Jon Matsubara Serves “Refined Grinds” at One of Honolulu’s Hottest New Restaurants
For roughly a decade, chef Jon Matsubara opened other people’s restaurants while trying unsuccessfully to open his own. Now, Matsubara is in the kitchen of one of the most buzzable new eateries in town—and it’s finally his.
Feast’s chicharrones, more like pork belly roulade, take three days to make.
At the corner of Lowrey Avenue and East Mānoa Road, in the gathering gloam of evening in Mānoa Valley, Jon Matsubara is sitting in his empty restaurant talking about chicharrones. Four weeks after he opened Feast by Jon Matsubara, the 46-year-old chef’s first real restaurant of his own, he sold out of nearly everything by midafternoon and had to close early. It’s been the busiest day yet: At the height of lunch hour, Matsubara and a bare-bones kitchen crew of two served up 70 plates every 30 minutes. He should be exhausted. But his eyes gleam as he talks about his chicharrones, which aren’t really chicharrones at all.
“One of my favorite foods is Chinese roast pork. It was always the unicorn dish—people can make it, but how many people really know how to make it good?” He leans forward across the table. “When I went to Japengo (now shuttered, at the Hyatt Regency Waikīkī), there was a Chinese chef named Charlie. He used to own a Chinese restaurant so he knew how to make dough from scratch, Singapore chili crab. We weren’t serving roast pork but because he knew so much I asked him, you know how? He taught me how and that buggah came out good.”
Sake salmon chazuke with smoked ikura, katsuobushi rice, salmon skin chips and salmon fumé dashi.
Matsubara gleefully details the 10-step, three-day process that inspired the dish he would put on Feast’s menu as chicharrones. But this story isn’t about chicharrones. It’s about how the dish—finessed with techniques learned at New York City’s four-star restaurants and served atop shoyu-drenched onions and tomatoes in homage to his cooks’ lechon kawali staff meals at the kitchens he helmed in Honolulu—mirrors the unlikely arc of Matsubara’s career. It’s about how this roulade of pork belly seasoned with five-spice salt, trussed, sealed, coaxed into juicy tenderness in a 24-hour sous vide bath, then oven-blasted while the bubbling skin is repeatedly shaved with a fish scaler to get it to maximum crispiness—ends up as a menu item slung out at plate-lunch speed into a takeout container deep in Mānoa Valley.
Feast is not the restaurant Matsubara envisioned when he first began looking for his own place. It’s where he’s ended up 10 years later, backed into a corner at the most critical juncture of his career. Feast is what happened when he decided to come out swinging. Open only since September, it’s one of the hottest new restaurants in Honolulu.
— Jon Matsubara
When you look at Feast now, with its lines at lunch and early evening crowds, you’d think, of course! Local comfort dishes with elevated touches by a marquee chef in a fast-casual setting: What’s not to love? By his first month Matsubara had repeat customers and regulars—seniors from the neighborhood, foodies and downtown business types who drive into the valley, hunt for street parking or end up down the block at Mānoa Marketplace and then walk up to the cashier and stand in line to order the chicharrones, butter-poached crab sandwiches, JFC (for Jonny’s Fried Chicken) with umami mayo and gochujang vinaigrette. Umami mushroom rice, rounded out with miso, butter, soy and wakame, comes topped with a soy-cured egg yolk and an option of roasted Makaweli bone marrow to mix in. The salmon chazuke is a whole-animal creation; the dashi broth started with a fumé of Ōra King salmon bones, fins and head, and the fillet is lightly seared and crowned with soy-marinated ikura and crispy salmon-skin chips. For these dishes, customers wait patiently until their orders are called; they pick up their neatly plated takeout containers at the counter—just like at Artizen by MW, just like at Rainbow Drive-In. Those who order Feast’s Hilo-style hamburger steak can even get gravy all over.
