A New Chef de Cuisine at Chef Mavro Restaurant is Stirring Things Up
Mavro is one of Hawai‘i’s most singular chefs. But when you’ve got French Laundry veteran Jonathan Mizukami as your new chef de cuisine, things are bound to change.
Mizukami and Mavrothalassitis meet on Sundays to talk about the menu and the week ahead.
Photos: olivier koning
In the back storeroom of Chef Mavro hang dozens of hoshigaki, shriveled blood-orange Maui-grown persimmons that have been peeled and strung over the rafters to air-dry. The result of this labor-intensive, weekslong process will be dense, chewy confections that taste similar to dates yet more delicate and subtle.
This isn’t something you’d see in most restaurants, even one run by avant-garde chef George Mavrothalassitis.
“Did you see them?” he asks me, eagerly, showing me a photo of the hanging persimmons he had recently uploaded to Instagram. “Crazy, no?”
It wasn’t his idea. And, to be honest, he doesn’t even know what dish these dried fruits will be part of in a few weeks.
But he does know this: Whatever his new chef de cuisine, Jonathan Mizukami, wants to do, including hanging persimmons from the rafters or fermenting cabbage to make choucroute garnie (a French sauerkraut) in a 10-gallon ceramic crock, it’ll be good. Really good.
“Oh, my God, what I learn from Jonathan,” Mavrothalassitis says, sitting with Mizukami in one of the upholstered booths in his award-winning restaurant one morning. “He is the next generation. He is the future.”
At first glance, these two chefs couldn’t be more different.
At 71, the gregarious Mavrothalassitis, who hails from coastal Marseilles in France, exudes exuberance. He passionately describes, most often with his hands, the correct way of making bouillabaisse, his eyes gleaming behind black-rimmed glasses. The clean-shaven, Maui-born Mizukami, 36, sits politely and listens as Mavrothalassitis blames, with unabashed contempt, the beloved Julia Child for screwing up the recipe by adding scallops, mussels and clams to a dish traditionally made only with fish.
“When people put lobster in it, it’s just to make it expensive for tourists,” Mavrothalassitis scoffs in his very French way. “Even just the flavor of the lobster screws up my bouillabaisse. Julia Child. Her recipe book is full of shit.”
“I have both of them,” Mizukami chimes in, with a low-key smile.
Mavrothalassitis looks at him, somewhat surprised and slightly disappointed, then shakes his head.
And then you see it. That kolohe twinkle in Mizukami’s eyes. The look of someone confident enough to prod the impassioned Mavrothalassitis in just the right spot. And then you think maybe, just maybe, these two might have more in common after all.
Their first meeting seemed serendipitous.
Mavrothalassitis worked with pastry chef Jose Calpito on this trio of desserts using quince, a bright yellow fruit similar to a pear.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Mizukami had been working for 10 years at The French Laundry, the renowned, three-star Michelin restaurant in Yountville, California, most recently as sous chef, under the esteemed chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller. Two years ago, he decided he wanted to come back home. So he put in his notice, with no job prospects, and jumped on a plane back to Hawai‘i.
It just so happened that Vintage Cave’s executive chef, Chris Kajioka, was leaving his post to pursue new opportunities. The exclusive restaurant’s then-general manager, Charly Yoshida, heard Mizukami was back in town. By that October, Mizukami had been named the new executive chef at Honolulu’s most expensive restaurant.
It was during the time Mizukami was at Vintage Cave that Mavrothalassitis went there for dinner and was blown away by every dish that emerged from the kitchen.
“The food was fantastique,” Mavrothalassitis says, still savoring the memory of the dishes. “Jonathan’s food was totally exceptional. It was one of my best meals in a long time.”
When Mizukami was thinking about venturing out on his own, he met with Mavrothalassitis at Chef Mavro to talk about what it takes to run a successful restaurant in Hawai‘i. After all, if anyone knows how to do that, it’s James-Beard-Award-winning Mavrothalassitis, one of the 12 founders of the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement, who runs the only independently owned restaurant in the state to earn the American Automobile Association five-diamond status every year since 2008.
RIGHT: A MIZUKAMI CREATION: A HUDSON VALLEY FOIE GRAS PARFAIT TOPPED WITH A PINOT-NOIR GELÉE AND PRESERVED BLACK MISSION FIGS, AND PAIRED WITH TOASTED BRIOCHE.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING: JONATHAN MIZUKAMI DISH: STEVE CZERNIAK
After Mizukami left that meeting, Mavrothalassitis felt a pang of disappointment. He would have loved to hire Mizukami but didn’t have any openings in his kitchen. “I was really sad, you know,” Mavrothalassitis says. “When we talked, we understood each other. We spoke the same language.”
