With his eponymous chain of Pacific Rim restaurants, Roy Yamaguchi did what nobody else had done: He went from making ripples in the tiny pond of Hawaiian restaurants to making giant waves across the nation. It was 1988 and the country, still swamped in stuffy, dark restaurants pushing "continental cuisine," was ready for Roy's vision of light, airy spaces trafficking in East-West fusion fare that rely on seasonal produce and fresh fish from Pacific waters.
I sat down last week with Yamaguchi at Tampa's Roy's during a special wine dinner to discuss where Pacific Rim food came from and where this dynamic celebrity chef is headed next.
Anyone who has been to a Roy's swoons about a couple of dishes: the miso butterfish and the molten chocolate souffle. Is it ever constricting to be known for specific dishes?
That chocolate souffle is what made Roy's what it is today. I like that I have signature dishes.
It's a dish that these days gets copied all over the place, but what was the dining scene like in Hawaii 25 years ago when you started?
When I started as part of a new group of regional chefs, I began working with farmers. At that time, restaurants were importing Dover sole from England, salmon from Norway. I said, "That's great, but we should be using local products." Hawaiian farmers were growing some Asian vegetables, but I said, "Why not try micro-lettuces, baby zucchinis and better tomatoes? We'll work with you."
How did you take your vision and bring it to the mainland?
When you're on an island far away, unless you do something drastic, you don't get on the national news. We were fortunate that a lot of food writers would come to Hawaii and write national stories. Before we opened Roy's in 1988, I had been partner in 385 North in Los Angeles, and Bon Appétit did a 13-page article on us, with one of our dishes on the cover. At the end of the article it said, "Roy will be opening his own restaurant in Hawaii by the end of the year." Up until then, upscale Hawaiian cooking was more traditional continental cuisine.
What did being the first Hawaiian chef to receive a James Beard award mean to you?
People who know about such things recognize you as a very good chef. It gives you a stamp of approval.
You still own the Roy's locations in Hawaii, but Bloomin' Brands owns those on the mainland. Is that difficult, because it's your name up on the sign?
When someone is eating our food, I want them to know there's an individual behind it. A lot of the chefs at different Roy's were with me before I sold and they're loyal to the way I want things. We created a culture. Our brand is recognizable so that when people travel, they are assured. In their mind they're not gambling.
I've always thought of the Roy's chain as the thinking person's expense-account restaurant.
(Laughs) I like to think where we win is with female guests, with our seafood offerings and seasonal produce. Women often have veto power with restaurants.
How do you spend your time these days?
About half the time I do nonprofit work. I'm on the board of trustees for the Culinary Institute of America (where he attended culinary school), as well as on the board of Brand USA, which markets the U.S. to other countries. I'm also on the board of the U.S.-Japan Council, a nonprofit educational organization that strengthens U.S.-Japan relations.
And I'm opening a new concept called Eating House 1849 on Kauai at the end of the year. The first restaurant in Hawaii was called Eating House and opened in that year. Hawaii is made of different ethnicities, so with this restaurant I'm imagining what food at that time would have been like.
But with better ingredients, I'm sure. When you visit Tampa, where do you like to eat?
I had food from La Teresita for lunch today. And I really enjoyed going to Restaurant B.T. And then really late, after we're done for the night at Roy's, we head over to ABC Seafood in St. Pete. I've been there a couple of times and really liked it.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.