9 Things Hawaii Chefs Wished You Knew
BY LESA GRIFFITH; ILLUSTRATIONS BY VIDHYA NAGARAJAN
The restaurant world from Honolulu to Hoboken was riled up when, in 2009, The New York Times published a column titled “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do.” It was like an emancipation proclamation for people who give their money to eateries: “Never refuse to seat three guests because a fourth has not yet arrived,” “do not interrupt a conversation—especially not to recite specials,” “never say ‘I don’t know’ to any question without following with, ‘I’ll find out.’” Cooks, restaurant owners, critics and eaters let comments fly on Twitter—“Hurrah!” or “He’s never been a server”—and at least one Honolulu restaurateur tacked them up in the kitchen.
Is the customer always right? We turned the tables and asked Hawaii chefs to dish on what they wish diners knew.
#1 Reservation protocol
“The best time to dine is early or late in the evening,” says Johann Svensson, chef de cuisine of BLT Steak. “It’s easier to get a table, and there are fewer people—so less hassle. Service is on time at those times.” On a Friday night, what’s a good time to snag prime real estate at BLT Steak? “Nine o’clock,” he says.
Chef after chef cited boors who try to name-drop and elbow their way to star treatment. Jon Matsubara, chef de cuisine at Azure, wants you to know that “the proverbial ‘you attract more flies with honey than vinegar’ will always work better in your favor. Everybody, regardless of industry, likes to accommodate people who are polite.”
If you have a habit of making multiple reservations at multiple restaurants, and then choose where you want to go the night of, don’t think you’re getting the last laugh. An online database called Open Table lets restaurants track all sorts of stuff. Birthdays, favorite dishes, number of times visited, and other notes. The industry is small, so if you make a habit of shafting reservations, they’ll know sooner or later.
“I wish people knew what happens when they ‘no show’ on a reservation or cancel at the last minute,” says Paul Feng, chef de cuisine at Chef Mavro. “The obvious is that somebody who wanted that table or that time is mad. Also, it means we throw food away that local farmers have gone to a lot of trouble to grow and deliver to us. And staff get sent home early and make less money.
#2 Know your sauce
Pasta is practically its own food group in the U.S., yet people know surprisingly little about the intricacies of this Italian staple, says Keith Endo, chef de cuisine at Vino.
Endo makes his own pasta and, for him, there are few things more disheartening than people complaining that there’s not enough sauce atop his handcrafted noodles. “I wish people knew that pasta is supposed to be very simple. I ask the servers to let them know it’s not about the sauce. Of course, you can have more sauce if you want, but, really, it’s about the flavor and texture of the pasta.” Endo notes how he changes the ratios of semolina flour, water, salt and sometimes egg to suit the many types of pasta he makes, and dreams of people appreciating the subtle differences.
Even though Thai food is one of the most prevalent cuisines on the island, Kenny Usamanont, sous chef and owner of Haleiwa Eats and Rajanee Thai Cuisine in Mililani, still has to explain the difference between red, green and yellow curry. For the record, “It all comes down to the chiles,” he says. “The red are dehydrated chiles and the green are fresh, and yellow is turmeric inspired. Even if we make curries mild, the green is always spicier because it’s fresh.”
#3 Offal isn’t awful
A lot of chefs here want to cook outside the box by going beyond prime rib and pork chops. But if they cook it, will you eat it?
“Offal is delicious!” says Andrew Le, chef-partner of pop-up restaurant The Pig and the Lady and a former Chef Mavro sous chef. “Braised tripe in a hearty tomato stew, Vietnamese pig-feet noodle soup, grilled tongue banh mi, succulent headcheese, cornmeal-crusted chitterlings, bold blood sausage—all of it tests a chef’s creativity and challenges the diner to try something out of the norm. [Eating offal is also] more respectful to the animal. What the general public consumes is only a small percentage of the whole animal. The rest is used as ground meat products or discarded.”
Kevin Hanney, chef-owner of 12th Avenue Grill and Salt Kitchen & Bar, advises diners to try new things, but have your server explain them to you first. With the prices of mainstay fish and beef items going through the roof, the ‘off cuts’ and lesser-known fish are getting their moment to shine. The short plate or plate steak is a perfect example. From the rib area of the cow, this cut has been typically ground, but in the right hands it is a flavorful, unique experience. Hanney also points to flap steak, one of the most flavorful cuts available. Tenderness is not the only mark of quality in beef; some of these cuts need braising or proper slicing, but have tremendous flavor.
Svensson wants you to know about hanger steak. “It’s a fantastic cut of meat, very flavorful and tender if handled right. Not a lot of restaurants have hanger here. A year ago, I had to order it from California. But now I can buy it locally.”
#4 Eating local isn’t cheap
When even Zippy’s is touting locally raised beef, it’s safe to say sustainability has gone mainstream. But while Island-grown bounty doesn’t have to be shipped in, it can be more pricey than produce that traveled for thousands of miles.
“I just bought a $12 pineapple. Just because it was grown here doesn’t mean it’s cheaper,” says Jim Moffat, chef-owner of Kauai’s Bar Acuda and well-stocked Living Foods Market & Café (and a former Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef). “We’re not trying to gouge anyone. We try to keep prices down and serve wonderful, local, seasonal food, but the fact is it’s expensive to farm in these Islands.”
Mark Noguchi, chef-partner of Heeia Pier General Store & Deli and alum of Chef Mavro and Town, has fish on the Heeia Pier menu only when he can buy a fresh catch at the pier. “You can’t get all kinds of fish all year long,” says Noguchi. “Fish is not an endless supply; there is a reason why we have or don’t have fish.”
