2016 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Champions of Chinatown
Here’s how two of downtown’s hottest new restaurants sprang from the partnership of Jesse Cruz and Dusty Grable. Two self-described “nobodies” (just try to find them in this photo!). The saga of Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern shows that heart. Friendship and paying your dues make for an unbeatable combination.
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Photo: Aaron Yoshino
Even as a kid, I saw how people came to restaurants to celebrate, to be entertained,” says Cruz. Makakilo-born, the Mililani High grad started classes at Kapi‘olani Community College at 17, but was already working at Monterey Bay Canners Fresh Seafood, known for its views of lush, green watercress ponds.
His mother is Filipino, a bank secretary and an “amazing cook,” and his father Chamorro, a pipefitter at Pearl Harbor. He benefited from both culinary heritages. “Guamanian food uses a lot of coconut, a lot of seafood, citrus, ceviches. Like any of the Island cultures, they do great pork, lechon,” Cruz says. A fast learner, in 1999 Cruz was sent to San Francisco to open a Roy’s as sous chef under Roy Yamaguchi’s director of chefs Gordon Ramsey. Next he landed in Las Vegas as executive chef with another pioneer of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, at Jean-Marie Josselin’s 808 at Caesar’s Palace.
“At Caesar’s, you had the best Japanese chef in the country, the best Chinese chef and so forth, all under one roof,” he says. “Just having the materials, the ingredients and resources you could play with, was an education.”
It was also a disconnect. “A hotel restaurant has an abundance of stuff, while in Hawai‘i I would go back to counting spoons to make sure we had enough for that night’s service.”
While Cruz was up to his elbows in lobster stir fry, ‘ahi towers and diver scallops, Dusty Grable was growing up in Kailua and attending Kamehameha Schools. Food was an afterthought. “I ate. But food was more the fellowship that food supports, food as something you do with the people in your life.” After graduation in 2001, he moved to the Mainland. “I took the money in those little gift envelopes” and joined a Chicago social services nonprofit, Arts of Life, doing art therapy with underprivileged students. “I sought out the most poverty-ridden, gang-ridden city in the country. The work changed me—more, I’m sure, than I changed Chicago.”
the pork belly bao appetizer at Lucky Belly.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
When his money ran out after a year, he came back home to enroll in college. “Dad’s advice was to go be a waiter. ‘Your schedule will be flexible, they’ll feed you, give you money for books and maybe you’ll have some left over for a little beer.’” Grable had his sights on being a Disney animator, but, “I had no idea how much work that was.” He dropped out to wait tables at The Old Spaghetti Factory. Age 19, in debt, he moved to the Mandarin Oriental at The Kāhala. “I learned to be polite, to clean up, to mind my words.” From watching one veteran waitress, Wendy Kim, he discovered, “There is true joy in making other people happy.”
Meanwhile, Cruz had opened an 808 for Josselin in San Diego, then signed on with the Cohn Restaurant Group, which had grown from a diner to 24 restaurants in Southern California and on Maui. Cohn exposed him to a system that valued efficiency and execution. “There was a lot of repetition and learning and it compensated for my lack of schooling,” says Cruz. Every style of restaurant was represented. “I even opened a Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge, sort of a Trader Vic’s thing, with torches.”
The Cohn Group is credited with helping to turn around San Diego’s seedy but historic Gaslamp Quarter by opening five establishments there, ranging from a steak house to an upscale seafood emporium—and two wine bars. It also empowers and promotes employees. Part of its mission statement: “Your employee is your most important guest. Never treat an employee with less respect than you would a guest.”
Cohn kept Cruz busy and feeling valued. He opened a lot of restaurants. “There is a thrill to being wanted, someone calling and saying, ‘Open this!’ You’re needed, you’re a brand, you’re going to help them be successful.” He branched out, opening a restaurant in the landmark Hotel del Coronado, “where they blocked off part of the lobby so they could have a live tiger.”
And then Mom called. “‘When are you going to come home? You’ve opened seven restaurants on the Mainland. How many do you have to open before you come home and open one here?’”
So Cruz came back. “It was 2008, just in time for the crash. I thought it would be a cake walk. I had nothing. No job, no money to start a restaurant. After a few months I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to go work in a Zippy’s or an L&L.’”
And then Wes Zane called from Formaggio’s in Kailua.