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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?


(page 3 of 3)

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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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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