As fate would have it, a few months later, Mavrothalassitis’ chef de cuisine, Jeremy Shigekane, resigned, leaving the position suddenly open. Mavrothalassitis knew exactly which chef he wanted to fill it.
Mizukami didn’t hesitate to take the job.
“[Mavrothalassitis] is a great chef,” he says, confessing his favorite dish at Chef Mavro has been the signature, seasonal salt-crusted onaga. (It’s one he’s learning to prepare himself.) “I have much respect for him.”
There was one challenge, though. Shigekane had quit 10 days before Mavrothalassitis was about to embark on an unprecedented three-week vacation. (Unprecedented because Mavrothalassitis rarely leaves his restaurant.) The pair had only worked together for about a week before Mavrothalassitis left, leaving Mizukami to execute the menu on his own.
Mavrothalassitis wasn’t worried. He knew Mizukami, with his impressive culinary chops and experience in some of the best kitchens in the world—including Spain’s three-star Michelin restaurant El Bulli, Alinea in Chicago and Per Se in New York—could handle.
“He is from The French Laundry. I love his precision,” Mavrothalassitis says. “He’s even more precise than me.”
Every Sunday at 11 a.m., the two meet at the restaurant, at Table 12, to talk for an hour or so about everything from upcoming dinners to new dishes on the menu.
“Between his craziness and my craziness, we have a lot going on,” Mavrothalassitis says, laughing.
From these meetings, the two have come up with some of the most innovative dishes to appear on tables at this award-winning restaurant.
The popular egg “osmose,” which was first created by Mavrothalassitis, was recently modified by Mizukami. The local eggs are still stored with Piedmont truffles—recently, it’s been fresh white truffles from Alba—in a hermetically sealed box so the eggs are naturally infused with the truffle aroma. But, instead of creamy potato mousseline, the poached egg is paired with a white-truffle potato déclinaison, or variations, in the form of confit, purée and crispy “pomme Maxim’s.” (The pickled shallots and fresh truffle shavings are still part of this decadent dish.) And the Australian Tajima wagyu dish is another fusion from the creative minds of both chefs. The high-grade beef medallions are served with roasted carrots and creamed broccolini, topped with jus made from sharp and citrusy sansho peppers, the punchy unripened seedpods of the Japanese prickly ash. The quiet star of this dish, however, is Mavrothalassitis’ rissolée potato mochi that my husband called gourmet tater tots. (It’s a compliment.)
But when you look over the latest menu, it’s obvious—and quite amazing, frankly—how much Mizukami has contributed to the carefully constructed lineup over which Mavrothalassitis has always had so much control.
The opah belly is the most pronounced example.
Mizukami even surprised Mavrothalassitis with his juniper-berry-cured opah belly, paired with red beets, pickled Japanese cucumbers and dill pudding.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
First of all, I have never seen opah on Chef Mavro’s menu. Ever. And Mavrothalassitis, who has garnered a reputation for preparing fish, doesn’t normally work with the peritoneal cavities of fish. So this was already something new and different.
“When Jonathan told me about the dish, I said, ‘What? Opah? I don’t serve opah. And the belly? No way,’” Mavrothalassitis says, laughing. “But it’s interesting, it’s something different, and it’s my favorite dish on the menu.”
And then the preparation is something new. The opah belly is first cured in a brine of juniper berries, coriander and black pepper for five hours. Curing makes the fish firmer while keeping it moist. It’s given a juniper-berry crust, then finished in the oven and served with red beets, pickled Japanese cucumbers, dill pudding with crème fraîche, and a coffee-flour, rye-bread crumble that adds a nice texture to the dish. The result is a very approachable piece of fish that’s packed with flavors from the brine.
“I never dare to do what he does with fish,” Mavrothalassitis says.
But Mavrothalassitis isn’t the only one learning in this relationship.
Photo: olivier koning
Mizukami has been absorbing the business side of operating a restaurant, discovering the unique demands and desires of Hawai‘i diners, and experimenting with local ingredients he didn’t have access to while in California. Mavrothalassitis, who pores over projections and sales figures at his restaurant, is open about his failures, too, particularly the now-defunct Cassis Restaurant and Wine Bar in downtown Honolulu, which didn’t survive a year in the cavernous, 13,000-square-foot space in Harbor Court. (The enormous size of the restaurant ended up being its biggest downfall.)
And, despite years of honing his skills in some of the most respected kitchens in the world, Mizukami is still learning new techniques from the seasoned Mavrothalassitis.
“Like making aioli,” Mizukami says, smiling. “I’ve never done it this way before.”
Mavrothalassitis learned to make aioli from his Italian grandmother, who used a mortar and pestle instead of a whisk to beat together garlic, egg yolks and extra-virgin olive oil. Using a whisk, Mavrothalassitis says, makes the olive oil turn bitter. (“Don’t ask me why,” he says. “I have no bloody idea.”) This more traditional method results in a silky, creamy aioli that’s so thick the pestle can stand up in it.