The real story is a quarter-century in the making. Matsubara has been a chef so long and at so many restaurants that much of his story is already known. How this son and brother of lawyers quit law school in his first year to become a chef. How he wanted it so badly he worked two dishwashing jobs—at Roy’s Hawai‘i Kai and Alan Wong’s—for the chance to come in four hours early to help with prep and watch the masters at work, to pepper them with questions about cuts of meat and cooking techniques. How he worked his way up the line through every kitchen station until Wong told him he should continue his training in one of the greatest food cities in the world, and how his mother co-signed the loan to pay for the then-named French Culinary Institute.
His goal was to cook at two of New York City’s four-star restaurants by the time he left. In those days before Michelin came to the Big Apple, restaurants lived and died by their reviews in The New York Times, which had anointed only four with four stars. So as he practiced his sauces at cooking school—and picked the brains of deans such as André Soltner and Jacques Pépin—he interned at Bouley, and, after he landed a job there, staged on days off at Atlas with Paul Liebrandt and Murray’s Cheese. Part of the reason was he couldn’t afford to eat out—he was making $12 an hour, paying off his loan and renting a windowless storeroom off a doormen’s locker room at 55th and Lexington. And part of it was the thrill. “I was peeling grapes, shucking peas all day. I could peel a hundred pounds of onions, watch the chef, see everything, ask all the questions I wanted to. I was right there.” On subway rides home, he would write down his dreams. “There were so many restaurants, ingredients, techniques. It was nonstop. I can’t remember another time in my life where every day was stimulation, stimulation, stimulation.”
When he wasn’t working, he was cooking in his room. For his sister, Melissa, who caught the Chinatown-to-Chinatown bus from Boston where she was studying, he made egg-tasting breakfasts and 20-course dinners. When $100 plates chipped at work or flatware got dented, he salvaged them from the trash; after a while he had nearly complete dinner sets. By then he was cooking lunch for his boss, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and his boss’s business partner, Phil Suarez. By the time he left New York in 2005, Matsubara had cooked at two of the city’s four four-star restaurants.
He came home at the top level: Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, which Alan Wong opened before he launched his own eponymous restaurant. And then Matsubara opened Stage Restaurant, Azure at the Royal Hawaiian hotel, Forty Carrots at Bloomingdale’s, Merriman’s Honolulu (he also ran the kitchen at Japengo). He was biding his time and learning. How to order food and alcohol. How to retool the menu when the economy tanked. How to schedule kitchen staff and front of the house. How to calculate labor and food costs. How to draft proposals for investors.
In 2018, when a space opened up downtown, he left Merriman’s. It was time to step out on his own.
Jon Matsubara in Feast’s new dining room.
The truth was, he’d been there before. At least nine times in the past decade or so, Matsubara had seriously explored opening his own place. Each time—in Waikīkī, Kaka‘ako, McCully, Ke‘eaumoku, Chinatown and Downtown—something fell through and he wound up opening someone else’s restaurant. This time, he was sure, would be different. Investors with solid restaurant experience were on board and the place was turnkey.
Even when things got pushed back, he remained supremely confident. Then his brother called—his older brother, Wyeth, whose wife, Christy, owns Café Anasia on Beretania Street. Anasia had opened a long time ago as a place with killer Vietnamese food; by the time Wyeth called, it had become a sports bar with dart boards and pool tables. Christy wondered if Matsubara wanted the space at lunch. No thanks, he said. Anasia was along the stretch of Beretania populated by warehouses and auto body shops. It was not where a chef of Matsubara’s stature would launch his solo career. When his relatives persisted, he’d ask: “What restaurant is on Beretania that’s open for lunch? It’s not like Downtown, people are walking by. Anasia, if you’re driving too fast you’re going to miss it,” he told them. “It didn’t make sense on paper. I was like no, I don’t want to waste my time.”
