Odd Restaurant Jobs in Honolulu

Chefs receive most of the attention, but there are also many lesser-known, yet fascinating, restaurant jobs. Meet some of the crew at local dining spots who have positions you may never have heard of.
BY ADRIENNE LAFRANCE

The owner of the V-Lounge, Alejandro Briceno, in front of his secret weapon: an oven that operates at 1,200 degrees. It can cook a pizza in 90 seconds.

Photos: Mark Arbeit

Fire Stoker

Somewhere in the past couple of decades, people forgot how pizza was supposed to be. That is, at least, according to Alejandro Briceno, whose Neapolitan-style pies have created quite a buzz around town since V-Lounge opened last year. 

“To me, pizza got lost in some way and it became about the toppings,” says Briceno. “It’s not about the toppings, it’s about the crust. And if you want to get the crust just right, it’s all about the oven.”

As the denlike pizza joint’s owner, Briceno is the keeper of an oven he describes as his secret weapon: an Italian-inspired behemoth that operates at 1,200 degrees. It resembles Europe’s Old-World terra-cotta ovens, but was manufactured in California from refractory cement, which can withstand temperatures well into the thousands of degrees.

V-Lounge serves pies until 4 a.m., or until the day’s supply of fresh dough runs out, and Briceno spends much of his time tending the oven.

While it never fully cools, he is able to leave the oven unattended during off-hours because, without a chimney, closing the oven door means depriving any flames of necessary oxygen. He says the oven temperature dips no lower than about 200 degrees before he fires it up again the next day. Briceno burns kiawe wood from Molokai, which takes about a month and a half to dry.

“Taking care of the oven is a whole-day process,” says Briceno. “As long as we’re selling pizza, somebody has to be here taking care of it. And it’s not just adding wood, it’s the way you add the wood. You also need to know what happens if the wood is a little bit too wet or dry.”

Remarkably, the oven cooks pizza in 90 seconds, and those who swear by Briceno’s creations will tell you the pizza itself is mind-blowing enough to eat just as quickly. In May, he added three new pizzas to his menu, including a traditional bianca, or white, pie, and two others he describes as “local Italian fusion.”

“One has local cherry tomatoes, fontina cheese, basil and macadamia nuts,” he says. “The other one has Italian sausage, ricotta, Maui onions and chili flakes.”

In the end, Briceno says he hopes his approach—and his oven—will change the way people expect pizza to taste.

“I mean, the oven is what makes the pizza, and the way it cooks the pizza is what it’s about,” he says. “That’s what we believe in. No matter how much work it is, it’s worth it.”

V-Lounge, 1344 Kona St., 953-0007, vloungehawaii.com. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. until 4 a.m., or until the pizza dough runs out.

 


Not only does Nate Aoyagi know how to flambé  your dinner at Michel’s, he can do it without setting his tie on fire.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

Flame thrower

Order the lobster bisque at Michel’s, and the kitchen comes to you. For four decades, the French restaurant’s waiters have dazzled happy diners with a fiery flambé, running orange flames over thick morsels of Maine lobster meat in amber cognac.

Tableside preparation is one of the hallmarks at Michel’s, one of Honolulu’s institutions for fine dining. Since it opened in 1963, Michel’s has been famous for its oceanfront view, enormous open windows and tuxedoed waiters preparing gourmet cuisine beside meticulously set tables. While Michel’s no longer requires male guests to wear jackets, the experience and ambience is just as it’s always been, and earning the right to don the waiter’s tux is no easy feat.

“It’s incredibly extensive,” says Nate Aoyagi, who does everything from wait tables to bartend and manage Sunday brunch for Michel’s. “First of all, we rarely hire waiters from out of house. It’s something you work up to. Then, from the time you officially start training as a waiter, which can take anywhere from three to five months, you’re learning how to make several tableside dishes, and you have to be able to execute them perfectly.”

The bisque is just the beginning. Michel’s tableside preparations also include filet mignon and salmon, as well as desserts like cherries jubilee and bananas foster. The desserts are the most difficult, Aoyagi says, because of how easily they can burn. He knows from an early experience making a strawberry foie gras dessert.

“That one has a lot of liquor in it, port and cognac,” he says. “Because there’s no sugar or butter, the pan gets hot really quick, and the hotter your pan gets the bigger your flame gets. I actually set one of the ficus trees in the restaurant on fire. Everybody was OK.”

On a typical night, though, “OK” is an understatement. Aoyagi says one of his favorite things about working at Michel’s is seeing how diners react to the experience.

“People repeatedly tell you ‘thank you,’ which is rewarding. The food is great. The crew is great. You don’t find too many places where everybody is good at what they do and they get along.”

Michel’s, 2895 Kalakaua Ave., 923-6552, michelshawaii.com. Hours: Dinner served nightly, starting at 5:30 p.m.

 

Kona Brewing Co’s Tracy Solomon reduces wasteful restaurant habits and replaces them with more sustainable practices. 

Photo: Joshua Fletcher

Planet Protector

With a job description that few in the restaurant industry have, Tracy Solomon is paid to think about the things that don’t always cross restaurateurs’ minds.

