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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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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.


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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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