story by Alison Clare Steingold
photos by Dana Edmunds
It’s difficult to remember, but once upon a time, American dining didn’t have trendy Asian-Latino-Moroccan fusion fare. Gourmet pizza was experimental. Goat cheese was a novelty (even to sophisticated palates), and if one can recall a world existing before the Food Network, its contemporary cadre of celebrity chefs were, back in 1988, but a glimmer in Julia Child’s eye. So when chef Roy Yamaguchi plated his first macadamia nut-crusted mahimahi two decades ago, you can bet eyebrows were raised in Hawai‘i Kai.
Local-caught mahimahi had long been a staple on Hawai‘i menus—about as common as macaroni salad. But crusting that old standby was a departure that took it far beyond plate lunch territory. Roy didn’t stop there; in a step requiring the patience and technique of the finest Michelin-starred saucier, he served it with a lobster cognac sauce made velvety by slow-simmering crustacean parts with lots and lots of butter.
As one of the twelve founding chefs of the now-distinctive Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, Yamaguchi has spent the past two decades blazing his panko-crumb trail to points near and far, with Roy’s thirty-five locations now bringing Island-style fusion from a remote corner of the Pacific to the world’s culinary stage. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of Roy’s first restaurant in Hawai‘i Kai, and it’s the latest chapter in the story of how a cook named Roy found his way from his father’s dinner table to become a culinary star—one so bright, his last name is optional.