This past weekend, your L.A. Food Examiner was privileged to attend the 2nd annual Food & Wine Festival Palm Desert. The festival, produced by Palm Springs Life and held in conjunction with Fashion Week El Paseo, benefits the Friends of the James Beard Foundation andThe Culinary Institute of America’s Endowed Scholarship. More than 100 wines from 50 premium wineries were available to sample, along with the scrumptious offerings of many renowned chefs, including James Beard Award winners, Paul Bertolli, Bradley Ogden, Jimmy Schmidt and Roy Yamaguchi.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking with Roy Yamaguchi, ground breaking chef and pioneer of contemporary Hawaiian cuisine, and a leader in the movement of Hawaiian regional chefs to bring locally raised products into Hawaii’s restaurant kitchens. Yamaguchi now heads Roy’s Restaurants, a multinational chain of restaurants.
Yamaguchi has close ties to Los Angeles, as he was part of a group of young, rising star chefs (including Nancy Silverton, Mark Peel and Jonathan Waxman), who were nurtured by famed restaurateur Jean Bertranou at L’Hermitage in the late 1970s.
L.A. Food Examiner: What’s your favorite Hawaiian comfort food -- you know, when you’re just hanging out?
Roy Yamaguchi: Fried Chicken, Macaroni Salad, Chicken Katsu, with a scoop of rice. I like chicken a lot, and I go to some of my favorite Okinawan restaurants.
L.A. Food Examiner: You started cooking when you were very young. You went to the CIA right out of high school. Did you ever imagine you’d have a multinational restaurant empire at that point?
Roy Yamaguchi: No, not at all. My objective was to go to school and learn how to cook, to be a chef at the most, so this is quite rewarding.
L.A. Food Examiner: Do you still get in the kitchen and cook?
Roy Yamaguchi: Oh yeah. I still cook a lot. I’m cooking here in a little while.
L.A. Food Examiner: Now everyone is a “locavore,” and we eat seasonally, but you really pioneered that.
Roy Yamaguchi: I was very fortunate, when I was in Los Angeles, back in 1979 (I’m dating myself). In 1979, I worked with a very, very passionate chef, Jean Bertranou (along with Michel Blanchet). Jean Bertranou was the owner of L’Hermitage, Michel Blanchet was the chef. Jean Bertranou was very into raising his own products. He was into raising his ducks for foie gras -- he raised them in Oxnard. He was into local produce, because he was from France, and as you know in France they take great pride in everything that they serve in their restaurants. So he was crazy when it came to, he was very devoted to making sure his vegetables were the type they served in France. Back then haricots vertes were very scarce, and he was the one who wanted people to grow haricots vertes. He used to do all of that, so naturally, that influence of really being local and utilizing local products started for me back in 1979, 1980. Then when I moved to Hawaii, we started the Hawaiian regional chefs movement to get farmers to grow stuff for us.
L.A. Food Examiner: Was anyone doing it then in Hawaii?
Roy Yamaguchi: Back then, no. Nobody was doing it. So we were the first ones who came out together, as a team, in Hawaii, and said, look, we need people to grow great stuff for us.
L.A. Food Examiner: You’ve created, for lack of a better word a “fusion cuisine,” and do you ever feel any tension between preserving a traditional cuisine and what you’ve done?
Roy Yamaguchi: Oh yeah, you know, I am a traditionalist to start, so that’s extremely important. I think everyone has to understand that everything in the United States is pretty much fusion. There’s an influx of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds that have come to America to create their homes, so anything after that is fusion. Now if you go into different countries, whether it be in Europe and or in Asia, especially in Asia, where you take countries that are isolated, which have their own cuisine, to me, you have to respect their tradition and their culture, because their cuisine is actually woven into the fabric of their culture. If you understand the culture, and you understand the cuisine, which is extremely important, then I think once you’ve identified and learned their culture and their cuisine, you can begin to start to formulate, and do your own fusion. So to me to respect and to nurture and to really understand those countries is by far the most important thing.
L.A. Food Examiner: I’m from New Orleans, and I always feel that tension, you know. There were some things that were just unheard of when I was a child, that you just wouldn’t do to a gumbo, and now I see them all the time.
Roy Yamaguchi: Well, you know, that’s just the way it is. As long as you understand, to me, as long as someone understands and values tradition, then fusion is not a problem.
L.A. Food Examiner: So what are going to cook for us here today?
Roy Yamaguchi: I’m going to be demonstrating a Pork Belly Sous Vide. It’s served with Swiss chard and potato which is called Blitva in Croatian, in a ravioli, so it’s actually a Croatian fusion dish.
L.A. Food Examiner: So you’ve traveled far and wide for your ideas?
Roy Yamaguchi: Yeah, well I’ve visited Croatia. My kids are half Croatian, because I was married to a Croatian gal, and my in-laws are Croatian.
L.A. Food Examiner: What do you see for the future?
Roy Yamaguchi: You know, I’m going to continue to do what I do today, Just making sure that our restaurants are all running smoothly, and we’re taking care of our guests. Other than that, whatever happens, happens.
L.A. Food Examiner: You’ve been lucky that way in your life!
Roy Yamaguchi: Yeah, I’ve been very, very lucky. And you know what, I’m getting older, and as you get older, you try to, I guess, cherish what you have, and that’s life itself.