Will Hawai‘i’s Thriving Dining Scene Bring Michelin Ratings to Our Restaurants?
The famed Michelin Restaurant Guide doesn’t send its inspectors to Hawai‘i. Yet the Islands’ dining scene is attracting a growing number of Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants—and we’re all reaping the benefits. Could there be a starry future for Hawai‘i?
Takuya Sato (right) departed his own two-Michelin-star sushi restaurant in Tokyo to accompany Keiji Nakazawa (left) at Sushi Sho.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
Not quite five years ago, when Chris Kajioka was creating his 27-course, $295 opening menu at Vintage Cave, billionaire owner Takeshi Sekiguchi told him to aim for Michelin stars. “It’s not about the star, it’s about matching the ambition of one,” Kajioka said then. “Obviously, I know the restaurant will never get a Michelin star, because Hawai‘i won’t get reviewed.”
Kajioka, who’s since opened Senia in Chinatown with partner Anthony Rush, was one of the few local chefs trained in a Michelin-starred kitchen—somewhere else. Kajioka and Rush met in the three-star kitchen of Manhattan’s Per Se. At the time, Honolulu’s food scene, while evolving, was a nonentity amid the great food cities of the world and the U.S. It was a mixed plate of resort restaurants, Asian eateries, plate-lunch spots, Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine icons and pretty much everything in between.
Chris Kajioka at Senia.
But it was rising. The evolution happened so fast, with advances layered one upon another, that not only is Honolulu now a destination for foodies, it’s drawing its first Michelin-level players. Since last year, three chains anchored by Michelin-star restaurants—Stripsteak, Yauatcha and Tim Ho Wan—have opened or announced openings in Waikīkī. The Manhattan sister locale of Kapahulu’s Sushi Ginza Onodera won its first star. Two Michelin-starred Japanese sushi chefs have opened counters in Honolulu. As for Michelin-trained chefs in local kitchens? There are more than industry insiders can name.
Welcome to 2017. Asked if Michelin in Hawai‘i was a topic of chefs’ conversations today, Kajioka laughed. “I literally had this same conversation an hour ago,” he said. “Four, five years ago, there was no way. We didn’t have half these restaurants, and all the local boys now are doing so well. It’s really good to eat out in Honolulu now. It’s exciting. It’s high level. And it’s diverse. The food level in Hawai‘i stands toe to toe with anybody.”
Chris Kajioka with chef-partner Anthony Rush.
What is Michelin, and why does it matter? Even in the age of anybody-can-describe-a-meal Yelp—and against established rankings like Gayot, AAA’s diamond system and the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—Michelin’s star-based restaurant evaluations are the world standard. The French tire maker set up the system in the early 20th century: Professional reviewers visit restaurants anonymously and, over a series of visits, judge them on quality of ingredients, cooking techniques, flavor combinations, creativity, consistency and value for the price. Committees meet to discuss the ratings. And then stars are awarded—and, in some cases, taken away.
If you’re a chef in France, pursuing or keeping a Michelin star can take over your life. “I trained only at three-Michelin-star restaurants. I know so well what was three Michelin stars. I was happy when I left France not to have the weight, the pressure of Michelin on my back,” says French-born George Mavrothalassitis, the last Hawai‘i chef to win a James Beard Award, in 2003. His Chef Mavro is one of two AAA five-diamond restaurants in Honolulu and Gayot’s highest-rated Hawai‘i restaurant with 18 out of 20 points. “In France, cooking is not just a job. It’s a religion. You enter Michelin, Gault-Millau (Gayot), you enter a religion. Only this is important. Nothing else.”
Sushi Sho’s Keiji Nakazawa: “All your thoughts and skills should be for your guests.”