#5 We’re allergic to attitude
A number of chefs mentioned this nugget of knowledge. Jackie Lau, corporate executive chef for Roy’s, wants you to let your server know if you’re allergic to something, or if you plain don’t like it.
On the other hand, she, and the rest of her cohort, have had more than their share of what might be called “the boy who cried mushroom.”
“So many times the guests will be on their last course and all of a sudden their entrée comes back because they are ‘allergic’ to, let’s say, onions,” says Lau. “Sometimes that is just code for ‘I don’t like to see onions.’ [But we have to take it seriously and] the alarms are going off, everyone is scrambling because, Oh, no! The onions! What about shallots? They are in everything, stocks, garnishes and right on down the line. Of course, the guest has probably eaten the equivalent of a whole onion up until that point, but we are still on high alert to get a no-onion dish back out to the guest!”
Chef Le adds, “Being able to eat onions only if they’re grilled or caramelized, but not raw or sautéed, doesn’t mean you’re allergic to onions. It means you’re crazy.”
Lau also cites diners’ using vegetarianism to get what they want when it suits them. “One time we had a guest call and give us very long instructions. Great! This we like. We even went so far as to make a very special dessert, with no dairy. When we were ready to send out the dessert, they informed the server that they would be having two chocolate soufflés with extra ice cream! Because they always eat that when they are at Roy’s!”
Special requests can also be a chef buzz kill. Going to a Thai restaurant and asking the chef to hold the fish sauce is like going to a steakhouse when you don’t like beef. Yet that’s what happens to Usamanont.
“People ask for no fish sauce, no sugar, no peanuts. I want to accommodate people’s needs, but there’s only so far we can go,” says Usamanont. “In terms of the sauces, it kind of breaks down the creative process of what we’re trying to do. If I go to a French restaurant, I don’t ask for no butter.”
What a wine guy wants you to know: Master sommelier Roberto Viernes chimes in.
“I wish they wouldn’t wear so much cologne or perfume. It ruins the aroma of the wine.”
“Smelling the cork doesn’t gain you any points with us. In fact, you can’t really smell anything on the cork, except cork!”
“We are not the final judge or arbiter of taste. In the end, as sommeliers, we’re just happy you’re ordering wine and having a good time. Drink what you like.”
#6 News flash: Valentine’s Day comes every year
“If you know that a big holiday is coming up, one that involves making a restaurant reservation, it’s your fault if you didn’t make it earlier,” says Noguchi. Restaurant staffers “have the best stories about people—I like to call them civilians—who try to pull stunts during the holidays.”
“When it’s the day before Valentine’s Day, if the restaurant you’re calling is full and whoever takes your call apologizes for not being able to satisfy your request, take it as face value that we’re not blowing you off,” says Noguchi. “Successfully serving a capacity restaurant involves a delicate game of balance, filling tables and clearing them at a timely pace, without making the diner feel rushed. If we ‘squeezed’ in everyone that begged and pleaded, not only other diners, but you, too, would suffer less-than-ideal service and food. It really doesn’t matter who you know. If a respectable restaurant is full, it’s full. Restaurants usually try to offer another time slot, a spot on a wait list or maybe the next day. If that doesn’t work for you, it was your fault for not calling earlier. Go see if Denny’s or Zippy’s will squeeze you in.”
#7 Cool your jets
Justin Pardo, chef-partner of Maui’s Market Fresh Bistro in Makawao, wants people to know that, “If you want good food that is cooked properly, tastes good and is as fresh as it can be, it won’t be out in 10 minutes. Good food takes time.” Pardo, a New Yorker who worked in the groundbreaking kitchens of Tabla and Union Square Café, cooks everything to order, and mostly with Maui-grown ingredients, “so 20 minutes to wait for lunch, I don’t think it’s a long time,” he says. “Everyone is on that fast pace. But you’re on Maui, you’re on vacation. Sit back, relax, enjoy the scenery.”
Kevin Hanney agrees: “Not all food can be cooked and served within 10 minutes. It has taken many people many hours to prep the dishes, but sometimes it still will take 15 to 20 minutes to cook for you. The best flavor comes from bone in, shell on, cooking from scratch, which may take a little longer.”
#8 You are not actually a food critic
The Internet has made everyone a critic and restaurateurs feel the effects, good and bad. Now anyone can let you know that the new bakery downtown serves cupcakes that are “sooooo scrumptious!” Or they can blame a restaurant because the tacos they got as takeout were cold by the time they got home. People, do you listen to yourselves?
“The fact that I have a first-aid kit in my truck doesn’t make me a doctor,” says Camille Komine, who serves fusion tacos from her Camille’s on Wheels food truck. “And access to a computer and websites like Yelp doesn’t make you a food critic.” Komine says she values professional critics’ writings, because they have “spent years developing their palates.” It’s the Yelpers who cavalierly (and ignorantly) describe her mirin-mayo as “some sort of ranch sauce” that irk her. Or when someone writes “Why pay $8 for something I could make at home?” (as someone did about the Melt food truck), Komine would like to ask them, “So where do you get your Gruyère, and how long has it been aged?”
#9 Meat us halfway
“People need to know we’re not mind readers. When asked to specify meat temperatures, we want them to answer,” says Andrew Le. “All too often meat arrives at their table medium rare, since they left the decision to us, and then they’re like, ‘I wanted it medium well.’ Tell us what you want before we cook it.”
Gone are the days of eating out being a special occasion, especially in Hawaii, where top-tier restaurants accept shorts and slippahs. Still, says Jim Moffat of Bar Acuda, “Speedos are not restaurant attire, and sand should definitely stay at the beach. It doesn’t need to be under my barstools.”