Kampai at the Pier: Nami Kaze Is the Best New Restaurant of 2023
HONOLULU editors unanimously agree—Jason Peel’s Nami Kaze is Hawai‘i’s Best New Restaurant.
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— WINNER: BEST NEW RESTAURANT, BEST IZAKAYA (SILVER) —
Jason Peel, chef and owner of Nami Kaze, is talking about kalo when the conversation veers abruptly to Iron Chefs. The original Iron Chefs from Japanese television, who waged over-the-top culinary battles in fictitious Kitchen Stadium. Peel has been experimenting with a stash of kalo in his freezer on a dim sum-inspired kalo puff.
“Taro puff reminds me of my first chef I really loved, Iron Chef (Hiroyuki) Sakai. He was my fave,” he says. “He used to make a lace batter, and it would come out like a bird’s nest.” Of all the Iron Chefs, why fan-boy the Iron Chef French? “I guess because you don’t expect it,” Peel says. “You got the Chinese guy cooking Chinese food, the Japanese guy cooking Japanese food, and here’s this other Japanese guy making French food, and he’s killing it. I was like, ‘Whoa!’”
At its core, Nami Kaze is like his conversation—playful and unexpected, with a culinary maturity born of decades in high-end kitchens. Peel is a first-time Hale ‘Aina winner, a unanimous pick among HONOLULU editors for Best New Restaurant.
Nami Kaze opened last year when he was nearly 47, an age when veteran chefs are ceding the rigors of the kitchen to younger cooks. For nearly a quarter-century before that he opened restaurants for Roy Yamaguchi and Chris Kajioka, sourced local ingredients for star chefs at the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival and taught culinary students at Kapi‘olani Community College.
During the pandemic he left all of it. He was cleaning house as he sorted out his next step, a symbolic parallel that came together in a crystallizing discovery. It was a paper Peel had written—and forgotten about—as a young culinary student. His dream, it said, was to own his own restaurant.
Peel is supremely goal-oriented: He quit Kajioka’s group the day after Valentine’s Day in 2021, after helping to open Hau Tree. When the pandemic shut down the KCC campus, instead of suspending classes, he delivered ingredients to students’ homes and taught them to cook via Zoom. Before he found that essay, he was looking for a way to grow, both in the industry and in teaching. “How can you teach a kid and give him the right tools and direction without having one yourself?” Peel asks. “I can’t be telling kids how to do something or why not to do something if I never did it myself.”
When Nami Kaze opened in early 2022, it felt as if Peel’s 25-year career had been its lesson plan all along. The food reached back into nostalgia—the simply flavored nostalgia of his childhood in Kapa‘a—coupled with eclectic and unexpected touches. Ginger fried chicken at the eatery’s first incarnation as a takeout okazuya was an homage to Kaua‘i’s beloved Hanamā‘ulu Café—and you could get it with wasabi okra and taegu carrots.
That summer, brunch replaced the okazuya, the menu graduating to waffles topped with honey walnut shrimp and apples drizzled with shoyu-maple syrup, and eggs Benedict translated as poached eggs cradled in bowls of buttery hollandaise with fingers of shrimp toast to dip in and scoop. Also in bowls are omelets, not scrambled and folded but steamed Chinese style, their surfaces strewn with toppings like local mushrooms in cheesy mornay sauce, or mentaiko with ikura and Parmesan. The fried ginger chicken is there—a nod to the okazuya and its bestseller—as are hamachi kama and sushi rolls, glimpses of the izakaya-style dinner menu Peel planned to add in the fall.
For the quarter-century he worked behind the scenes, Peel’s name was widely known in the local industry, but his own style of cooking wasn’t. Dinner at Nami Kaze answered that question. As with the food at Robynne Maii’s Fête, Andrew Le’s The Pig & The Lady and Jon Matsubara’s Feast, the dishes are what the chef likes to eat, the way he likes to eat it. In Peel’s case it’s “a bite of one thing, pass it on, have a bite of something else, pass it on. Try the whole menu if I can,” he says. “I don’t want that one bite to be minimal. It has to linger. If people are sharing, that one bite is one that they remember.”
Seafood and local vegetables dominate in small, shareable pūpū portions, with only one full-meal option combining protein, veg, sauce and starch. ‘Ulu tots are cloudlike cubes stacked atop Peel’s grandfather’s barbecue sauce and showered with curls of shaved tomme. Cherry tomatoes, smoked and roasted, are draped on Mrs. Cheng’s Tofu and splashed with ponzu shoyu. What’s listed as “corn” is a plate of sweet kernel-stuffed beignets with curry salt and Kewpie mayo. German potato salad, crunchy-creamy and hot, is laced with tang and spice.
You could stay happily in this plant-based section, but you would miss chawanmushi studded with brown-buttery, lemony lobster tinged with kochujang; and kampachi crudo with peppers and pickled ogo. Roy’s Waikīkī with Peel as executive chef was known for its sushi; at Nami Kaze, rolls like hamachi with sweet lobster, charred green onion and yuzu gel need no shoyu.
In his open kitchen, Peel is still teaching. Eight of Nami Kaze’s 16 full- and part-time cooks graduated from KCC’s culinary program, and four of them were Peel’s students. The $180 omakase sushi dinner was crafted by his sushi chefs, to give them space to create. A catering division is in the works, as are plans for a bakery.
“Cooking should be fun and abstract. Like art,” Peel says. “I like my guys to look at recipes, but at the same time, I want them to taste and adapt it to their flavor profiles. They’re gonna be chefs one day.”
Maybe they’ll help him with that kalo puff.