What does a dish have to be for you to serve it at this restaurant? What are the common threads?
This is a good question. A dish has to be ready. I discovered something a long time ago when I came to this country. I discovered the special of the day. When I go to a restaurant and I see special of the day, I stay away. I fly away. Why? Because #1, we never know if special of the day is all the leftovers they want to get rid of. I hope not, but it happens. If you want to get rid of it, it’s not going to be fresh anymore. Why do want me to eat it? Also, when I arrived at the Halekulani, the special of the day was the last craziness of my old sous chef. He wakes up in the morning and said I’m going to do a fish special. You arrive at the Halekulani and have fish with a raspberry coulis, and it’s terrible. When I arrived, I said, “Are you doing any specials?” They said, “Oh chef, I’m doing a special of the day every day.” I said, “Can you do a selection of 10? Because if you’re doing it every day, you’ve been here for two years, give me a selection of 10 and I’m going to put it on the menu. He didn’t find one, because everything he did, he was not very proud of.
He was not happy with it?
To have a dish ready takes about two weeks. Sometimes we do 20 times in the kitchen before we put it on the menu. How do you take something from an idea you have in the morning and to serve at night at be ready? Come on now. Nothing is ready. You have to find the right garnish. You have to find the right temperature of cooking. You have to find the right sauce. My god. So you know what I did? I have this idea at the Four Seasons, I almost got fired, no more specials of the day. No more chef’s specials. No more craziness. I removed it. And I tried to change the menu more often and have time to work on my recipe. You have to realize, I opened my first restaurant in ’78, La Presqu’ile in Cassis, still running. I basically did a seasonal menu since ’78. So I changed my menu and my recipe every season, and I never looked back.
Right now we are featuring the greatest hits menu…Can you imagine how many dishes I’ve done since ’78? The reason I never looked back is because every season, I have different interpretations. I have new techniques. The recipe isn’t important, what’s important is the technique, and of course sometimes the combination of flavors work very well. Every September, since everybody’s asking, “Where is the lobster with chorizo puff?” We decided every September, for three weeks, just before the full moon, to feature the most popular recipe. Onaga with salt crust, I did this recipe in ’90. So it’s 22 years ago, and people are still asking. When people ask, I’m happy to do it again, but I don’t want to see it on the menu. When I did the onaga with salt crust, I think it’s very fantastic. It’s a fish cooked inside a crust of salt – which is not very original, everybody’s doing that – I use sea salt mixed with eggs and flour and do a crust, so the crust looks like a fish, which is not something I like to do anymore. This was 22 years ago. The advantage is that the fish doesn’t bake, it steams inside the salt. You get a very interesting flavor because of the steam. After that, I serve the fish with a viergine sauce, which is just shallot, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, tomato, when the tomatoes are hot, they are ready. The tomatoes are fresh tomatoes. When they’re hot, I stop, so time of cooking is about six to eight minutes. After that, I incorporate ogo, which is seaweed, and herbs like tarragon, chive and chervil. The tarragon and the seaweed – I was lucky when I created this – the fish stays very moist in the crust, and I put this type of garnish on the top. It’s very modern, even though I did it 22 years ago, and people love it. I did thousands of them, so I didn’t want to do it anymore. I have all these recipes, so now, when people come in September, I still serve it. I’m happy. I’m not ashamed of this recipe. I think it was great. I did this recipe when I was at La Mer, and a gentleman came to the restaurant and he was doing Gourmet 10 best recipes of the year, and he chose this recipe as one of the 10 best recipes of the year. What is interesting is not what I did on the last menu, it’s the combination I want to find for the next one.
Is there anything that you don’t enjoy eating, and if you don’t enjoy it, does that mean it won’t be on the menu?
No. It’s impossible if I don’t like it…I like everything. Many years ago I decide I’m only going to eat what is delicious, and what is delicious can be a hot dog covered with a beautiful chili – I love chili dogs – I discovered them when I moved to this country and said, “Wow!” Still, when I have the opportunity, if I find a good chili or a good hot dog for lunch, I enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be lobster and caviar and foie gras. I eat only what is delicious.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?
Not too much experience, of course. It’s always nice to have young kids. I adore young people. I enjoy working with them. They give a lot. Most of the time, they don’t have a lot of experience, but sometimes they graduate from Culinary Institute of America or California Culinary Academy in San Francisco or KCC here in Hawaii, which is a very good school, and they have the basics. You can see in their eyes, like him [refers to cook], he doesn’t have the strongest experience, he’s totally crazy, and talking with him, “What do you do, what do you like?” I realize this is a guy, he has a heart, he’s from a very, very pour family on the island, Hawaiian, and he’s totally awesome. He started with me almost two years ago, and now he’s on the line. He started doing the appetizers, and now he’s on the line at the fish station. I have my kids in New York and San Francisco, all over the place.
Is there anybody that you’ve never cooked with before that you’d really like to cook with?
It might be a lot. I love Pierre Gagnaire. Ducasse is a very good friend. Who is the chef that killed himself, Bernard Loiseau? He lost a rating on Gayot. This was my friend. I worked with Ducasse, so I know what he’s doing. I never worked with Pierre Gagnaire, but we are the same generation. I used to have the same pastry chef as him, and my maitre ‘d was also his maitre ‘d, he came to Cassis to work with me. So I know what was going on in that kitchen. I never worked with him, and I know he’s a fantastic chef, a genius. So it’s true that it’s too late for me to work for somebody else, but I was lucky to work with Gerard Vie, to work with Troisgros, and some of the rest. I would be very happy if I were to start again and 20 years old, to work with Pierre Gagnaire. I’d love to work with some people doing craziness, some Spanish people in San Sebastian. Not everyone. There’s so much B.S. that sometimes I get confused, but some are very outstanding. It’s what I advise to all my cooks in the kitchen, “Go!” Mickey, my sous chef, Mickey’s my right hand in the kitchen, he’s Japanese, and I send him, not next week, but the week after, to a three Michelin star in France, to stage for three weeks in Marseilles, at Le Petit Nice. He’s my friend, and I send him. I want him to open his eyes and to see the world. This is what my job is, for sure, to continue.