Last summer Honolulu Magazine ran a great food story—Martha Cheng’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” about island-born chefs returning to Hawai‘i. One of them was Chris Kajioka, who until December was the chef de cuisine at Roy’s Waikiki, and who at one time was chef de partie at Thomas Keller’s fabled Per Se in New York. The article talked about him returning to Hawai‘i from the mainland because he was excited “about what was brewing in the food scene in Honolulu.” Seven months later, Kajioka left on a jet plane—to be sous chef at Aziza in San Francisco. After two years in Honolulu, he realized the city just wasn’t ready for what he what he wants to do.
In November, I had the good luck to sample Kajioka’s talent at an off-the-menu dinner at Roy’s Waikiki, arranged by Hank’s Haute Dogs impresario Henry Adaniya and the savvy food blogger behind Ono Kine Grindz. Then on Dec. 27, Kajioka went to San Francisco where he had a slew of interviews set up, including with Dominique Crenn for her new spot Atelier Crenn. He was offered more than one job. He made his pick and was gone in a couple of weeks. Kajioka’s departure is a loss.
I caught up with him by phone in December and at a going-away pau hana at Izakaya Sushi Shinn shortly before he left.
Eatizen Jane: Why San Francisco?
Chris Kajioka: I always kind of had it in the back of my head. San Francisco is my favorite city, and I lived there for two and a half years. I guess right now I had a few opportunities [there]—why not go back?
EJ: But I thought you came back because Hawai‘i was at this milestone point—ready for new culinary things.
CK: I wouldn’t say there’s a lot happening. There’s a lot of great izakayas…it’s not that it’s not what I thought it would be, but I have a lot of opportunities to learn more in San Francisco. I plan on coming back here for sure. We have the product, we have the ingredients and resources, but I think for myself I can learn a little bit more before I do something for myself.
EJ: There hasn’t been much new here in a while.
CK: Yeah, on your days off…[you think] “Where do I want to eat?” And you go to the same places. I go to Gaku and I go to Town, and you get to know them so well, it’s almost like you feel bad for going back so much because they take care of you. Even for a special occasion there’s [Chef] Mavro and a few more, but there’s not a place that makes you say “Oh we should try there.” There are a couple places that I’ve been over and over and over. I’ve talked to Hank [Adaniya] a lot about this. … We’ve been a little stuck for a while.
EJ: No newcomers to our lineup of destination restaurants.
CK: They’ve been open for so long—if they’re busy, it’s because it’s what people want. We need someone to do something different. That’s what I try to do. I don’t think my style is…you can’t really find it in Hawai‘i, because people want miso butterfish. Alan’s and Roy’s will always be successful no matter what. Hopefully when I come back, things will be a little different. But I think I can learn some more and be confident that the food I do, no matter what, they will want to come. I would like to do tasting formats. Cooking in San Francisco and New York, it’s a lot more seasonal. Obviously, [these places have] actual seasons, and at Per Se we changed the menu every night, and we sat after service and talked about the next day’s menu. It never gets boring. That’s something I’d like to do—change every day and have a tasting menu.
Roy and Alan put twists on Hawaiian child-time food, and it works, but it’s hard to be progressive with that. Anybody can use wagyu or toro, but making ulu and taro be the center of a plate really takes skill and balls. You need to be a real technician to make ulu shine. A lot of people think it’s just some starchy, heavy vegetable. But what I did recently was a ulu-banana puree with pork belly. It was one of the first times I worked with ulu. I got some Samoan ulu from Ed [Kenney] and I just talked to him about how to cook it.
EJ: In a place where quantity trumps quality, people might be scared off by the idea of tasting menus, which people equate with “fancy” and “expensive.”
CK: Take L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, even that is not so stuffy. That’s more of a commitment because of the white table cloth. You pay a decent amount of money for a tasting menu, but it doesn’t have to be you dress up so much. Even my mom, [she thinks] Mavro’s so expensive but it’s really not.