If you’re a chef in Japan, the world’s runaway leader in Michelin-starred restaurants, you might reject a star. “As a chef, you have to know what you can do and what you want to be,” says Keiji Nakazawa of Sushi Sho at Waikīkī’s Ritz-Carlton. Revered among Japanese sushi chefs, Nakazawa knew he was being considered for a Michelin star and politely rebuffed the inspector. He watched newly starred restaurants in Japan lose regular customers—who “get” a chef’s culinary approach and form, in essence, a mutual appreciation society—as they were displaced by hordes following Michelin’s red guidebooks. “All your thoughts and skills should be for your guests. Michelin stars give you pride and keep up employees’ motivation, but, at the same time, young chefs should focus on their guests.”
If you’re an American chef, there’s no question about what Michelin represents. “I don’t think it’s good, I think it’s great,” says Michael Mina, whose Mina Group opened Stripsteak at Waikīkī’s International Market Place last year. Mina’s flagship Michael Mina restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas both won Michelin stars; for a time, the one in San Francisco held two. “A restaurant needs to strive every day. When you know at any moment you could be judged and you won’t know who’s coming, that keeps everybody motivated and that’s good.
MICHAEL MINA (RIGHT) WITH EXECUTIVE CHEF BENJAMIN JENKINS AT STRIPSTEAK WAIKĪKĪ. MINA’S NAMESAKE RESTAURANTS IN SAN FRANCISCO AND LAS VEGAS EACH HAVE MICHELIN STARS.
The black tai cocktail at stripsteak waikīkī.
Photo: steve czerniak
“There’s also the financial side. Fewer customers in your restaurant or more customers in your restaurant. If a restaurant garners a star, two stars, three stars, that helps you set your price point,” Mina says. “And it’s a great feeling as a chef. You can really expand. You start to create your own limitations in that scenario. You have guests who want you to push the envelope and are willing to pay for that, and Michelin helps that happen.”
Among chefs in Honolulu, the Michelin talk these days is conjecture. It has to be, because, while Michelin has long covered cities in Europe, and in recent years expanded to Japan, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore and Shanghai, in the U.S. it covers only New York, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C. Publication of its Los Angeles and Las Vegas guides was suspended. That doesn’t leave much hope for other U.S. cities with thriving food scenes like Charleston, S.C., and Portland, Oregon, much less Honolulu.
Kajioka talks hopefully not of a Michelin Hawai‘i guide, but a redistricting scenario that in his mind might group together U.S. cities including Honolulu, or wrap in Hawai‘i as an extension of Michelin’s Tokyo guide. That’s still hypothetical. What’s real is that local chefs used to poring over the listings for other cities are now talking about Michelin and Honolulu in the same sentence—something that, in no small measure, they made happen.
The pig & the lady farmers market hu tieu my tho.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Here’s a telling comparison: In 2008, when Anthony Bourdain visited Hawai‘i for his TV series No Reservations, he hung out with Alan Wong. When he returned in 2015 with Parts Unknown, he ate with The Pig & The Lady’s Andrew Le and Mark Noguchi of Pili Group.
What’s been happening? Food Network, Travel Channel and others ignited excitement about food travel. A new generation of highly trained chefs began leaving top kitchens in Honolulu to experiment with unique approaches personal to them. Lindsey Ozawa and Alejandro Briceño left Nobu Waikīkī to open Prima. Noguchi left Town restaurant and took over the two-picnic-table He‘eia Pier General Store and Deli. Le left Chef Mavro to do haute cuisine pop-ups and Vietnamese street food at farmers markets. Kajioka came home from San Francisco’s Parallel 37, whose chef, Ron Siegel, would be recruited by Mina to help retain his star. And so on—chefs whose culinary evolutions were redefining food in Honolulu.
michelle karr-ueoka plates a dessert at mw restaurant.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
By the time Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival launched in 2011, there was a range of solid local talent to feature alongside national and global giants. The festival brought in contingents of U.S. and international media, which generated stories about the credibility and uniqueness of Hawai‘i’s food scene. And it made local ingredients—from Hāmākua mushrooms and Ho Farms tomatoes to Island-raised shrimp, beef and lamb—features in every dish. “There was a fear factor that you couldn’t get product in Hawai‘i. That fear factor is now gone or going away, both because you’re growing so much more local product and good product, and chefs are doing good food,” says Mina, whose Mina Group counts more than two dozen restaurants. “When you see they’re getting the same products we’re getting, that helps move chefs in the direction that you can cook the same food, but with a twist that fits that market better.”
