Happy 30 Years, Chef Roy Yamaguchi!
The James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur is planning a yearlong celebration marking three decades of cooking in Hawai‘i.
Chef Roy Yamaguchi at Roy’s Beach House, a restaurant he opened at the Turtle Bay Resort in August 2016. He celebrates 30 years of cooking in Hawai‘i This year.
Photo: Catherine Toth Fox
I remember the first time I ate dinner at Roy’s Hawaiʻi Kai.
I was in college. We sat near the window. I ordered the meatloaf.
It must’ve been a special occasion—an anniversary, maybe—because, back then, dining at Roy’s was a big deal. This was fancier than Tony Roma’s.
Over the years, Roy’s had become my go-to spot for special dinners. When I got my first full-time job at The Honolulu Advertiser after graduate school, I took my entire family there to celebrate. The bill exceeded $300 and I remember partly feeling sick and partly feeling like a baller. And after my husband and I got married—on the beach, no guests, no one knew—we celebrated with our families that night there, too.
You could say Roy’s has marked some of the most important milestones in my life.
So it would seem fitting that I would help chef Roy Yamaguchi celebrate one of his: 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of Roy’s Hawai‘i Kai, the restaurant that launched his career in Hawaiʻi. Three years after he opened the restaurant, he joined 11 other Hawaiʻi chefs to start Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine, a culinary movement that blended the diverse flavors of the Islands with an emphasis on local ingredients. Two years after that, in 1993, Yamaguchi became the state’s first recipient of the prestigious James Beard Award. He went on to open more restaurants, here and elsewhere, and co-found the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival, heading into its seventh year.
Yamaguchi kicks off his 30th Anniversary Hawaiʻi Food Tour series on Thursday, Feb. 8 with a special dinner at the original location in Hawaiʻi Kai. Ten of Hawai‘i’s top chefs, including Alan Wong, Chris Kajioka, Ed Kenney and Andrew Le, will be cooking alongside Yamaguchi. (The event is sold out.) There will be more dinners and parties throughout the year, including a big end-of-the-year celebration in December, the month he opened 30 years ago.
We caught up with Yamaguchi the other day to find out what he’s got planned this year and what he’s learned over the past three decades.
Photo: Courtesy of Roy Yamaguchi
HONOLULU MAGAZINE: You opened Roy’s Hawaiʻi Kai on Dec. 23, 1988. Why in the world would you open two days before Christmas?
ROY YAMAGUCHI: Well, it wasn’t that we wanted to open up on that day. It’s just how it kinda fell into place. I remember trying to figure out a Christmas dinner on the 23rd. I actually still have the menu somewhere.
HM: Why did you open in Hawaiʻi Kai instead of, say, Downtown or near Ala Moana?
RY: What happened was my cousin, who was a realtor, was living in Portlock. She and her husband would drive to town every day to their office. And every day, on their way to work and on their way home, they would drive past this building. It was basically an office building, and it was empty. She would think to herself, “I bet you this would be a good space for a restaurant.” So she called me. I was in L.A. at the time, running 385 North [in Hollywood]. She said, “Roy, you should really come to Hawaiʻi and take a look at this spot.”
HM: What did you think when you saw the space?
RY: When I flew out here, the building only had about two or three tenants … The space was just concrete and there was this outside lānai area. I found a broken office chair—it had four wheels and no real seat—and brought it up to the second floor and took it out to the lānai area. I sat on the chair and kept rolling it back and forth, sliding the chair from one end of the lānai to the other. I did this for about four or five hours. I felt great about the space. Something about restaurants is that when you walk into a space, you feel like something good can happen. It was that kind of feeling I had. Everyone told me not to open a restaurant here because I’ll never make it. Not many restaurants made it in Hawai‘i Kai … But this location just felt good.
HM: And now look. You’ve been there 30 years!
RY: At the end of the day, I’m very humbled and happy that, after 30 years, we’re still here—and especially because my whole intent was to build a restaurant in a neighborhood. That was extremely important to me 30 years ago. I didn’t want a restaurant in town. I really wanted to be part of a neighborhood and I wanted people to associate me with that neighborhood, and Hawaiʻi Kai was it.
