CHEF ROY YAMAGUCHI
10 QUESTIONS WITH THE FAMOUS HAWAIIAN CHEF
During a casual conversation with James Beard award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi I noticed that he likes to use the word “aloha”. I know it as Hawaiian for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ but it also means affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. And that’s the vibe he desires his staff to embrace and embody at all his popular restaurants, including his brand new Humble Market Kitchin at Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott, Maui.
Celebrating 28 years of his Roy’s restaurants with over 20 locations in eight states, Chef Roy is considered the pioneer of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement. His new Humble Market Kitchin is a return to his island roots while paying respect to his grandfather who immigrated to Hawaii, and draws inspiration from his island roots from various local cuisines, including Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and Hawaiian.
A CIA graduate, and by that I mean the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York, Chef Roy was the son of a civil servant father who worked for the U.S. Army as director of supplies. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, young Roy lived on a U.S. Army base. Now considered an influential chef and a successful businessman, Chef Roy recalled his very first venture, a Los Angeles eatery on Restaurant Row on La Cienega Boulevard, opened in 1984 and closed after three years.
“I had to sell it for ten cents on the dollar,” Chef admitted. “There were a lot of things that I did wrong.”
But now, his Humble Market Kitchin is the dining jewel of a property that follows a $100 million renovation. Perched on one of the highest points at the resort, Wailea Beach Resort’s signature restaurant offers indoor/outdoor dining, panoramic ocean views and a design inspired by the surrounding mountains and awe-inspiring sea—aimed to be the perfect complement to Chef Roy’s cuisine.
“You’re looking at the ocean,” Chef said about the grandness of his new venture. “It’s open air and it’s pretty special.”
At this point in your career, is opening a new restaurant old hat for you?
Great question. Every opening is exciting and every opening has its challenges. Nothing is set in stone. Our restaurants are pretty specialized wherever we go. Each location is so personalized and individualized that we really need to focus. We have a game plan but basically when we open it, it’s a brand-new day.
Considering your new restaurant is at a luxury resort, how humble can it be?
Humble Market Kitchin…I though it up years and years ago. I’ve always wanted to pay tribute to my grandfather. My grandfather was a humble man. In the 1940s he opened a couple of restaurants in Maui. When he was very young and ended up on Maui in the early 1900s he worked the plantations and then later his restaurants were the kind of place where the plantations workers went and he didn’t charge them much. In the late ‘40s he opened the Yamaguchi General Store, which was the kind of market where a lot of the people in the community went to. So, I combined those three things: humble; the market; and the kitchen to pay tribute to my grandfather.
You said all your restaurants are uniquely different, looking at them, what uniquely ties them together?
I think what ties them together is that basically I have an idea of how the restaurant should look and how it should feel and of course the type of food I want to serve. Looking at those three elements. Overall, after you eat and the feeling you have when you leave, I want you to make another reservation before you walk out. I want them to come in and be relaxed but be excited about the food.
What was the original concept for Humble Market Kitchin?
The original concept was taken off the plantation days. In the old days whenever everybody got together on the plantation for lunch you would have all types of people and everybody brought their own lunch and everybody would start sharing and before you knew it a plate lunch would appear and now you’re eating different cultures. That’s the idea I had, to take the flavors from different ethnicities and present them in a way that’s very detailed and very beautiful and colorful. And make sure the flavors are impacted by my style of cooking, which is bold. And I want the service to have a lot of aloha.
How much of your ingredients are local?
We want to be as close to one hundred percent to buy local but if something is not available or not good I’m not going to buy it just because it’s local. We’re about seventy percent local items. For instance, people want to eat scallops but we don’t have scallops in Hawaii, same with salmon, there’s no salmon in Hawaii. We have local beef that we use but we also have mainland beef. In terms of produce and fruit it’s a higher number like eighty or ninety percent local. But if we’re talking carrots to make sauce, we’re not going to take a $3 per pound carrot from Hawaii to make sauce.
Would the experience eating on Hawaii be more Hawaiian than at one of your mainland restaurants?
Naturally, we have the ocean (laughs). What’s more about Hawaii than any of our restaurants is that our staff is full of aloha.
Poke is such a big fad right now. How good must your poke be?
The first thing to remember when it comes to poke is that you really have to use fresh ingredients. Whether it be the tuna itself—you can make all kinds of poke, with ahi tuna, kampachi from the yellowtail family, or octopus. Having the freshest ingredients is the most important thing. And on top of that you have different types of Hawaiian salts and seaweed. We’re very fortunate that we have great seaweeds and seaweed doesn’t travel that well so naturally the poke places on the mainland are seldom going to get great seaweed that needs to be in the poke. Unfortunately, their poke isn’t as good as it should be.
Looking over the Humble Market Kitchin menu I so want to have your Claypot Chilean Sea Bass. That just sounds like comfort food times ten.
That’s a great dish. That’s a combination of Chinese, a little Vietnamese and Japanese. The sea bass is here and we get a clay pot and we have soy sauce and ginger and garlic and fish sauce and palm sugar and some Chinese Lup Cheong (sausage) and green onions and it gets cooked down and the fish absorbs that flavor. And before you know it, it’s in front of you (laughs).
What is the restaurant’s must-have signature dish and where do you want the menu go?
Every time I taste something it’s pretty damn good. I like the Claypot, and the dumplings—they’re pretty cool. We sell tons of it. It’s pretty awesome stuff. The menu is relatively simple. When I open a restaurant, I try to make it as easy as I can so we can execute. As we continue to move forward you’ll see changes to the menu as it evolves. I’m definitely going to add more appetizers…starters. I’ll continue to look for more farmers and get these guys to grow more things for us. That can take up to a year. Adding more kinds of local meats to our mix. The menu will evolve more and more.
What do you hope a guest takes away from his or her dining experience at Humble Market Kitchin?
Well, first of all, I want them to leave and say the memory they have is incredible. My job is to create memories. If I created a great memory, a great experience for someone, that’s the best I can do. It’s not just the food and the service. It’s everything. One of the reasons we’ve been able to be successful and have our original Roy’s around for 28 years is because the memorable experience has kept us going. We have people that come to celebrate their anniversary, some for 28 years. That’s what we want to do with all our guests. We want their experience to be so memorable that they think about it for their entire lifetime.
Story by Jose Martinez