Vintage Cave: The Chef and the Blank-Check Restaurant
Can a “crazy” chef artist—and his Medici-like wealthy sponsor—put fine dining in Hawaii back on the map?
In the bowels of Ala Moana Center, in the employee parking lot where it often floods during winter, is the brick entrance to Vintage Cave, the restaurant that could put fine dining in Honolulu back on the map.
Honolulu has seen a new jolt of energy in its dining scene, with casual eateries such as Salt, The Whole Ox, and The Pig and the Lady shocking us out of our two scoops rice and mac salad food coma. Even national publications such as Food and Wine are taking note. But on the fine-dining side, it has been decades since any independent, noteworthy restaurant has surfaced, probably not since Chef Mavro, which opened in 1998. The last time the James Beard Awards acknowledged a Hawai‘i chef was 10 years ago, in 2003. (Mavro won the honor.)
The Vintage Cave menu showcases techniques, flavors and ingredients never before seen in Honolulu. As a result, praise showers as easily on its chef, Chris Kajioka, as white truffles shaved onto his crab, onion and rice porridge dish. “There’s nobody in Hawai‘i doing this caliber of food,” says Ed Kenney, one of the chefs dining at a preview dinner.
But who exactly will see this menu? Vintage Cave offers only one tasting menu, set at $295. The total bill for two, with wine, will approach $1,000. Clearly, Vintage Cave is not accessible to 99 percent of the population. So why does Vintage Cave matter?
The Blank Check
“It doesn’t matter how much it costs, even if it’s $10 million or $100 million,” Japanese developer Takeshi Sekiguchi (the money behind Vintage Cave) says through a translator. “I am persistent and am going to sponsor Kajioka. To create culinary art, you need a big sponsor. I really want to bring Chris out into the world. This restaurant is to be the best in the world. That’s our responsibility.” Sekiguchi’s one directive to Kajioka is that he doesn’t compromise.
Kajioka was working in San Francisco when Sekiguchi flew him in just to take a look at the kitchen. It was already stocked with banquet-style equipment. Kajioka hadn’t committed to anything yet, but Sekiguchi told him, “We’ll get rid of whatever you want, we’ll get whatever you want.” Kajioka told him to get rid of it all, gave him a list of equipment he wanted (among them: a $20,000 Rational oven, a sous vide machine, an antigriddle, which freezes things on contact).
He got all of it. He was sold.
He gave Sekiguchi a list of restaurants he wanted to eat at in Japan. They went.
He ordered $500-a-piece plates and flew in a hobby ceramicist from Los Angeles to make him teacups.
All this before Sekiguchi had even tasted Kajioka’s food. When they first met in person, Sekiguchi told Kajioka, “I don’t know you. I only know you from articles. But I am not interested in your food. I am very, very, very interested in you, personally.”
Kajioka asked, “Why me?”
“Craziness. I’m crazy, you’re crazy. Crazy like crazy.”
Sekiguchi is perhaps best known for building the Grand Wailea in 1991, for an estimated $650 million. The 40-acre resort is part waterpark, part marble-and-mahogany luxury, and part sculpture garden, featuring Fernando Botero’s bulbous, naked bronzes. The resort was finished just when the Japanese bubble burst. Sekiguchi held onto it for a few years before the banks reclaimed the property and sold it at a loss.
Hawaii Business magazine dubbed the Grand Wailea “an unrealistic investment,” a sentiment many are redeploying at Vintage Cave, which opened in December in the converted storage basement of Shirokiya. Originally envisioned as a private membership club, “a private society elevating art, culture and pleasure,” it is now open to the public, like any other restaurant. But Vintage Cave is the $20-million restaurant equivalent of the Grand Wailea. A tour of it mentions the 150,000 imported, custom bricks that line the restaurant like a tomb, a wine-tasting dispenser that displaces air with argon gas to protect open bottles of wine, and an art collection that includes an 18-piece series of original Picassos. The art is culled from Sekiguchi’s private collection, which is estimated at a billion dollars, and includes many artists that Sekiguchi patronizes. All this for a 32-seat restaurant.
Clockwise from top left: vanilla bean macaron and caviar; smoked brioche, maple crème fraîche and caviar; ikura with potato puree, green apple and house-cured bonito.
“I’ve been called a lunatic, a mad dog,” says Sekiguchi. In his mid-70s, he looks more like an eccentric, genial grandfather than a wealthy businessman, dressed in a plaid button-down over a red turtleneck, a baseball cap, baggy black corduroy pants and red New Balance sneakers.
