chinatown. They quickly signed a lease on the 1,700-square-foot space, with plans to open their restaurant, named Fête (French for a gathering or celebration of food and drink), by mid-February 2016.
“As soon as I walked in, I knew this was it,” says Mai‘i, who has been teaching in KCC’s culinary program and luxury catering. “I never had that feeling before.”
The restaurant will seat about 50 people, including eight to 10 at the bar and maybe five at a chef’s counter. The space includes a 900-square-foot basement that the couple will use for storage and an office. Inside, the décor will feature reclaimed wood and the existing exposed brick wall. Mai‘i’s uncle, Steve Mai‘i, is creating a plant wall and their friend, Jonathan Swanz, an art professor at UH and professional glass artist, has made their blown-glass light fixtures.
The menu will be “modern American” using as many local ingredients as possible, Mai‘i says, with a big emphasis on New York-style brunches. That means a lot of egg-centric dishes and cocktails with breakfast.
“Brunch in New York is a cultural rite of passage,” Mai‘i says. “People are obsessed with brunch. It’s how they spend their time on the weekends.”
The plan is to open on weekdays for lunch and dinner—without closing in between, like many downtown restaurants do—and adding brunch on the weekends. Some samples of lunch dishes include a Korean-barbecue-chicken sandwich on a sesame brioche bun with kochujang aioli; linguine cabonara (that Bussler calls “kick ass”) with a bacon slab, Portuguese sausage and local eggs; and Mexican lasagna with roasted poblanos, spinach and goat cheese. The dinner menu might feature items such as raw oysters from East Dennis Oyster Farm in Cape Cod with kakduji (Korean radish kim chee); kabocha squash risotto with shiitake, enoki and maitake mushrooms; pan-seared opah with preserved lemon, persillade and ratatouille; and yogurt-marinated lamb-loin chops topped with a tamarind glaze.
Brunch will feature both breakfast and lunch items including omelets, various Benedicts, huevos rancheros, burgers, fried chicken, a brioche French toast, sticky buns, scones and manju.
Dessert, crafted by Mai‘i, and cocktails will be served at every meal.
They don’t plan on sourcing everything locally. For example, they’re bringing in La Columbe coffee from Philadelphia to serve alongside local brews.
“First and foremost,” Bussler says, “we want our dishes to taste great and be soul-satisfying.”