YAUATCHA AT INTERNATIONAL MARKET PLACE: THE DIM SUM RESTAURANT’S LONDON FLAGSHIP HAS A MICHELIN STAR.
International Market Place, redeveloped with big restaurant spaces on the third floor, drew the first high-end chains with Mina’s Stripsteak and London-based Yauatcha, where upscale dim sum meets cocktails and elegant desserts. From the other side of the Pacific, the slew of ramen chains that for a time defined new Japanese arrivals in Honolulu gave way to increasingly high-end franchises. The latest: Tonkatsu Tamafuji and Yakitori Hachibei both opened this year. Even Baikohken, a ramen stand that opened in February at Waikīkī Yokocho, is listed (but not starred) in Michelin’s Hokkaido guide.
And then, from the category that most reverently symbolizes Japanese food around the world, came Honolulu’s first Michelin-starred chefs. Nakazawa opened Sushi Sho in the Ritz-Carlton last September with a $300 omakase course. At his 10-seat restaurant in Tokyo the wait is two months; in Waikīkī it’s often several weeks. To connoisseurs, it makes no difference that he remains unstarred—more revealing is that his chief apprentice, Takuya Sato, left his own two-Michelin-star sushi counter in Tokyo to follow him, and two of Nakazawa’s former apprentices have gone on to win their own stars.
Sign of a master: three of nakazawa’s proteges hold michelin stars, including takuya sato (left).
Over on Kalākaua Avenue, Takeshi Kawasaki left his one-Michelin-star Maru Sushi in Sapporo to open one near the Hawai‘i Convention Center in February. At Kawasaki’s nine-seat counter, menus start at $180. “When you look at it from Japan, Japanese love Hawai‘i and the economy is good. And after 60 years I was tired of looking at snow,” he says. “There’s potential here. I’m not a rival of Onodera or Sushi Sho. We’re all raising the level. It’s a good progression, like building a snowman: more delicious food, more customers, more restaurants, it’s fantastic. It’s a good cycle.”
If you’re a chef in Hawai‘i today, chances are you’re pretty stoked. After a lifetime of leaving Hawai‘i to explore good food, local chefs are seeing top players come in, often to eat at their restaurants. Mina makes it a point to stop by MW Restaurant on every visit. At last fall’s Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival, an editor remarked that the restaurant visiting chefs asked about most was The Pig & The Lady.
a michelin star in hokkaido: takeshi kawasaki at kalākaua Avenue’S maru sushi.
“Here in Hawai‘i we’ve been able to maintain our cultural identity. And now with a more receptive eating audience, we can share our cultural identity in our interpretations and have it be well-received,” says Noguchi of Pili Group. “So my personal opinion? We don’t need a Michelin guide to tell us how good we are. We’re Hawai‘i, man. We know how awesome we are. We keep it inside because we gotta be humble. But I see a lot of pride. I see a lot of pride that has no stars attached to it.”
A brief history of Michelin guides
From tires to tiramisu.
Entrepreneur brothers Ándre and Édouard Michelin start a tire company in central France.
The Michelin brothers create the red Guide, rating restaurants and hotels to encourage drivers of fewer than 3,000 cars in France to travel and use more tires.
After expanding in Europe, the company begins charging 7 francs for the booklets, which include maps and tips on how to change a tire, as well as ratings.
The brothers expand into evaluating fine dining, marking restaurants with only a single star.
The company introduces the zero-to-three-star system.
Michelin publishes its criteria: 1) Quality of ingredients used, 2) Mastery of the cooking and flavors, 3) Personality of the chef as expressed in the cuisine, 4) Consistency, both over time and across the entire menu, 5) Value for money.
