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?
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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.