Photo: Courtesy of Roy Yamaguchi
HM: Were you successful right from the beginning or did it take time?
RY: We did fairly OK from the beginning. But after a month or two, it really caught on and the rest is history. We were very fortunate because we opened in 1998 and in June of that year, Bon Appétit had run a 13-page story on me with recipes because I had a restaurant in L.A. and we were doing some good stuff back then that was different from everybody else. So Bon Appétit had already contacted me about doing a story on my cooking. Long story short, I was already closing 385 North and making plans to open in Hawai‘i Kai … So the magazine came out in June and said that I would be opening a restaurant in Hawai‘i Kai later that year. People were already looking forward to us opening. It was a good thing that happened. We did well from Day 1.
HM: You have always emphasized customer service at your restaurants, even winning Hale ʻAina Awards in that category. Why has that been such a focus for you?
RY: From before we opened, my whole thing was about servicing the guest. When I had a restaurant in Los Angeles, we fell short. I fell short. It didn’t click, it didn’t work. When I came to Hawaiʻi, in all honesty, I wanted that whole setup from Cheers, where bar friends would meet people in a comfortable setting, a place where everybody knows your name. That’s the kind of environment I wanted.
HM: How were you able to maintain such a high standard for service?
RY: Customer service is extremely important. It’s not really unique to Roy’s, but, at the end of the day, it’s the simple stuff, the stuff that people tend to forget, that makes a difference. We really take care of each other. We take care of our staff. We take care of our guests. Then everything falls into place. Knowledge is also very important to me. Not only do our chefs and cooks know the menu, but everyone, from the bus boy to the server assistant to the server, understands and is knowledgeable about everything we do.
HM: What dishes have been on the menu since the beginning?
RY: The blackened ʻahi, the hibachi salmon, the meatloaf. The chocolate soufflé came later and the short ribs, too.
HM: Was there a dish that you served that surprised you in how it was received?
RY: Actually, for Christmas Eve, for the longest time, we used to do a roasted goose. I just thought it was a pretty cool dish to eat. People enjoyed it.
HM: I remember seeing you cook at Roy’s sometimes. Do you still do that?
RY: I was just helping [executive chef] Jason Peel this morning for breakfast at Eating House 1849 [at the International Market Place]. All the Polynesian Bowl football players are in town this week. I was making eggs and cutting fruit and cooking bacon.
Yamaguchi still cooks at his restaurants.
Photo: Craig Bixel
HM: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve served at Roy’s?
RY: I would get ingredients like snake or ostrich, but only very small orders, like 10 or 12. If I didn’t sell it, it wasn’t a big deal, but I had the pleasure of making it. What I used to do was, instead of putting it on the menu—I didn’t want to throw people off—I would have the server tell certain guests, “By the way, we have something very special that Roy wants to prepare. Very limited quantity. It’s a snake dish.” People would order it or they wouldn’t.
HM: So… how would you prepare the snake?
RY: What you do is you put it in hot water, real fast, to take the skin off. Then you get the meat and sauté certain portions of it in a little olive oil and butter and herbs. Then you serve it. It was usually an appetizer. I would boil the skin for a long time, then marinate that in a little soy, ginger, garlic, ponzu. I would end up eating it because no one would order it. (Laughs.)
HM: What makes this anniversary, your 30th, so special?
RY: It’s great that Hawai‘i has all these great restaurants now. There’s a lot to choose from. I just think that it’s really vibrant. And the great thing about Hawai‘i is that chefs like to help each other out. It’s such a great environment to be in, where everybody helps each other … We’re all friends and we all care about each other, which is cool. That’s what makes this so special for me. It’s great to have been here for 30 years and to have all these relationships with other chefs and with the community. It’s just a great feeling.
HM: What do you have planned for the next 30 years?
RY: For the next 30 years, I’m hoping to continue to build that bond and trust and friendship with everybody in the community … I know that I can overcome anything. I’m just hoping I won’t be wearing diapers!
READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX