Dining: The Boys are Back in Town

A wave of Island chefs headed to the Mainland for training. What will happen now that they’re home?


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Roy’s chef de cuisine, Chris Kajioka, has sacrificed in his personal life to devote to his culinary art.

Photo: Olivier Koning

“My dream restaurant is a counter,” says Chris  Kajioka.

“It’s just a counter. You’re going to sit, I’m going to ask how hungry you are, and I’m just going to cook for you … I don’t like when people have to choose. Just trust me and I’ll cook for you. That’s every chef’s dream.”

Watching Kajioka, the chef de cuisine at Roy’s, cook is the same experience as listening to him speak: he’s all determination and confidence. He’s roasting squab, slicing perfect squares of pork belly and searing sweetbreads for renowned wine collector Tawfiq Khoury’s 80th birthday dinner, keeping the venerable crowd of Roy’s corporate chefs and Roy Yamaguchi himself in his peripheral attention. At this moment, the only thing that’s important to him is browning the sweetbreads. One of the servers describes Kajioka’s look as dour; perhaps it’s more the look of someone who knows exactly what he’s going for.

“You sacrifice your personal life for your job,” Kajioka says. “If it’s not your dream to open your own restaurant and make it personal, I think you’re wasting your time.” He should know. At age 27, he’s divorced, having given a two-year stint at New York’s four-star Per Se more attention than his then-wife.  

Kajioka’s drive has been sharpened in experiences cooking abroad, particularly in New York, where “you work if you want to test yourself,” he says. The question for Kajioka is, can he successfully transition the energy of the New York food scene to Honolulu?

“I want a destination restaurant … I know I can make that happen. If not, then I wouldn’t be working all over the U.S. I’m confident in myself because I’ve worked with the best cooks in the world.” Kajioka says he finds the food scene here “so stagnant and overplayed. To not see it change, it’s so frustrating. I hate that Hawaii Regional Cuisine is stuck doing Asian fusion.” Despite his position at Roy’s, Kajioka’s own style (which Yamaguchi allows him to explore via special menus) leans toward modern French executed with impeccable technique, as picked up under the study of Thomas Keller disciples.

Seen in the kitchen of Roy’s, chef de cuisine Chris Kajioka prepares to bowl over diners.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Kajioka may be treading down a familiar path. A few years ago, Jon Matsubara, another young Hawaii chef who trained in New York, was written up in Midweek in the 2007 press flurry surrounding the opening of Stage restaurant:

“[Matsubara] wants to deliver a jolt to Honolulu’s food scene, which he believes has been in a state of stagnation for years. ‘There’s no reason why the food scene in Honolulu can’t be as good or better than anywhere else in the world,’ the chef says. ‘There’s no reason why people from here can’t compete with the big boys.’”

Having worked with the big boys at Bouley, Tabla and Jean Georges in New York, Matsubara had the experience to back up his claims. And at Stage, he seemed to have everything else to make them reality.

An article in HONOLULU about Stage’s opening quoted Thomas Sorenson, the owner of Stage, and Matsubara: “It’s all up to Jon now,” Sorenson says. “He’s got a restaurant right in town with plenty of parking. He got the kitchen he wanted and the ingredients he needed. He got the staff he wanted. There are no excuses.”

“[S]ays Matsubara, ‘All chefs dream of this, and right now we are living the dream.’”

Of course, Matsubara is no longer at Stage. The menu has changed from the foams, the fizzes, the airs, the Bresse chicken coq au vin to a more familiar Pacific Rim menu featuring seared ahi and misoyaki butterfish. So what happened to the dream? Matsubara says simply, his menu didn’t bring in the business to sustain the restaurant, despite winning a silver Hale Aina Award for Best New Restaurant. So the management behind Stage changed the chef and the menu. “They wanted to capture more of the market here,” he says. “That was their decision, which was fine. It’s a business. They gotta do what they gotta do.”

Kevin Chong succeeded in the trial-by-fire kitchens of New York City, then returned home to become Chef Mavro’s chef de cuisine.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Matsubara, now 37 and executive chef of Azure, holds no regrets and no bitterness. When confronted with his former ideals in another young cook, he smiles a bit. “When you first come back, it’s tough,” Matsubara says. “It’s tough for a lot of young guys. All they dream about is learning the best, from the best, and coming back and doing the best. And when you can’t do it, if you can’t do what you think is the best, it’s sometimes frustrating. But the big picture is that it’s a business. If you’re in the cooking business, you cook for the people. And if you’re cooking for the people, you have to be smart enough to know what the market is.”
 

Kevin Chong is another local boy who succeeded in the trial-by-fire kitchens of New York. “When we [Chong and a handful of other Hawaii cooks], all left Hawaii we were all saying we don’t want to do this Pacific Rim stuff,” Chong says. “That’s why we went abroad, to learn other things.” In his time away, he worked his way from “the bottom of the bottom”—cooking for the chef’s dog at Le Cirque in New York—to opening a Le Cirque in Mexico at age 26 and supervising a brigade of 60 cooks.

 

 

Chef Jon Matsubara is known as a bit of a boy wonder around town, but even he has faced the cold reality of the restaurant business.

Photo: Olivier Koning

As soon as he got married, he returned to Hawaii, and for the past five years, he’s been Chef Mavro’s chef de cuisine, bringing global flavors to Hawaii Regional Cuisine. These days, he says “some dishes may have Moroccan, some Indian, some maybe Vietnamese, Korean or French.” Is it Pacific Rim? An escabeche of abalone with Manchego cheese croquette, serrano ham and sundried tomato sauce, inspired by time spent in Spain, is not. The betel-nut kurobuta pork loin with green papaya salad and lemongrass pork jus, with its Vietnamese flavorings, is. For Chong, now 33, experience, a Vietnamese sous chef and Chinese pastry chef have tempered his disdain for Asian fusion. “I love Pacific Rim,” he now says. “It’s just how you interpret Pacific Rim.”

Do all paths in Hawaii lead to Asian fusion? Will all chefs succumb to the tyranny of Pacific Rim? Sure, it’s delicious, but isn’t a little variety good? Even Chong concedes that he might wish for a “real Italian trattoria” in Honolulu, perhaps of the sort his best friend Tony Liu, also a local boy, helms in New York, Morandi.

There’s evidence that things could turn out differently for Kajioka—that he may be able to strike a different path, though the initial starting point was the same for all three chefs. They all had the single-minded focus in New York of advancing their careers. Matsubara says of New York, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do, exactly where I wanted to go, and the timeframe that I had.”

Chong says, “Cooks from Hawaii have a good reputation in New York. We work harder, we’re the first ones in, last ones out … We didn’t travel all that way to fail.”

Kajioka says: “There’s no friends, you just cook your ass off.”

Upon returning to Hawaii, though, Kajioka’s path diverged from Chong’s and Matsubara’s in at least one important way. Chong and Matsubara returned home to raise a family in a more relaxed setting.


Chef de cuisine Kevin Chong talks technique with some of the kitchen staff at Chef Mavro.

Photo: Olivier Koning

“As soon as I got married I decided to resign and go back to Hawaii,” Chong says, “because Hawaii is more laid back, people are more laid back. In the restaurant business it’s not as chaotic and competitive as New York and other countries. I thought I would have a heart attack every day working in a big brigade, big kitchen, with 60 cooks. I’ve reached my goals and now it’s time to do what I want.” He finds his position at Mavro ideal: “I really touch the food and cook.”

Somewhat similar lifestyle priorities apply to Matsubara, whose timeframe from the beginning of his career meant returning to Hawaii in four years to start a family. Matsubara says, “I have three girls. So that’s all on the forefront of priority for me. My goals are to be able to provide for them. That’s what drives me to do what I need to do.”

