The boy has left town: Chris Kajioka lands at SF’s Aziza

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.

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15 comments

  1. Great read. To understand the industry from the perspective of a chef working inside it gives things an interesting perspective. I’ve had the chance to get to know Chris on a more personal level over the past year and the guy is just so damn passionate about cooking. Had a meal at Aziza on my recent trip to SF which was incredible. The technique, flavors, textures…all very well done and a departure from what we’re used to eating in Hawaii. As a person who loves to eat, I too would like to see more tasting menus of inventive cuisine. If you can get a 4 course tasting for $50 in SF, that’s certainly possible here, right?

  2. YEAH Lesa!!! It’s true, we are stuck here in Hawai`i, so hard to come by new & fantastic food. Can’t wait for brahddah to come back, but I understand his desires & professional needs. When he comes back he’s gonna KILL IT!

    • Eatizen Jane

      Thanks Nathan and Mark. I am excited to be part of getting this discussion going. I think we all agree that Hawaiian Regional Cuisine chefs are amazing pioneers and continue to do great work in the kitchen and promoting local agriculture and artisanal island-made products. They are invaluable. But it seems many feel that in general Hawai‘i is not progressing on the plate. I want to explore specific reasons (such as the reason it is so hard to secure venues) in a future post.

  3. marthacheng

    I love it when you write and look forward to future posts on this topic! At a certain point, though, all of us in the culinary industry gotta stop talking, and just do. The complaints we make–expensive rent, disinterested audience–are the complaints in every other major culinary city (even San Francisco chefs complain about San Francisco diners being stuck in a rut). Every week, a new restaurant opens in Honolulu. People here love to eat out. We should be able to make it happen, no?

    • Eatizen Jane

      You raise a good, interesting point Martha! Kevin Hanney and Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero showed that you don’t have to be a well-bankrolled izakaya to open here. And more recently modest venues such as Peace Cafe have started up—successfully. What do you think it is that keeps O‘ahu food players from just doing? Lack of investors, labyrinthine permitting nightmare, inability to secure bank loans, fear? Or are we just especially whiny here? New restaurants do open every week, but one that I would like to go to regularly has not opened in four years. And it’s not for lack of talent. Maybe it’s lack of will?

      • Martha Cheng

        I think mostly fear, a little bit investors, a little bit lack of will. It’s definitely hard work for little money, so it’s also like, why bother? Maybe it’s a bit the media’s fault, too. We sort of hype every restaurant opening, so talented chefs might think, why bust my ass just to get lost in the noise of mediocrity when I could just be a personal chef or the like and make more money, more easily. I definitely agree that most new restaurants aren’t noteworthy (though I double-heart Peace Cafe :), but to me it proves opening a restaurant is doable–if you can do it with bad food, just think if you did it with good food! (Though admittedly, good food is more expensive to produce.) Anyways, these are just my hypotheses that have yet to be put to the test…

  4. ck

    The boy will be back in town for good in 3 years. Ready to open his dream restaurant and show everybody on the mainland that amazing cuisine is not just reserved for the big cities.

  5. Dang. I’m a bit obsessed with Izakaya myself, so I guess I’m part of the problem.
    I think that the dining scene has improved significantly in the last 10 years. A few more could bring out some more interesting flavors. I think a town like Portland has a huge range of style and that has only helped the scene, and it’s true that we tend to go a bit to the sweet Japanese side. I love it too.
    But why, oh why, would you want to work at Roy’s if you’re interested in building your own experience/cuisine? Roy’s is great, don’t get me wrong, but if he wants to be bolder, then you can’t pick a place with a menu that everyone already knows.

    • ck

      The local dining since has progressed in the past 10 years? I must have been in SF and NYC way too long because I don’t see much change at all. Macaroni Grill is bestowed as the best italian in town and steak ala’e is on the menu of the best restaurant last year. Change? I don’t think so. While Portland is a great, up and coming food town, it got that spark from chefs who trained in the big cities and went back home or simply went to portland because it is a lot cheaper to open a restaurant.

      Why Roy’s? Well to put it simply, roy is my mentor and has been since I was 17 years old. his network of chefs is second to none and his experience is something I would love to gain in my career.