It’s been 20 years since Sekiguchi has granted an interview. He’s behind many projects—from the Four Seasons Hualālai to Ko Olina developments, but his name is rarely associated with them. He hires others to be frontmen, while he orchestrates quietly behind the curtain. He’s coming forth now because he wants to promote Kajioka, who snagged his interest in a HONOLULU article I wrote two years ago. Two statements Sekiguchi remembers Kajioka saying in the piece: “You sacrifice your personal life for your job” (Kajioka was recently divorced at the time) and “I hate that Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine is stuck doing Asian fusion.”
It’s easy to see Vintage Cave as a vanity project, one wealthy, idiosyncratic person’s man cave, a place to hang all his expensive novelties, bring friends over, eat and drink.
“I don’t care about market,” Sekiguchi says, slapping the table and laughing.
Kajioka plates a dish of beef, sunchoke, charred scallion and sancho pepper.
But a man of self-made wealth doesn’t become rich building pet projects and sponsoring artists. And so, while some speculate that he simply doesn’t care about profit, that he’s willing to operate Vintage Cave at a loss so he can indulge Kajioka, Sekiguchi appears shrewder than that. “Many people think of Hawai‘i as ocean resort, ocean resort, ocean resort,” says the man who has himself built a few Hawai‘i ocean resorts. “But the population of Honolulu is almost one million. That’s a big city. A big city needs this kind of facility. There’s no other place for the really rich people and high-class people for when they come to Hawai‘i.” He envisions it as Honolulu’s version of 21 Club in New York, once a member-only restaurant that stored the private wine collections of JFK, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra.
“Money makes money,” Sekiguchi says. “When you chase money, the money runs away.”
I want to know more about Sekiguchi, but the instant my questions turn personal, Sekiguchi’s tone becomes slightly more brisk, he stands up, thanks me politely and leaves the room.
Kajioka is 29. He has never wavered from the profession he decided on when he was 16, and there’s clear ambition in his relatively young kitchen-hopping career. His résumé shows him always seeking the next, better kitchen, the same way an insatiable reader finishes a book and moves on to another.
There are pictures of Kajioka dressed up as a chef as a young boy. He guesses he’s always had an affinity for restaurants because of his parents—his father, born on Kaua‘i, owns a land-surveying business, and his mom, from O‘ahu, is now retired from working the classifieds at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “My parents liked the idea of dining,” Kajioka says. “They always took us out to nice places. We always got dressed up. I think that’s why I love doing it now. I liked the food and the whole experience. Everything. Dining is an experience.”
From Iolani, Kajioka went straight to the Culinary Institute of America, the U.S.’s most prestigious culinary school. He finished his degree with an externship at Roy’s and, from there, the chefs he has worked with have always led him to his next step, his next dream, his next mentor: Ron Siegel at Masa’s in San Francisco; Jonathan Benno at Per Se in New York; Mourad Lahlou at Aziza in San Francisco; and back with Siegel at Parallel 37 in the Ritz Carlton. His last stop before Vintage Cave: a stage (an unpaid stint) at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, a destination restaurant just off the coast of Washington state. Kajioka has borrowed much of his aesthetic from The Willows Inn, showcasing his food on weighty ceramics in earth tones and organic forms, plating dishes with calculated wildness and relying on foraged microgreens for bite and beauty.
Kajioka plates a dish of beef, sunchoke, charred scallion and sancho pepper.
Kajioka’s restlessness in kitchens carries over to his menu development. His foie course has gone through 10 iterations in a month: from a woodland scene of foie gras tree trunk stumps, smoked brioche crumbs, coffee and green grapes to a compact round topped with a sesame wafer and embellished with persimmon jam and chestnuts shaved fine as snow. “I get bored,” he says. “I don’t like ‘the same.’” He says after he drives his wife to work each morning (their only time together), he takes a different route to Vintage Cave each day.
This is Kajioka’s first opportunity to execute his own menu. Before two preview dinners—one to a room full of Japanese executives, another to 40 Honolulu chefs, his colleagues—I ask him if he’s nervous. “I don’t get nervous,” he says. Sometimes, it’s hard to see him betray any emotion at all—his face remains a serious mask whether he’s scolding a cook for not letting the foie come to room temperature properly, or cracking a joke: “I guess they didn’t like it,” he says after inspecting a round of scraped-clean plates returning from the dining room.
Kajioka’s penchant for pristine, raw ingredients is showcased in this dish of fish and seafood, most of it imported from Japan.
