Sam Choy Wants to Cook in Your Kitchen
Sam Choy might not be running any O‘ahu restaurants, but this beloved local chef is cooking in more kitchens than ever.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Sam Choy opens the double-door refrigerator and pulls out a Ziploc bag of roasted ‘ulu chunks, an open jar of tomato-basil sauce and a container of acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, mushrooms and cheese from three nights before. He sautées the breadfruit in the marinara, adds some wilted spinach and kale, and serves it with the squash and some reheated cauliflower mash, turning a week’s worth of leftovers into a chef-worthy dinner entrée.
The kitchen and all of its contents belong to HONOLULU Magazine editor Robbie Dingeman. We wanted to know what the 64-year-old chef has been up to since closing his O‘ahu restaurants, so we invited him over to Kailua to show us in his latest venue—home kitchens.
“I don’t know if it’s a gift,” says Choy, his steady hands deftly slicing a handful of canned black olives. “But I talked to this French chef and he said when you can pull recipes out of your head, that’s when you know you’re a great chef. That’s when you’ve arrived.”
Three years after closing his last O‘ahu restaurant and seven years since his last cookbook, Choy is back with a new TV show that showcases his improvisational skills in the kitchens of everyday Hawai‘i residents.
Actually, though, he never really left.
Choy has shifted gears and kitchens. He still runs Sam Choy’s Kai Lānai restaurant in Kailua-Kona—his only remaining Hawai‘i-based restaurant—but, otherwise, his absence in the Islands is palpable.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working. In fact, Choy says he’s been working more than ever.
He recently launched a line of kitchen towels and accessories that will be sold at Target and T.J.Maxx stores nationwide. The food-truck company he started with partner Max Heigh in Seattle three years ago—Sam Choy Poke to the Max—has grown to eight trucks, bringing loco moco, reconstructed Spam musubi, garlic chicken and ‘ahi poke bowls to the Pacific Northwest. Since 2007, he has designed the first- and business-class menus for American Airlines. His popular salad dressings are still in production. He participates in several food festivals a year on the Mainland. He’s busy with charities. And he still caters the lū‘au every year at the corporate offices of Facebook in Menlo Park, California.
Last summer, after years of shooting the local cooking show Sam Choy’s Kitchen, Choy turned to YouTube with an hour-long show that teaches families how to transform leftovers into new, delicious meals. KHON picked it up and will start airing a glossier, half-hour version of Sam Choy’s In the Kitchen this month on March 6.
The idea came to Choy years ago, when he was at a friend’s house just after Thanksgiving. She wanted to go to the grocery store and get more food to make dinner. But, when Choy opened her refrigerator, he found lots of leftovers that would have just been tossed out. He rummaged through her fridge and pantry, creating a full meal with everything he found. “She thought I went to the store,” Choy says, laughing. “I told her, ‘This all came out of your fridge!’”
Choy is onto something here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Americans throw away about 40 percent of the food they buy every year. That’s startling when you consider one in six Americans faces hunger.
We’ve all done it, tossing half-wilted greens, over-it leftovers and jars of unidentified sauces, mostly because we don’t know what to do with them. In our overzealous attempts to eat healthy, we wind up buying more kale and cauliflower than we can eat. And then we discard all this food—in trash bins, in compost piles, in dog dishes—without considering the cost or waste.
That’s what Choy wants to change.
His show takes this paradigm-shifting approach to cooking, where he teaches families to repurpose leftovers in a creative enough way you’ll want to eat meatloaf again for the third straight night.
“We throw away billions of dollars of food,” Choy says. “We think we’re just throwing away a little bit here, little bit there. But a little bit, little bit always adds up to a big bit.”
In Dingeman’s Kailua home, Choy surveys the inventory of food in front of him, his mind swiftly connecting flavors and ingredients. It was like watching an episode of Chopped, where chefs have to create a tasty dish using a mystery basket of ingredients. (Choy has been both a contestant and a judge on the popular Food Network show.) He grabbed a few containers, a bag of cilantro, some jars and bottles and got to work, exuding the kind of confidence that comes with decades in professional kitchens, a James Beard America’s Classics Award and four best-chef nominations.
“I didn’t think he would dig out a fig spread from six months ago,” Dingeman said later, laughing. (She actually smelled it before handing it over to Choy.) “We should’ve hidden that in the outside fridge with the beer.”
Choy adds roasted ‘ulu to a tomato-basil sauce with wilted spinach and kale. He slices up leftover stuffed acorn squash, turning this days-old meal into something new and interesting.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
That fig-and-olive preserve became the surprising element in a unique vegetarian fried rice Choy concocted for Dingeman’s 17-year-old daughter Alexis, who doesn’t eat meat. In a large wok, he fried leftover brown-basmati and white rice, then added sweet peppers, garlic and grilled teriyaki-flavored chickenlike strips made from soy and pea protein. He pulled apart the rice to create a hole, into which he cracked two eggs and scrambled them right in the wok. Then, right before serving the fried rice, he added the sweet fig-and-olive spread and a drizzle of Sriracha mayo. Though it sounds unlikely, it worked, proving the merits of Choy’s outside-the-box approach to home cooking.
“The sweet-salty-spicy combo tasted great,” Dingeman says. “We learned to not be afraid to experiment. As long as you keep tasting as you go along, you probably won’t go wrong.”