Kajioka, on the other hand, was drawn back for other reasons, particularly excitement about what was brewing in the food scene in Honolulu. “I saw that Hank [Adaniya] was opening a hot dog place,” he says. “To be honest, that was my No. 1 motivation for moving back. Because I knew that he brings instant credibility to us. Trio [of which Hank was the restaurateur] was the No. 1 restaurant in America for a long time.” Kajioka remembers reading about Hank’s Haute Dogs and thinking, “holy [expletive] this is huge. He’s gonna change this. No matter what he does. He’s so respected. I just wanted to see what was going on.”

(That’s not the whole story, though—Kajioka also moved back to complete divorce proceedings. He had left his wife in Hawaii when he continued to work in New York: “It wasn’t a good situation, obviously, but I was being selfish with my career. I wasn’t looking at the long run, really. I was thinking Per Se, Per Se.”)

Perhaps this could be the difference that allows him to succeed in his grand visions of a Hawaii cuisine revolution. (Though to him, a family and career are not mutually exclusive.) Or maybe Kajioka could be the beneficiary of favorable timing. There’s evidence that Chong and Matsubara—still under 40 themselves—are already paving the way for a new wave of chefs like Kajioka to throw something different into the mix. The current menu at Mavro is mostly free of Asian flavors—instead, offering up Indian vadouvan, Basque espelette and Middle Eastern tahini in dishes that are still grounded in Hawaii via their use of local products.

 

 

The Kona Shellfish bowl is one of Jon
Matsubara’s creations.

Photo: Olivier Koning

And while Matsubara’s current clientele “want their steak, their Caesar salad, their shrimp cocktail, their seared ahi, prime rib, sashimi,” he throws in touches from his New York and Stage days. From flourishes in tableside presentation, like the kiawe smoke that swirls out from underneath a glass dome, to the flavors in a pasta with braised abalone and a red-wine tomato sauce sheened with duck fat, Matsubara sneaks in all these items to satisfy his own personal style and those who are looking for something new.

Kajioka sees an affirmation of change in Hawaii dining. “There’s so much talent here,” he says. “Ed Kenney [chef/owner of Town], Dave [Caldiero, also of Town], Kevin [Chong].” For Kajioka, they represent a shift in the dining culture—one that may make Honolulu a destination dining city and one that exhibits a range of cuisines, not just Pacific Rim.

In addition, Hawaii’s agricultural renaissance—a confluence of the zeitgeist of sustainability and the efforts over the years of chefs such as Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi to develop farmer-chef relationships—provides a basis from which Kajioka thinks he and other young chefs will launch a new wave of Hawaii cuisine.

Chong believes in a bright future for Hawaii chefs and cooks, particularly those who travel, work outside of the Islands, and return. He sees their Pacific Rim-educated palates as one of their greatest assets: “Cooks from Hawaii have the best palates because they know Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines, [which have] a balance of flavors: sweet, salty, sour, umami, bitter … [and] not just a balance in flavors, but in texture and temperature, cold, hot, crispy, soft.” This sort of food culture, coupled with work and travel to master classic techniques and taste new cuisines, gives Hawaii cooks a strong foundation. “They should come back and produce what they learn and mix things up,” Chong says. “When I ask some cooks from Hawaii on the Mainland: You ever plan on coming back to Hawaii’? It’s ‘No, there’s nothing there.’ What do you mean there’s nothing? If you want to do things differently, you do it.”

Kajioka, too, encourages others to “Work your ass off, get the line experience, go to the Mainland and then come back. And then hopefully if enough people do that and come back, it’ll change. When you do something that’s refined, that’s local, that’s personal, you become a destination restaurant. No matter what, people are going to come.”            

Martha Cheng writes about food, chefs and farmers and is actively involved in giving young, talented chefs a voice in the Honolulu dining scene. She is based in Honolulu.

 

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