New Chef Gives Vintage Cave Honolulu a French Accent
Former French Laundry chef Jonathan Mizukami returns to Honolulu as Vintage Cave Honolulu’s new chef.
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Baby abalone à la Grenobloise.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Vintage Cave Honolulu owner Takeshi Sekiguchi, a billionaire developer with a taste for caviar and oysters, seems to have St. Lawrence—the patron saint of cooks—smiling on him. Sekiguchi has snagged not one, but two Hawai‘i-born talents who are also former employees of game-changing American chef Thomas Keller. In 2012, Sekiguchi made discriminating diners take note with Chris Kajioka, when he made him an offer he couldn’t refuse at a time when Kajioka was working in San Francisco but missing his hometown. Kajioka’s résumé includes a stint as chef de partie at Keller’s Per Se in New York.
New Chef Jonathan Mizukami.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage Cave
After putting Vintage Cave on the international food map in just a year and a half, Kajioka announced this past spring he would be leaving. (The restless chef took time off to travel, do a stage—an unpaid internship—at Jeremy Fox’s Rustic Canyon in Los Angeles, got a James Beard Foundation scholarship to stage with Pierre Gagnaire in Berlin, and at press time was slated as inaugural chef de cuisine of Michelin-starred Mourad Lahlou’s new restaurant in downtown San Francisco. Upon his return to Hawai‘i in a few months, he plans to open his own place in Kaimukī in late summer.) Honolulu’s restaurant scene was achatter with who would fill his shoes. In a case of crazy kismet, general manager Charly Yoshida tapped into the Alan Wong’s alumni network, contacting Corey Chow, who had recently resigned as sous chef at Per Se. Chow, in turn, contacted Maui-born Jonathan Mizukami, who had just handed in his resignation letter two weeks earlier after 10 years at the legendary French Laundry in Napa Valley, four of them as sous chef. He wanted to return home. So the boy who graduated from the Maui Community College culinary program and went on to Alan Wong’s and The French Laundry is back in Hawai‘i as part of Sekiguchi’s culinary fever dream.
It’s a seamless torch passing. On the surface, the restaurant is the same—the gloomy faux-ancient European wine cellar fitted with I-like-what-I-like rich-man art (no contemporary blue-chip names, though they could afford it); Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or, in this case, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, on a continuous, annoying loop (“Russian Dance” is not relaxing dinner music); tables of well-heeled nihonjin; an extensive $295 daily tasting menu; alluring, painterly presentations of high-technique, French-based contemporary food on designer ceramic ware.
But look closer and you’ll see Mizukami’s fingerprints. Where Kajioka’s menu had a growing Japanese influence, thanks to Sekiguchi-sponsored research trips to Japan, Mizukami goes full-force French. The minimalist dish names have been replaced by more formal descriptions, many of them including classic Gallic sauces—bordelaise, Périgourdine, Dijonnaise. Where foie gras and osetra caviar were included on the menu, you now pay extra to satisfy your luxe cravings (for example, on the menu is a dish made with white-sturgeon caviar and, for $70 more, you can replace it with osetra caviar). If you’ve never been to The French Laundry, now’s your chance. And you don’t have to pay for a plane ticket.