Sam Choy Wants to Cook in Your Kitchen
Sam Choy might not be running any O‘ahu restaurants, but this beloved local chef is cooking in more kitchens than ever.
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Photos: Steve Czerniak
Sam Choy opens the double-door refrigerator and pulls out a Ziploc bag of roasted ‘ulu chunks, an open jar of tomato-basil sauce and a container of acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, mushrooms and cheese from three nights before. He sautées the breadfruit in the marinara, adds some wilted spinach and kale, and serves it with the squash and some reheated cauliflower mash, turning a week’s worth of leftovers into a chef-worthy dinner entrée.
The kitchen and all of its contents belong to HONOLULU Magazine editor Robbie Dingeman. We wanted to know what the 64-year-old chef has been up to since closing his O‘ahu restaurants, so we invited him over to Kailua to show us in his latest venue—home kitchens.
“I don’t know if it’s a gift,” says Choy, his steady hands deftly slicing a handful of canned black olives. “But I talked to this French chef and he said when you can pull recipes out of your head, that’s when you know you’re a great chef. That’s when you’ve arrived.”
Three years after closing his last O‘ahu restaurant and seven years since his last cookbook, Choy is back with a new TV show that showcases his improvisational skills in the kitchens of everyday Hawai‘i residents.
Actually, though, he never really left.
Choy has shifted gears and kitchens. He still runs Sam Choy’s Kai Lānai restaurant in Kailua-Kona—his only remaining Hawai‘i-based restaurant—but, otherwise, his absence in the Islands is palpable.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working. In fact, Choy says he’s been working more than ever.
He recently launched a line of kitchen towels and accessories that will be sold at Target and T.J.Maxx stores nationwide. The food-truck company he started with partner Max Heigh in Seattle three years ago—Sam Choy Poke to the Max—has grown to eight trucks, bringing loco moco, reconstructed Spam musubi, garlic chicken and ‘ahi poke bowls to the Pacific Northwest. Since 2007, he has designed the first- and business-class menus for American Airlines. His popular salad dressings are still in production. He participates in several food festivals a year on the Mainland. He’s busy with charities. And he still caters the lū‘au every year at the corporate offices of Facebook in Menlo Park, California.
Last summer, after years of shooting the local cooking show Sam Choy’s Kitchen, Choy turned to YouTube with an hour-long show that teaches families how to transform leftovers into new, delicious meals. KHON picked it up and will start airing a glossier, half-hour version of Sam Choy’s In the Kitchen this month on March 6.
The idea came to Choy years ago, when he was at a friend’s house just after Thanksgiving. She wanted to go to the grocery store and get more food to make dinner. But, when Choy opened her refrigerator, he found lots of leftovers that would have just been tossed out. He rummaged through her fridge and pantry, creating a full meal with everything he found. “She thought I went to the store,” Choy says, laughing. “I told her, ‘This all came out of your fridge!’”
Choy is onto something here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Americans throw away about 40 percent of the food they buy every year. That’s startling when you consider one in six Americans faces hunger.
We’ve all done it, tossing half-wilted greens, over-it leftovers and jars of unidentified sauces, mostly because we don’t know what to do with them. In our overzealous attempts to eat healthy, we wind up buying more kale and cauliflower than we can eat. And then we discard all this food—in trash bins, in compost piles, in dog dishes—without considering the cost or waste.
That’s what Choy wants to change.
His show takes this paradigm-shifting approach to cooking, where he teaches families to repurpose leftovers in a creative enough way you’ll want to eat meatloaf again for the third straight night.
“We throw away billions of dollars of food,” Choy says. “We think we’re just throwing away a little bit here, little bit there. But a little bit, little bit always adds up to a big bit.”
In Dingeman’s Kailua home, Choy surveys the inventory of food in front of him, his mind swiftly connecting flavors and ingredients. It was like watching an episode of Chopped, where chefs have to create a tasty dish using a mystery basket of ingredients. (Choy has been both a contestant and a judge on the popular Food Network show.) He grabbed a few containers, a bag of cilantro, some jars and bottles and got to work, exuding the kind of confidence that comes with decades in professional kitchens, a James Beard America’s Classics Award and four best-chef nominations.
“I didn’t think he would dig out a fig spread from six months ago,” Dingeman said later, laughing. (She actually smelled it before handing it over to Choy.) “We should’ve hidden that in the outside fridge with the beer.”