“Not many places have a position like mine,” said Solomon, who is the sustainability coordinator for Kona Brewing Co. “A lot of chefs and managers don’t have time to do what I’m doing.”

What Solomon is doing is updating an incredibly wasteful industry with sustainable practices. She rid the Oahu brewhouse of Styrofoam, helped coordinate the reuse and refurbishing of restaurant furniture and oversaw a switch from chemical, industrial cleaning products to biodegradable alternatives, which total more than 100 gallons a year. She’s also focused on some of the more elusive ways in which restaurants can be environmentally harmful.

“Nobody really thinks of this, but a lot of restaurants produce hazardous waste,” says Solomon. “For example, in six months, you can collect 50 pounds of batteries. If you think about all the batteries in computers, all of the auto-flushes in restrooms, as well as complex fluorescent lights, we have well over 100 lights, and all of those lights and batteries, when they go out, you want to properly recycle them. That’s a big one, and it makes a big impact.”

While her job is unusual, it’s also an unusually good fit for Solomon, who was raised in the restaurant industry—“I’ve been the dishwasher, I’ve been working in the kitchen, I’ve been the server, I’ve been the hostess,” she says—then academically and professionally trained in natural-resources management.

“I’ve never worked anywhere before where you had low-flow water fixtures, Energy Star appliances, biodegradable cleaning products,” she says. “It’s still new for restaurants to switch over to these things, and it represents a whole different approach, from every angle, of how to better the business practices.”

If Solomon’s passion for what she’s doing isn’t enough, there are other perks of working for Kona Brewing Co.

“I get to taste the beer all the time,” she says. “The beer? It usually speaks for itself.”

Kona Brewing Co., 7192 Kalani‘ana‘ole Highway, 394-5662, konabrewingco.com. Hours: daily, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. A second location, on the Big Island, is at 75-5629 Kuakini Highway, 808-334-2739.

 


Cocktail mastermind Dave Newman uses Chambord Caviar for a drink served at Nobu Waikiki.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

Inventor

Dave Newman’s career began with an ambitious lie. He was a teenager, and working as a waiter for a catering company, when his frantic supervisors told them they needed a bartender, right away, to stand in for someone who didn’t show.  

“They go, ‘Does anybody know how to bartend?’” remembers Newman. “I was 19 at the time, and I go, ‘Oh, me!’ So they’re like, ‘Get behind the bar.’ I had no idea. It was so embarrassing. People would order a Cuba Libre, and I was like, ‘What is that?’ They’re like, ‘It’s rum and Coke with a lime.’ Stuff like a Cape Cod, just vodka and cranberry, no idea. But I loved it. From that point on, I wanted to be behind the bar.”

Two decades later, Newman has what he wanted and then some. After a long stint at Nobu in Malibu, Calif., he now runs the bar at Nobu Waikiki, where he’s the mastermind behind an array of drinks with impossibly creative and intricate components. Take the tiny, translucent purple pearls he calls Chambord Caviar, for example.

“It’s made with Chambord and a type of baking sugar called agar, and it takes a really long time to make. You add agar to any spirit basically, you heat it up, you drizzle it into cold flaxseed oil and then you rinse it off. We take a Japanese cucumber, hollow it out and use the Japanese cucumber as a cup and fill this into it.”

It’s not unusual for components of Newman’s cocktails to require several days of preparation, like an orange that has to be dehydrated, then marinated, for days before being served.

“Two days,” he says. “And that’s just for one garnish.”

It’s not just the preparation that requires such meticulousness. Newman uses fine-tuned techniques for a wide range of cocktail preparations. For one drink, a raw shishito pepper is sliced in two. Half goes directly into the drink, while the other half is sprinkled with white granulated sugar.

“We take a blowtorch and we brûlée it,” says Newman. “We roast the back of it so it’s actually warm when you get it.”

Approaching cocktails with culinary sensibilities—from blow-torched sugar to airy foams and beyond—is a method that’s exploded in recent years, and one that Newman has gladly embraced.

“I love to cook,” he said. “I think in the last decade, that’s become more a part of bartending than it ever has before. Whatever you want to call it: gastronomical bartending or mixology, if you don’t have some basis in the kitchen, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for you.”
Newman says the creative freedom chef Nobu Matsuhisa gives him makes it easy to flex his culinary muscle. Newman imports blood oranges from Chile, and has experimented with everything from curry oils to beets. In the end, that perfect cocktail may take mere minutes to drink. Newman says if he’s done his job, an air of effortlessness hides the unquantifiable effort behind each creation.

“Think about it like going to see a play,” says Newman. “You don’t see the rehearsal, you don’t see the creative process of somebody writing the play. You see the finished product. And hopefully it’s polished and looks good. The typical diner at a restaurant? You’re probably seeing 20 percent, if that, of what’s really there.”

Nobu Waikiki, 2233 Helumoa Road, 237-6999, noburestaurants.com. Hours: weekdays from 5 p.m., weekends from 5:30 p.m.              

 Adrienne LaFrance is a Honolulu-based freelancer, and hosts trivia nights at Manifest, 32 North Hotel Street, each Tuesday at 6 p.m.