Then J’mi, his wife, an attorney, knocked some sense into him. He was unemployed with three kids in private school. He wouldn’t have to take out a loan or sign up investors. He could do a lunchtime pop-up with one other cook and a volunteer dishwasher. Industry friends would help set up inventory and front-of-house systems and teach J’mi how to run them; his mother, Arlene, would help out. Customers could pick up their food and eat it out of takeout containers with disposable chopsticks and forks. This was how, at the end of 2018, butter-poached crab sandwiches arrived on Beretania. Feast at Anasia exploded when word got out on social media. In the second week, media showed up, mixed in with CEOs, union workers and Instagram-posting foodies. Uncle Bob, a longtime fixture at Anasia, directed double- and triple-parked cars in the seven-space lot.
Butter-poached crab and bacon sandwich.
In the kitchen, Matsubara was struggling. It was his first time trying out his style of cooking at plate lunch prices, albeit the higher end of the range, and the tiny kitchen wasn’t built for two. Unlike the glistening four-star kitchens in New York and those he’d opened in Honolulu, this one was old. When the night cook quit and Matsubara obligingly stepped in, he found a different crowd. Lunch was all about the food; at night people wanted beer and the bar fare they were used to. Deciding he was a team player, Matsubara bought tubs of liquid cheese at customers’ request and labeled them “Team Player Cheese.” “It reminded me of coming full circle,” he says. “I was a dishwasher at Alan Wong’s and Roy’s watching the line cooks, waiting for my shot … . Being a gypsy, not having a permanent home, not having a dishwasher, not having the equipment you need, not being able to move around in the kitchen. It makes you appreciate. Everyplace I’d worked was brand new, everyplace had everything I needed. It was a big slice of humble pie.”
But as with everywhere else he’d worked, Anasia taught him lessons. It forced him to use everything he’d learned. It forced him to pivot. And it taught him that people would show up for his food. He needed this boost because when Anasia needed its kitchen back, when the downtown spot fell through and the next space he looked at turned out to also be under consideration by one of this city’s most respected chefs, he felt truly stressed. And then two things happened. The other chef turned down the space and Matsubara’s investors backed out. Suddenly, he had a lease that needed to be signed within a week and no financial support. For the first time, he was alone. “It was a very deep, dark moment. Because I’m here. I’m ready. I just don’t have the funds. I was making all sorts of calls, trying to borrow money from anybody,” he recalls. “What are my choices here? I’m going to do it or I’m not going to do it. I’m just going ahead. I’m going to put everything in it. I’m going to jump off a cliff.”
You can look at Feast now and think, what’s not to love? But for Matsubara, there was plenty. His decision to open without other investors meant scaling back plans dramatically. The space at the corner of Lowrey and East Mānoa was full of arches and earth tones. Tables and chairs were worn. Pendant lights hung from the ceiling in clusters of aqua, purple, gold and red. Instead of architects and designers to hone the perfect décor, he turned to classmates for air conditioners and electrical services at cost. Former co-workers at the Royal Hawaiian resurfaced his floors. His uncle, a retired mechanic, built the hostess stand, reupholstered and painted the chairs, resurfaced tabletops with flooring leftover from his own kitchen remodel, and built a frame and hung the sign (“Feast,” it reads. “Refined grinds”).
In his mind it made sense; in his heart it was lacking. Over the summer, after a relative’s funeral, Matsubara invited his extended family over and cooked for them in the unfinished space. It was evening and through the windows the restaurant glowed, the pendant lights bathing the faces of his family in warm colors as they laughed, talked and ate. “I realized that if everybody has a good time, then I feel comfortable. We had the best time. This place was going to be a destination for really good food at a reasonable price. This wasn’t going to be a fancy place. It would be a place with longevity and sustainability,” he says. “My ideal restaurant did not look like this. But now I love it.”
Eat in or takeout, all the food is served in compostable containers and the restaurant is BYOB. You can call in your order; if you do, the best times are between 2 and 4 p.m. Outside these hours, at the height of lunch and evening rush, they’re often too busy to pick up the phone.
Feast by Jon Matsubara, 2970 E. Mānoa Road (808) 840-0488, Tuesday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m., feastrestauranthawaii.com