Mizukami has long admired Mavrothalassitis and how he has been able to run this quaint, upscale, 68-seat restaurant for the past 28 years, changing the menu whenever he feels like it and using whatever ingredients he wants. But now, working alongside him has fueled an even greater regard for the zealous chef, who’s long been a champion for local agriculture. (About 80 percent of the produce and nearly all of the fish used in the restaurant are locally sourced.)
One day, Mizukami was in the office at the restaurant and saw a copy of Art Culinaire Magazine from 1990. One of the stories was on the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement and featured Hawai‘i chefs, including Mavrothalassitis.
“One of his recipes was lobster with saffron-vanilla sauce,” Mizukami says. “It’s one of the classic recipes I learned at The French Laundry. The recipe was very similar, using mussel stock as the base.”
Mizukami did the math: Keller had purchased The French Laundry in 1994, and Mavrothalassitis was using a saffron-vanilla sauce four years earlier.
“To say the least, I was impressed,” Mizukami says.
For the first time ever, in nearly three decades, Mavrothalassitis says he has found someone he trusts fully, giving Mizukami more creative freedom with the menu than he has anyone else. This is no small thing from a chef so closely linked to his eponymous restaurant.
“He’s so good. It’s the first time I’ve let somebody express himself,” says Mavrothalassitis, who isn’t planning on retiring soon but has lately enjoyed time away from the kitchen. “I love my job, but I’m 71, and this is the next generation. He’s going to kill everyone.”
Another Mizukami dish: the roasted Keāhole lobster tail with a house-made choucroute garnie.
Photo: steve czerniak
Of the dozen dishes on Chef Mavro’s winter holiday menu, about half were created by Mizukami.
There’s the Hudson Valley foie gras parfait, which features a foie gras mousse under a thin pinot-noir gelée made from the wine reduction used to cook the Black Mission figs that accompany this dish. It’s also served with a Marcona-almond purée and a slice of buttery, toasted, house-made brioche.
There’s the roasted Keāhole lobster tail with a house-made choucroute garnie, kabocha confit, charred Brussels-sprout leaves and a kabocha-and-lobster-bisque purée.
Photo: OLIVIER KONING
And there’s the aromatic and creamy white-truffle risotto—my favorite—made with stubby, milky grains of Arborio rice, extra-virgin olive oil and nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano, topped with fresh white truffles shaved tableside.
Yet some of my favorite flavors by Mizukami come as complements to the main focal point of Mavrothalassitis’ dishes, showcasing how this unlikely culinary pair can combine their varied experiences, backgrounds and palates to create memorable dishes. Take the roasted Niman Ranch lamb loin, which is draped in a Pondicherry vadouvan curry and served with fried basmati rice tossed with toasted cumin seeds. Classic Mavrothalassitis. But then Mizukami adds his touch in the seasonal sides that pair with the lamb. There’s a cucumber-mint raita, a tasty green-strawberry chutney, and slivers of watermelon rind pickled with saffron, coriander and cloves cleverly made from the unused rind of local watermelons used for the pre-dessert.
Mizukami’s technique is impeccable, his flavors bold, his rarified approach to cooking and plating both intellectual and tasty. It’s obvious from his dishes—classic Italian risotto, Indian-style chutneys—that Mizukami is deft at working with ingredients and techniques from around the world. Much of that comes from extensive experience cooking in diverse kitchens and with international chefs. But his love affair with global flavors started well before he even enrolled in culinary school on Maui.
When he was around 11 years old, his mother, a divorced schoolteacher, pulled him out of school to take him on a yearlong trip around the world. They traveled to Greece, Austria, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Turkey, experiencing the different cultures and foods in these countries.
When they returned home to Maui, his mom continued to excite Mizukami’s palate by cooking dishes from a different cuisine once a month. Sometimes it would be Thai, other times German.
That variety and the opportunity to be creative drew him to the kitchen.
“I like that it’s always changing,” Mizukami says about cooking. “It’s never the same.”
That’s true working for Mavrothalassitis, too.
Mizukami is fascinated with fermenting foods right now, and Mavrothalassitis is indulging him. Mizukami lugs out what looks like a giant ceramic vase, explaining that he’s going to make French sauerkraut and age it in this crock for at least four weeks. He’s also started to churn his own butter using local cream. Mavrothalassitis just listens and smiles.
“I’ve done 28 years of Pacific-Rim food,” Mavrothalassitis says. “OK, now, with Jonathan, let’s start exploring.”
Chef Mavro, Wednesday to Sunday, 6 to 9 p.m., 1969 S. King St., 944-4714