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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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.