Interview: Chef Roy Yamaguchi Discusses Hawaiian Cuisine, Remaining Accomplishments, Restaurant People and More

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Roy Yamaguchi appears in chef's whites alongside stewards of his Hawaiian homeland.

Roy Yamaguchi has become a leader in the Hawaiian regional cuisine movement in large part due to Roy’s Restaurants, which started in the Honolulu suburb of Hawaii Kai in 1988 and soon spread to the mainland and beyond. Before he created an empire, Yamaguchi lived in Los Angeles for 11 years, including three years at L’Ermitage and to open his first restaurant, at 385 North, on La Cienega Boulevard near the Beverly Center. We first met downtown, during his restaurant group’s 20th Anniversary and recently caught up on June 30, as Yamaguchi was in town to promote island cuisine with a passionate contingent from Hawaiian’s agricultural community. Before the showcase dinner started, he shared further insights about his vision and approach.

What do you feel like you still have to accomplish as a chef?

For me, there’s a lot of things to accomplish because to me, food is a living entity. It never ends. It never dies. It’s always ever living, so what we need to do is continually come up with creative things we can do, different techniques, to really work with the land, because to me, you have to be creative, and you have to think forwardly to really be able to work with a lot of the things that are happening on this earth today. The fundamentals are always the same, great products, sustainability, and certain creative habits that we have, but other than that, we always have to challenge ourselves to continually come up with better dishes, better techniques or better ways to do things.

What do you think a couple misconceptions are about Hawaiian cuisine?

Everybody thinks about Hawaii as a luau, SPAM, poi, which is all great stuff, but in the last 20 years, we’ve really made a lot of progress in really defining what we can do with products that come from the land. And the great things we can do is that we’re able to work with great farmers and great ranchers. In the last 20 years or so, we’ve really had a lot of success with a lot of our ranchers and farmers really stepping up and growing things and raising them. They’ve done a great job.

Do you feel like there was a turning point in the movement?

You know, I wouldn’t say there was one thing, but 20 years ago, we created what was called the Hawaii Regional Cuisine. It really wasn’t a cuisine, but it was more of a movement, where we aligned chefs with farmers and said that whatever you grow, we’ll buy. Take a leap of faith. At the same time, it was more about buying local and really working with our community and seeing what we could do to get rid of all the imports and really be more sustainable. A lot of progress has been made with the help of just everybody just being involved in the community.

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

I always say that in our industry, or just about any industry, it’s people driven. It’s people who really make a difference in what the outcome is, so even in our industry, food and beverage is what it’s known for, but it’s the people that are behind the food and beverage. It’s somebody who works the fields to make the wine, or it’s the winemaker, but at the same time it’s the cooks, it’s the chefs, it’s all the people that work in the kitchen who produce the great food. My whole thing is about working with people and making sure the people have the education and the foundation in what we do.

The motto of my website is Food Drinks People.

Oh really?

What do you look for in a restaurant experience?

The restaurant experience, to me, depending on what side of the coin you’re on, to me, as a restaurateur, chef, whatever you want to call it, we want to make sure there are people coming through the back door, meaning we want to make sure there are people who are really interested in wanting to be a part of our team, wanting to work at Roy’s. At the same time we want to produce great food for the public, so hopefully we can have a line out the front door, so people want to come in. That’s our angle, and to accomplish both of these tasks, it’s all about taking care. Taking care is our staple, it’s our community, it’s our people. We want to make sure we do our best to get that loyal service, and to really touch each and every individual one by one.

This is kind of a fun one. If you could only cook with one more animal, what would it be and why?

To cook with one more animal? It’s really interesting. I’m not really sure there’s one more animal that I would cook with, but I would say – I would answer that in two folds – one fold is that – just put poultry into “animal.” To me, chicken is my favorite meat item to eat because it’s just a great product. Chicken, mostly is bland. To eat a great chicken to me is fulfilling. To me, people should have, or at least be able to once in their life, taste like what chicken should really taste like. 99% of the chicken that people eat on this earth today are not really tasty. A great chicken has a lot of flavor. The skin can be really crispy. There’s a lot of depth to it.

Other than that, when it comes to meat, beef and everything, don’t get me wrong, all of these things are great, but to me, vegetables have a lot of sex appeal. Vegetables are, to me, the meat of our universe, and to me, to be able to eat vegetables, you get a lot of succulent flavors. It’s something that you can chew on and extract out of every fiber, because it breaks down in your mouth. When it comes to meat, any type of mammal, what happens is, you chew and you’re extracting moisture and flavor out of these cells. It takes a lot of effort, and a lot of these tissues that you break down are not really broken down, and you swallow it. At the end of the day, you start chewing, and you can end up with a product in your mouth that could be for a layman’s term, more of a glob. Whereas, with vegetables, when you eat them, they end up melting in your mouth and they become a very, very silky. It’s a very, very sensual way of eating. I would say that I would look more into vegetables rather than another piece of animal.

Where do you like to drink and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

It really depends, but I’m more of a shochu guy. I really like the aspect of what rice or barley or mung bean or sweet potatoes can do. I enjoy the art of sake to shochu, which are more Japanese oriented when it comes to beverage.

What’s the longest you’ve ever waited to sit down for a restaurant meal, and was it worth the wait?

To me, it’s always worth waiting for a great meal. I hate to wait in a movie line, but to wait for a table is not bad. The longest wait I might have had was about two and a half hours, many, many, many years ago, I actually waited for a table at a steakhouse in Dallas. I can’t remember the name, but I waited about two and a half hours for the table, and when I ate, the steak it was great.


Joshua Lurie

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

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