      The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, SF
      2 years, 4- star review, 1 Michelin Star, Top 40 restaurant in the country- gayot

      Per Se
      2 years, 3 michelin Stars, #6 restaurant in the world

      Food and Wine Magazine, Best Student Chef 2004, Aspen

      I would definitely say I have been bold in my career and worked at places that many cooks can’t get in to or are simply afraid to work at. So this leads me back to Roy’s. Roy allowed me to create anything I wanted. If such a savvy diner as yourself ever ventured into Roy’s waikiki, you would have noticed that half the menu was unlike anything you would see in hawaii. Also the weekly tasting menu’s brought many chefs and industry people into the restaurant. You may have missed the boat.

      Within the past 2 years the cuisine has started to progress with town, v-lounge , etc. Young , passionate people who care about what they do. Mark noguchi, lindsey ozawa, alejandro briceno, chris sy, ed kenney, dave caldiero…..

      I hope for the sake of the progression of hawaii regional cuisine that you sample the talents of these amazing chefs. If not, I won’t see you at shokudo or macaroni grill. Good eating!

      • Shoot. I should not be dissing Roy, and I’m not. I like him and I like what he’s done for Hawaii. I haven’t been to Roy’s Waikiki– only Koolina and Roy’s Kauai and the menus were so similar I was disappointed.. But I didn’t know that about Waikiki so I will go check it out. Thanks for that tip.
        I’m sorry for offending. I wasn’t questioning your credentials but the article did make it sound like there was nothing here– but you yourself are mentioning the places that I like too. That’s why I was saying that there is good food here. I can see you see that too, so I was confused by the implication that there was no movement recently.
        I myself get super irritated about Hawaii constantly voting ridiculous chain restaurants as “people’s choice” and “best”. I’ve never been to Macaroni Grill and don’t intend to. Promise. I did go to Shokudo once. I didn’t hate it, but I haven’t been back.

  6. ph

    In the spirit of full-disclosure, I’ve been friends with Chris since 7th grade and I find it a bit disappointing that he would find himself in a position to defend himself on his credentials. Again, in fairness, I know where he comes from, where he’s been and I am aware of the level he aspires to reach so I guess I could have read this completely differently than someone that doesn’t know him as well. Thing is, if you taste his food and listen to his inspiration for each dish you can, with all your senses, come close to that same understanding of where he’s come from and where he’s been and what he aspires to be. I just happen to be lucky enough to have shared some fraction of those experiences with him along the way.

    As someone that is a complete industry outsider, but loves to dine out and loves to travel I’ve come to find that some things hold true no matter where you are in the world and where you are sitting for your meal. There is no place in the world to go for absolutely everything. What would be the fun in that anyway? There will always be some place to go to find something different and experience something new. With absolutely no disrespect intended to anyone who currently works in or runs a local restaurant for a living, I just wouldn’t classify the local food scene as a destination for something different and something new. Yet. I think that day is coming and I think we can be happy, for now, that the need for change has been recognized and that there are people with the ability to change things that want to change things.

  7. Thanks for getting us talking about this! I have to agree with Martha about the media (us!) hyping every new restaurant that opens. That has a lot to do with the quick turnaround expected because of the ‘net, social media, word-of-mouth. Gone are those days when restaurant critics would wait three months after a restaurant opened before writing a review! Now we write reviews on or even before opening day! It’s crazy!

    • Eatizen Jane

      Cat: What is it about the media climate here that has the few outlets covering food elbowing each other to review a place first? I feel like larger cities with bigger good-food-oriented audiences do still allow new eateries to get their footing before doing a proper review, while doing a shorter, newsier announcement about the actual opening. I agree, it is crazy, how competitive we all are to “break” the “news” about a restaurant opening.

      PH: Thanks for sharing your honest opinion. I agree with you.

      PS: I’m watching Top Chef Masters 3—anyone else? Did you notice Naomi Pomeroy got booted out for her “Hawaiian plate”—poke, fried rice and pork. “These things don’t go together,” simped one of the judges. Well, she’s never been to an O‘ahu potluck—at least there wasn’t any of auntie’s spesho Jell-O dessert on top!

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