With Vintage Cave, Kajioka appears to be living every chef’s dream. His patron, Sekiguchi, tells him to order whatever ingredient he wants, whatever the price. Sekiguchi laughs at the costs. $100 for one fish? That is nothing. A single painting on the Vintage Cave wall is worth $10 million.
Kajioka has access to any ingredient he desires, from beef raised at Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania to fish straight from Tsukiji Fish Market to 2-week-old mini heads of lettuce clipped by Kurt Hirabara on the Big Island. He even has a part-time forager—someone who gathers wild edibles—on staff.
But this isn’t Kajioka’s dream restaurant. His dream restaurant is still just a counter, a handful of seats, him executing everything. “I like when it all falls on me,” he says. “If the dish sucks and I made it, that’s fine. But I hate when I have to let go of control.”
Kajioka has the Lone Cypress tattooed on the entire length of his inside forearm. It is a black, inky portrait of the iconic tree, wind sculpted and perched on a rocky outcropping just north of Carmel in Northern California. “It’s the loner tree, the antisocial tree,” he says. “That’s totally me.” He still doesn’t know where he’s going to end up, but he seems more suited to the melancholic, brooding nature of California’s coast than Hawai‘i’s sunny blue and white-sand beaches.
It’s not because Vintage Cave is a blank-check restaurant that it’s noteworthy—rather, it’s in spite of the ostentatious wealth, which, on display in the dining room, can detract from Kajioka’s deceptively simple food.
Take the golden osetra caviar dish, which appears to be a token caviar and crème fraiche opening to a luxe din
ner. Culinary technique-wise, it’s often the equivalent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not at Vintage Cave. Here, the cream is Hakurei turnips blended with milk, and the requisite toast points give way to a wakame rice cracker that Kajioka makes. But the real indication that there is something different going on in this kitchen, whether you realize it or not, is the dashi. Kajioka thickens it slightly so it drapes over the caviar, smooths out the fishy saltiness and gives it a smoky undertone. The dashi is made with bonito Kajioka cures himself. He’s probably the only chef in town who undertakes this process, which can take six months or more and involves repeated drying and smoking of aku filets to deliver a concentrated hit of umami.
Kajioka’s signature dish—he’s been doing variations of this for years—is ikura soaked in dashi to infuse it with more flavor, an idea he swiped from Izakaya Gaku. He sets it over potatoes pureed with half their weight in butter (this, naturally, a French technique, by way of Joël Robuchon). Slivers of green apple and Korean watercress leaves adorn the cascade of ikura, a nod to Kajioka’s time in San Francisco, a city with a fetish for raw ingredients. The result: silky with pops of roe, tart and sweet and salty, finished with a paper-thin shaving of the house-cured bonito, which tastes like the bacon of the sea. With this dish, you can see the synthesis of Kajioka’s influences.
But the dish that draws the most praise in a preview dinner for Honolulu chefs is the charred cabbage. Cabbage! In a sequence of courses that involves truffles and foie! But this is what it takes to impress chefs: to take something so humble—boring, even—and to elevate it to the level of $60 per pound beef (another one of Vintage Cave’s courses). Here, Kajioka poaches cabbage sous vide with butter, caramelizes it and accents it with dill and kombu as pliant as a fruit roll up. It’s a dish that borrows heavily from The Willows Inn, though Kajioka makes it his own by anointing the dish with a kombu broth seasoned with ginger and Korean fermented anchovies, an ingredient inspired by his mother-in-law’s fridge.
“Vintage Cave may not be affordable or perhaps even understood by many, but just the fact it resides here is inspirational,” says Henry Adaniya of Hank’s Haute Dogs. “It is a culinary quantum leap for us in the vein of world-class cuisine.” As in fashion, even those that can’t directly experience the haute will taste its effects down the chain. Adaniya may be the epitome of that trickle-down effect, a restaurateur who launched the career of Grant Achatz (one of America’s most influential chefs) but left fine dining to open a hot dog shack in Kaka‘ako.
Barely a month into opening, Kajioka is fielding stage requests from within Hawai‘i and around the country. In Honolulu’s fine dining arena, there is finally a place at which cooks are begging to work. Vintage Cave will draw cooks who will then populate other Hawai‘i restaurants, and maybe even open their own.
Consider this: Sheldon Simeon, current Top Chef contestant, Hilo-born and managing four restaurants in Maui, is staging at Vintage Cave. One of his restaurants: a plate-lunch eatery in Lahaina. It may be that only the elite dine at Vintage Cave, but its influence will be tasted by many others.