Issue 11.5: October/November 2008

Vive le Roy!

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.

It might come as a surprise that a chef so intimately connected to the Islands isn’t actually from Hawai‘i.

“I actually grew up in Japan and have been coming [to Hawai‘i] since the age of 5, visiting grandparents and aunts and uncles,” explains the 52-year-old Yamaguchi, chuckling as though he’s fielded this question many times before. We spoke on an unseasonably warm So-Cal afternoon; the peripatetic chef was in San Diego to lead a conference for the chefs at the helm of his thirty-five restaurants. Though Yamaguchi wasn’t born here, Hawai‘i is in his blood. The son of a Japanese-American father from Hawai‘i and an Okinawan mother, the affable chef spent the summers of his childhood on Maui. His grandfather ran the Yamaguchi General Store in Wailuku and owned a local restaurant. “He had fresh fish and grocery—that kind of stuff. In the summer, I used to help in the market and stock the shelves with canned goods. I’d spend time with Grandfather and got to know the farms and markets with my dad on Maui. We’d go to O‘ahu and spend time at Tamashiro. … You’d see that picture of a crab on the outside of the building,” he says of the storied fish market, “and you’d just know you would be able to get great fish.”

The varied and multicultural cuisine of Hawai‘i made an impression on the young Roy. Whether during the summers in Hawai‘i or back on the Army base in Japan, Yamaguchi’s father served home-cooked meals that eventually formed he multicultural backbone for Roy’s Pacific Rim fusion style. “There’s no true ‘Hawaiian’ cuisine,” he says. “What makes Hawaiian food Hawaiian? The people—the Filipino, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Polynesian. All these people who have a garage party and cook from their different cultures and end up around the table. My dad cooked the memories of his childhood and simply passed them down to us.”

Those memories: Beef hot pots. Slow-braised pork with miso and daikon. Fish cooked in soy and sugar, and green beans with eggs and miso. His mother jazzed
up miso-based dishes with Okinawan touches such as purple sweet potatoes and abura-age (fried tofu). “There was already plenty of fusion going on,” he says. “Dad would make a beef stew on a Friday night with lots of tomatoes. He’d make a huge pot for twenty people on a Friday, and whatever was left over, he would add curry paste and it would become Japanese curry on a Saturday.”
I inquire about a possible third iteration to round out the weekend. “Sunday? It would be gone by Sunday,” he winks


“The groundwork for the Hawaiian fusion started with school in the ’70s,” Yamaguchi says of his training at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park (known to foodies simply as the “CIA”). It was in New York, at this Harvard of cooking schools, that the budding chef learned technique; he studied sauces, the balance of a dish and the professionalism required to make food his livelihood.

Hungry for more, Yamaguchi staged his way through various fine-dining locales. In Southern California he landed a job at one of LA’s grande dame restaurants for haute cuisine, L’Ermitage, where for the next two and a half years, he worked closely with the late Jean Bertranou. Speaking fondly of his mentor, Roy describes how his vision as a chef emerged during those years of toiling after perfection. “Everything I learned at school came into play. I had two great chefs [Bertranou and his sous-chef, Michel Blanchet]—they set me straight, and I could see what great chefs were like. These are chefs fighting to get the food out in a timely manner, to take care of their guests, to create new dishes, make the sauces, deal with the service and the staff all in an evening. Everything sort of clicked. I realized what I really wanted to do.”

But Yamaguchi wasn’t satisfied to make sauces in the same way as everyone else, especially during the nouvelle cuisine craze of the late 1970s. In the formative years following, diners and critics took notice of his seemingly wild ways at Le Serene and Le Gourmet, not to mention the venerable Michael’s (arguably the birthplace of “California Cuisine” and culinary playground to the stars). By 1984, then helming his own LA restaurant, 385 North, Yamaguchi continued to experiment, adding Japanese ingredients to the French sauces he’d learned at CIA and L’Ermitage. A peek into any of the chef’s four cookbooks reveals a culinary arsenal that looks less like a lu‘au and more like Escoffier gone East: green tea risotto. Red wine-crab sauce. Wasabi-ginger-butter. Sure, there are pineapple-mango jams and citrus-soy vinaigrettes, but one cannot help but notice the traditionally European ingredients in Yamaguchi’s pantry: cream, butter, demi-glace.

