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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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.

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