EJ: So what is with these tasting-menu dinners you’ve been doing?
CK: I’ve done these dinners for a lot of people. One person has a dinner and they have a friend. The past month I’ve done a lot of those. The last one I did at KCC was a lot of fun. Kevin Toyama, [Halekulani’s wine manager], wanted a private dinner and paid me to do whatever I want. They set up a table in the kitchen and I cooked right there. It was a cool night.
EJ: What has been your path to chefdom?
CK: I was born and raised here, right after high school I went to CIA, stayed for four years, then went to San Francisco, then back to New York. I was a chef de partie at Per Se.
EJ: Is it hard to secure a position at Per Se?
CK: Definitely. A couple of guys paid their own way from Spain just to do a stage there. Those kinds of jobs—it’s all on another chef’s recommendation. I didn’t send a resume there. I was working in San Francisco for Ron Siegal—he opened French Laundry—who is at the Ritz Carlton. He called Jonathan Benno [Per Se’s then chef de cuisine], and he told me to be there in a week. That’s how it happened. No one sends a resume anymore. That’s how it works. I haven’t done a resume in a long time. I’ve worked in San Francisco, everybody knows everybody, so you hear about places that are looking for people. I’m going to meet with five chefs, we’ll see what the best position for me there is.
EJ: Tell me more about why San Francisco is so great.
CK: If you’ve been to a farmers market there… When I was at Per Se we would get a lot of our tomatoes and peaches from the Bay Area, from Frog Hollow. There’s no better place to cook than San Francisco. A lot of people say that San Francisco is 10 years behind New York, but I think New York is different in that it is more glitz and glamour. San Francisco is more stripped down, they rely more on the quality of ingredients. And now there are so many young new chefs, I think they’re better to be honest. You have so many young people, not only avant garde, and they use the best ingredients.
EJ: Who do you think is notable?
CK: James [Syhabout] at Commis in Oakland, James used to be be chef de cuisine at Manresa. And David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos—I think he’s one of the best chefs in country.
EJ: But don’t you want to do your culinary thing here? And it’s where everybody wants to raise a family.
CK: San Francisco would be a great place to raise a family too. Anybody born and raised here wants to do it in front of their family and friends, of course. We have good ingredients, I don’t see why we couldn’t rival [a city like San Francisco]. There’s plenty of talented people here. It’s been a long time since the spotlight has been on Hawai‘i, and I think we can bring it back. Look at Dave [Caldiero] and Ed [Kenney of Town]. If you keep it somewhat small it could work. Hawai‘i is different than elsewhere. People’s tastes are different. They like a lot of salty and sweet. I think because they haven’t seen anything else.
EJ: Like David Chang’s Momofuku Ko.
CK: Like a Ko—it’s not exactly like you’ll make a lot of money, but you can make a living and be creative doing it. It’s hard. I have had so many people visit me from San Francisco and New York [during my two years back in Hawai‘i] and they know Alan and Roy, and that’s not exactly where they want to eat. They’ve had that before.
EJ: How would you describe your cooking?
CK: Contemporary American. It’s French technique, you have Japanese, Spanish influence—that’s pretty much contemporary American. I don’t do the whole Alinea thing. I respect that stuff, but I’m not creative enough that way. Those guys are really talented, you can’t cook that way unless you have a base in technique. I like to do the whole process. If you’re going to sear a scallop, you baste it til the end. You’re actually cooking, not just putting something in a machine. I’m very classic I think, just because of who I’ve worked for. It’s about each step and taking pride in what you do.
EJ: How did you team up with Henry Adaniya?
CK: Everybody knows Hank. I think he asked me to come into dinner one time. I don’t’ know how he heard about me, but he asked me to do a tasting, and he really enjoyed it. So we’ve been close ever since. He knows talent. He’s that guy who just picks people. I was lucky enough to become close to him. He’s a good guy.