Interview: Hawaiian chef Sam Choy

Chef Hawaii

Sam Choy is a bigger than life North Shore native who was first inspired by his family’s home cooking. At the time of our talk, he had one restaurant on Hawaii’s Big Island, Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai, and he mentioned mainland expansion, which just started with the L.A. arrival of Sam Choy’s Pineapple Express food truck. On April 14 at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, Choy shared insights that hint at how he’s cultivated culinary success.

Was it a given that you’d become a chef for a living, or did you consider other careers?

I would seriously and honestly do it all over again, for many reasons. My mom and dad kind of exposed us to great food from way back when. We grew a lot of our stuff. We raised a lot of stuff that we ate, and on the weekends they had a lot of big family gatherings, or gatherings with friends, and I always was fascinated by watching the people sit at the dinner table. All of a sudden, the volume of the conversation goes to zero, and everybody would be smacking their lips, or looking at each other in the eyes. “Wow, what is this?” That’s what hooked me from way back when. I was very lucky.

So the first dish you ever remember cooking?

Well, I kind of wanted to do SPAM and scrambled eggs. I made a SPAM omelet, but burnt the eggs. When I smell that burnt egg smell, I go nuts, because that reminds me of when I was five or seven years old.

What’s your favorite part of owning restaurants?

I think my favorite part is just watching people walk out of there and go like, “Wow. That was an experience. That was a dining experience.” A lot of times today, chemistry doesn’t really support their vision, so when you walk out of a restaurant, they go, “Well, a lot of hoopla, but a lot of smoke, no fire.” What I like to make sure happens as an owner, is make sure we offer the smoke and the fire.

And your top selling dish?

My top selling dish is our Island Sampler, which is three different local fishes, for dinner. And for lunch, we have a Papa beef stew omelet, and it just sells like wildfire. I think the reason for those, for one, you’re going to have three different great fishes from the island on one plate. We have a nice portion of those three items, and you kind of have a taste of what’s in the islands when you get those fish. They’re unique. And the Papa beef stew, it kind of lets people realize, “Sam Choy, he’s a regular guy.” It’s island heritage comfort food, so when they eat that, they go, “Wow, it warms my heart. It warms my soul.” It’s very tasty, and has a lot of history behind it. My dad taught me how to do that way back when. That’s what gives people that feeling of, “Wow, that’s incredible.”

Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?

Look at me. No, I enjoy and have had pretty much anything known to mankind, or humankind.

What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was it?

When I was young, I got hired by a hotel chain. I was hired as a cook’s helper. What happened was, they made me a dishwasher. That was my first job. At first I was very upset because I was cooking already. I was chopping and dicing and stir-frying, not knowing what I know today, but I was cooking at that age, very young. And when I was told that I’d be a pot washer, my heart kind of sank, but in talking to my mom, she said, “You know what, maybe you might need that in your profession one day.” That 10 minutes or her and I talking, is probably the reason why you’re interviewing me now. It’s been a real blessing and built my foundation in life. It allowed me not to be a runner. I hunkered down. I wanted to become the best pot washer after that. And I think in life, a lot of young chefs, I don’t think they had that humbling experience yet. They may be really talented on the plates and things, but you need in life a little humbling experience. You need a humbling experience. That was my first job, for almost two years.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?

I look for attitude because I believe that is the most important tool that a person can have, is the willingness to be part of your team and your dream and your vision. And the other thing I look for is a light side in their heart where they want to have fun, because I think those two chemistry things are very, very important. The attitude and kind of like a lighter side of life. I can crack a joke every now and then, because everything else will be work. That we can’t run and hide from. The work will be there. I’m not too concerned about that. I’m more concerned about having a little balance, with the laughter, but more importantly, have the right attitude, to really hunker down when need be.

Do you see signature dishes as a positive?

Signature dishes are very much a great positive for your business, because when you really think about it, look at KFC. They have the one Kentucky Fried Chicken. They built an empire. McDonald’s, same thing with their hamburger. When you look at restaurants, and you have a signature dish, it’s so important because it allows your guest to come there and tell their friends. And they come there and tell their friends. So it’s like a networking of food. That’s what that does.

What kind of music do you enjoy listening to while cooking, if any?

I love music. I’ve always got music on. I like everything from soft island music to Jack Johnson, to Train, to everything that has a nice beat, a nice rhythm. I like music where you can understand the lyrics. I love that. I love Country and Western. I’ve got a mixed bag of music in my music collection.

Address: 78-6831 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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