Interview: chef Charles Charbonneau (Hilton Waikoloa Village)

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Chef Hawaii

Charles Charbonneau has a lot to keep track of as executive chef of the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a sprawling 62-acre property that offers resort goers a number of eating options on the west shore of Hawaii’s Big Island. He was a founding team member of the Ritz-Carlton and worked as an executive chef for the company in Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco. Charbonneau last cooked at Sawgrass before relocating to Hawaii. On September 26, we met at Kamuela Provision Company, the Hilton Waikoloa Village’s signature restaurant, which fronts the water, and if you time it right, As we witnessed the beginnings of a tropical sunset, he shed light on his background and balancing act.

What differentiates Kamuela Provision Company from others on the property?

This is more of our signature restaurant. It’s open for dinner only, it focuses on local food products on the island. The rest of the resort, we definitely have a local slant to it, being in Hawaii, but we also have to cater to what people want to eat during the day, cause you can’t necessarily get all your products from Hawaii. We just don’t have that kind of diversity yet.

What’s the biggest challenge about operating restaurants on Hawaii?

Probably the shipping, because we do have to buy products from the mainland, and shipping is your biggest challenge because of the distance and it being an outer island, your products get handled more than they do on Oahu because they centralize your shipping in Oahu, and break it into smaller vessels on the outer islands. It can take an extra day or so to do that.

What was the last dish that you created for Kamuela Provision Company, and what was your inspiration?

A couple of them. I would say one of my fun dishes was the sweet potato gnocchi, using Molokai or Okinawan sweet potato, and also the traditional yam, which is orange, so you have the contrasting colors of blue or purple and orange yam. That particular dish is a dish I did in one of my private restaurants on the mainland, using Italian bacon, lemon and sage as the ingredients, similar to saltimbocca, and working that in with the pasta. It’s taken off, not as one of our higher moving dishes, but certainly one that’s become a signature for us out here.

Is there a dish that you can’t imagine taking off the menu?

The ginger steamed monchong. We created that about two years ago, and it’s our #1 selling item. I don’t think we could ever take it off.

Why do you think it’s your #1 selling item?

Local. The flavor’s fantastic. It marries a little Japanese flavor with a local fish.

How often does the menu change, and what does it depend upon?

It changes as often as we want to change there. Right now we’re sitting here at about three times a year that we physically change the menu, but if things don’t move, we’ll move it on, and things like monchong, I can’t imagine ever taking that off.

At what point did you know you’d be a professional chef?

The industry found me. I don’t know if I necessarily found it. I grew up with parents who were great cooks, fell in love with food early on and got a job when I was in high school and knew pretty much from then on that this is what I wanted to do. This is long before the Food Network was ever envisioned.

What was the first dish that you ever remember cooking?

Breakfast was definitely a strong point. I’ll tell a quick story. My brother was the first person who was my first customer, who’s about five years older than me, and wasn’t as industrious in the summertime. I was up early and I would fix breakfast and clean the dishes up. He got up later and wanted breakfast, so I started charging for it, either monetarily or through his bicycle. He had at that time a brand new 10-speed bike. He was my first customer.

My first dish that I can honestly say was my favorite was eggs Benedict. My dad taught me how to make that.

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

It was a place in Fort Dodge, Iowa. It’s where my dad settled after the service. It was steak place that I worked at, very, very busy, and got to understand volume real fast, because that was a place that did about 700 covers a night. It was an opening restaurant. It was pretty crazy. It chased me out.

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

Willingness, more so than experience, although experience is good. If you’re wiling to learn and have the ability to take constructive criticism, you have a pretty good shot of doing well. If you don’t, then you’re going to be a little more difficult hire.

If you could only cook with one more protein, what would it be, and how come?

Wow, that’s a tough one. Fish, because I love it and it’s a passion I have. What I like about that, you say one protein, I have an ocean full of different fish, so I can always find a different flavor of protein in there.

Do you enjoy fishing?

I do.

What was the last fish that you caught?

A 52-pound ono.

What did you end up doing with it?

A couple of things. I ended up making some sashimi and poke with it the first night because it was so fresh. After that, I just grilled it and also pan seared it. It was so much fish. Very simple, my preparations are using avocados, onions and tomatoes, making a relish or something, with good lime in there. I like that. Using some olive oil in there, maybe, to marinate it before putting it on the grill.

What would you say some hallmarks of your style are as a chef?

Simplicity. Getting great foods and letting it speak for themselves. Don’t overcomplicate your dish.

Who’s a person that you’ve never cooked with that you’d most like to cook with?

Gosh, that’s a tough one. I’ve cooked with a lot of people that I’ve really liked, including Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. Dead or alive, does it matter?

Well, it would be hard to cook with somebody who’s dead.

That’s true. That’s true. Gosh, that’s a tough one. You know, probably Mario Batali, because I think he’s the real deal. I think his food is so good and simple.

That’s good. What was the last meal you cooked at home?

Last night, just a simple roasted chicken. An organic chicken, lots of garlic, rosemary, roasted butternut squash, since I’ve got the oven on, roasted butternut squash, and roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

What’s the key to a great roast chicken?

High heat in the beginning to get a good oven sear on it, and then if you can, although I didn’t do it with this one, the best way to roast a chicken if you’ve got 24 hours is to give it a really good brine. You’ll get a lot more juiciness. Find clean sea water, that’s the best brine.

Note: Hilton Waikoloa Village hosted me for two nights as part of my recent Hawaiian tour.


Joshua Lurie

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

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