The guide has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and rates more than 40,000 establishments spread over 24 territories and three continents.
What do the Michelin star ratings mean?
“Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”
(A very good restaurant in its category)
“Table excellente, mérite un détour”
(Excellent cooking, worth a detour)
“Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”
(Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey)
What do local chefs think about Michelin stars?
Here’s a smattering of the talk among local chefs:
“It brings international stature to our culinary scene. It raises the bar for all.”
—Lee Anne Wong, Koko Head Café
“For myself and others in this fine-dining niche market, it is affirming.”
—Jonathan Mizukami, who hopes to use his three-star training at Napa’s French Laundry to open a high-end restaurant on Maui.
“We now have options that other large cities have. But I think local chefs are grounded in creating a Hawaiian experience versus a Michelin-star experience.”
—Jon Matsubara of Bloomingdale’s Forty Carrots, who trained at New York’s three-star Jean-Georges.
“It’s been interesting to see Michelin-starred restaurants come in, I guess. I personally am excited to see the level of cooking that has been brought up by the efforts of our own local chefs. I think everyone has stepped their game up.”
—Sheldon Simeon, Maui’s Tin Roof and Hala
How Hawai‘i Got Its Own Cuisine
The Islands’ last dining revolution came thanks to a push for more local ingredients.
Back in the day, say, the 1980s or earlier, “fancy” Hawai‘i restaurants around Honolulu all served the same thing: Continental—that old-school, Americanized version of European cuisine. Think Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce, Lobster Thermidor, Oysters Rockefeller.
But a new generation of Hawai‘i chefs began chafing at the old way of doing things. They were starting to experiment, mixing up Eastern and Western flavors, high-end and low-end cuisines. What if you made fried rice with foie gras and duck confit? What if you seasoned baby back ribs with hoisin? What if you served up a loco moco fit for a five-star restaurant? They wanted to use eclectic ingredients.
The creative energy was brewing. One catch, though: This was the late ’80s and early ’90s, and getting a wide variety of fresh, locally grown ingredients was a challenge. At the time, most of the produce for Island restaurants was being shipped in from California, and it was tough to find Hawai‘i-grown herbs, greens, tomatoes and other vegetables, especially in the kind of quantities needed by restaurants.
What to do? Spurred by legendary rock ’n’ roll promoter Shep Gordon, who told the chefs they needed a movement, a banner they could unite under, a dozen of these chefs met in 1991 at the Maui Prince Hotel for the Hawaiian Cooking Symposium, to talk solutions. What came out of that: a name, Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, and a new, if nascent, sense of purpose.
Job one: The HRC crew started working with local farmers to begin growing the kinds of produce they really wanted.
And, while revamping and upgrading their restaurants’ menus to reflect the exciting new spread of ingredients—hearts of palm, grass-fed beef, local veal, sea asparagus, moi, kampachi and more—the chefs organized a whole string of special events to get the word out to the world, including the 1993 Big Island Bounty at the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani. These shindigs drew celebrity foodies, everyone from Wolfgang Puck to Florence Fabricant of The New York Times, and attracted the attention of Mainland travel press. Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine had arrived on the world stage, and Hawai‘i dining would never be the same.
Chronicling the movement from the start was HONOLULU Magazine. Longtime food enthusiast and editor John Heckathorn had covered the scene as part of the magazine’s early dedication to discerning dining. While the Hale ‘Aina Awards honored excellence, Heckathorn quickly noted that this new movement was changing the face of dining, setting the stage for the continued evolution we see today.
These 12 Hawai‘i regional cuisine chefs started it all
Amy Ferguson Ota
The 2018 Hale ‘Aina Awards ballot is now online! Vote for your favorite restaurants now through June 30 for a chance to win dining certificates from our Hale ‘Aina winners. Click here to vote now. Winners will be announced at the Hale ‘Aina Awards Ceremony on Sept. 17. Stay tuned to this page for updates.