He didn’t set out to become the shock jock of the culinary world; Roy just cooked what he knew. “The first dish I made was with oysters and sea urchin. I stuffed it in a Napa cabbage and then steamed it. I served it with a cream sauce made with wakame (seaweed). Then I made a dish where I got scallops and sea urchin and made a French-style mousse. I served that with red wine-butter sauce. That’s how it started. … I wanted to create dishes for people to say, ‘That’s Roy Yamaguchi’s food.’”

In 1987 a cousin called with news of a vacant restaurant space in Hawai‘i Kai. Yamaguchi jumped at the chance to bring his new fusion style home. He took a leap of faith and opened the first Roy’s in 1988.

Opening a high-concept restaurant in the late ’80s, when fine dining was synonymous with haute cuisine, was both risky and rare. From the starched tablecloths and buttoned-up chefs in equally stiff toques and whites, gourmet food was decidedly French and downright solemn. In Hawai‘i this was painfully apparent to up-and-coming chefs like Yamaguchi. “All the local restaurants were dark, with those classic European high-back chairs. And quiet,” he says. To put things in perspective, food writer Janice Wald Henderson’s seminal cookbook on new Hawaiian cuisine informed visitors that they had a “choice of dining in pricey restaurants on frozen, shipped-in, picked-before-it’s-ripe food, or in tourist establishments that distorted traditional Hawaiian cooking for Western tastes.”

Roy’s caused a stir not only for its use of local ingredients and multicultural dishes, but also for its setting. Yamaguchi aimed to create something convivial—and something outside of a hotel. “We opened things up with an exhibition kitchen, airy, pastel colors and a young staff who were knowledgeable but not stuffy.” In a sense, Roy’s did for Hawai‘i what Wolfgang Puck’s Spago did for Hollywood in the early ’80s: It created opportunities for chefs to be creative. The establishment took notice in a first for a Hawai‘i-based chef, bestowing 1993’s James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific Northwest to Yamaguchi.

Eleven other talented pioneers were simultaneously rising through the ranks of “Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine.” Now-household names Sam Choy, Roger Dikon, Mark Ellman, Amy Ferguson Ota, Beverly Gannon, Jean-Marie Josselin, George Mavrothalassitis, Peter Merriman, Philippe Padovani, Gary Strehl and Alan Wong led the movement with local
ingredients and independent flair. The group continues to work together to promote Hawaiian cuisine both at home and abroad. Even with Hawai‘i as his home base, Yamaguchi spends much of his time flying to celebrity chef dinners, food festivals, gourmet cruises and openings for his family of restaurants in the Islands, the Mainland and Japan. As diverse as the locations are, the Roy’s experience is roughly the same in Honolulu as on the East Coast—down to the wild-caught or aqua-cultured seafood FedExed from Hawai‘i.

At the end of each culinary whirlwind tour abroad, though, he’s back on O‘ahu, waking up at 4:30 a.m., doing laundry by 5, BlackBerrying, playing drums, having cocktails, cleaning the house, taking his daughter to the beach and his son to the movies. And if anyone wants to know what’s for dinner, Yamaguchi is happiest when cooking plain noodles and chanko nabe for his kids. No wild sauces, no esoteric exotica. “I barbecue,” he says. “I use charcoal or kiawe (mesquite) wood and bonfire some chicken with salt and pepper.”

The chef pauses, remembering something tasty. “Well, I will do a spin on a special barbecue thing like my dad used to do with garlic, garlic salt, butter, rice wine vinegar …”

He rattles off a few more ingredients.

“Simple” for a fusion chef still involves a little fancy footwork. HH