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.