Choy grew up in the small Mormon town of Lā‘ie, the son of a Hawaiian-German mother and Chinese father who ran the Hukilau Café, famous for its pake cakes (Chinese tea cookies). He graduated from Kahuku High in 1970 and, a year later, married his high school sweetheart, Carol. They have two sons, Sam Jr. and Christopher, and three granddaughters.
After Choy graduated from the culinary arts program at Kapi‘olani Community College, one of his first jobs was in the kitchen at the posh Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, almost 5,000 miles away from home. He returned to the Islands, opening his first stand-alone restaurant, Kaloko, on the Big Island in 1981. (It earned the James Beard America’s Classics Award in 2004, the year the restaurant closed.) He moved to Kona permanently three years later.
Choy transforms leftover rotisserie chicken into a sophisticated chicken tofu dish using ingredients he found in the kitchen.
In 1991, Choy was one of 12 Hawai‘i chefs who established Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, a culinary movement that combined local ingredients with world cuisines. His fame here and abroad was soaring. Four years later, he opened the upscale restaurant Sam Choy’s Diamond Head on Kapahulu Avenue. And two years after that, he created a more casual concept with Sam Choy’s Breakfast Lunch & Crab on Nimitz Highway.
Choy had a long run with both O‘ahu restaurants. His Diamond Head location closed in 2008 after 13 years due to skyrocketing expenses; Breakfast Lunch & Crab shut down in 2013 after 15 years, with Choy deciding not to renew the lease.
He had already moved on.
“I’m just having fun outside Hawai‘i,” says Choy, who now travels five months out of the year.
This new show, though, puts Choy squarely back in the Islands—in the kitchen. Now he’s creating gourmet-level food in the home kitchens of local families who both respect and relate to him.
“I love teaching, I love giving people the confidence that they can do it,” Choy says. “It’s one of my feathers in my cap.”
Choy puts HONOLULU editor Robbie Dingeman and her teenage daughter, Alexis, to work in their own kitchen. “We learned to not be afraid to experiment,” Dingeman says.
This morning in Kailua, Choy confidently and comfortably moves around Dingeman’s kitchen, directing Alexis to rinse cherry tomatoes and requesting lemon basil and green onions from the garden outside. Though a professionally trained and seasoned chef, Choy has a likability and relaxed candor that make him the perfect ambassador for local-style cooking. He gets excited when he sees a jar of Best Foods mayonnaise in the fridge—he calls it “cowboy gravy”—and cuts off the salmon skin and offers it to the house cat. As he sautées the ‘ulu in a marinara sauce, he notices an olive-oil dispenser that resembles a genie lamp with a slender spout. “No Hawaiian tita is coming out of that!” he says, throwing his head back in laughter. “‘I can feel the rub, but cut this top!’”
It might seem intimidating to have a famous chef poking around your fridge, possibly judging you. But it doesn’t take long for us to forget Choy’s accolades and cookbooks and, soon, he’s just a fun guy coming over to make us some food.
A quick tip from Choy: Instead of dirtying extra dishes, scramble the eggs right into
“Anybody who loves to cook must have had that fantasy of having a chef come over and cook with their family,” Dingeman says. “And Sam Choy manages to be awe-inspiring and approachable at the same time.”
In the next hour, Choy whips up gourmet dish after dish, using whatever he finds in the fridge and freezer. He turns half a rotisserie chicken into a chicken tofu dish with ginger, garlic, tamari, brown sugar, oyster sauce,red onions, broccoli and spinach. He takes a variety of half-empty bottles—a liliko‘i-balsamic dressing from Kahuku Farms, Kinilau sauce from Alicia’s Market, Abodoloco’s Hamajang hot sauce, Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce and Sriracha—and creates a spicy dressing for a clever layered salad he makes with spinach and kale topped with leftover poke, grilled mahi mahi, baked chicken thighs and flaked salmon.
“I think we’re pretty good about using our leftovers in lunches and in clean-out-the-fridge night,” Dingeman says. “But Sam showed us we could take all kinds of leftovers, mix, match and combine them into dishes that turn out a lot different from the first time we fixed them. That made for completely new meals that were way more interesting than eating the same food heated up two or three times.”
This is Choy’s new mission. He wants local families to learn how to cook smart and healthy, something he started to focus on when he tipped the scales at 405 pounds almost a decade ago. (“I got on this health kick after my doctor, Eugene Wong, said he would be signing my death certificate in a few years,” says Choy, who has since replaced midnight milkshakes with fresh fruits. “My blood was coming in borderline diabetic. I was just really unhealthy.”)
But he’s not ruling anything out. Maybe he’ll open another restaurant on O‘ahu someday. Right now, though, he’s happy where he is: never in one place for too long.
“You do things in life and you start to look at the bigger picture,” Choy says. “You can grind forever in restaurants, and the return is very small. But you can do other things that are much more fun and have more impact.”
Sam’s Pantry Essentials
Here’s what every kitchen should have to help turn leftovers into new dishes:
● Shoyu ● Extra virgin olive oil ● Sriracha ● Hoisin or barbecue sauce ● Hot sauce ● Mayonnaise ● Frozen veggies ● Cheese ● Canned beans ● Fresh and dry herbs ● Evaporated milk ● Vinegar ● Cooking wine ● Brown sugar ● Honey or agave ● Tortilla ● Dried fruits ● Peanut butter ● Applesauce ● Chicken, beef or vegetable broth ● Tomato sauce and paste ● Panko or breadcrumbs ● Maple syrup
Sam Choy’s In the Kitchen, Airs 6:30 p.m. Sundays on KHON
READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX