Amid the eggs and produce, a brown ceramic teriyaki pot stood sentinel in Roy Yamaguchi’s refrigerator for more than 15 years. “My father would continue to dip his meat into it, but he would never wash the damn thing. He would just add more ginger, garlic, and green onions to it. It was like a sourdough starter,” reflects the Honolulu-based chef.
The pioneering Yamaguchi, who first introduced Pacific Rim cuisine at his namesake restaurant in 1988, credits his father for inspiring the upscale Roy’s empire, which started in Honolulu and now spans Texas, Guam, and Japan. “When I started Roy’s I turned to the flavors I experienced as a kid, just like that teriyaki sauce,” he says. “It was what my dad made at home that gave me the fundamentals for what I wanted to achieve. I was just cooking from my heart. I always enjoyed coming up with these different concoctions that brought together Asian and French elements, and our guests enjoyed eating them. I never thought this fusion was creating a movement.”
I was just cooking from my heart. I never thought this fusion was creating a movement.
Blackened island ahi with sesame soy mustard and filet mignon with a shiso Béarnaise sauce are among the distinctive dishes found at Roy’s, which elegantly meld Asian flavors with French techniques. This intriguing symbiosis, now commonplace on myriad post-Yamaguchi menus, clearly traces its roots to the pioneering, James Beard Award-winning chef’s childhood.
Reared on a Japanese army base—his father was a civil servant of the military—Yamaguchi spent much time visiting his grandfather on Maui and working at his tavern and grocery store. Encouraged by a home economics teacher smitten with Yamaguchi’s Thanksgiving Day dinner feast, “who said I should cook for a living because I wasn’t a studious kid,” he set out for New York and the Culinary Institute of America. That experience, coupled with his years at the “nouvelle cuisine restaurant” L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills, under the tutelage of Jean Bertranou and Michel Blanchet, gave Yamaguchi “a true understanding of French food, which changed my life. Those sauces I learned set the ground for how I cook today.”
Since the late 1980s, the dining landscape has undoubtedly changed considerably, and the word fusion often sends a ripple of skepticism among diners who deem such restaurants passé. But for Yamaguchi, who recently opened the Eating House 1849 in Kaua’i, proves that blending cuisines—in this case, haute spins on Hawaiian dishes of yore, like Portuguese shrimp turnovers and whole roasted snapper—remain just as relevant today. “There’s no right or wrong, only that you understand a country’s culture and traditions and always use good products,” he says. “The most important thing is that guests see me as an individual. I just want to be myself.”
Such an independent and authentic spirit has propelled a light, creative, and vibrant cuisine for nearly 30 years. From bowls of childhood ramen eaten on the sly to his own can’t-take-it-off-the-menu butterfish, here are 10 of the dishes that keep the visionary Yamaguchi enthralled.
I grew up eating at a Japanese military commissary, but I didn’t want cafeteria food, so I would often wander off base and go eat things like ramen with ground meat and onions. There was something about that combination of noodles with the soup and the flavor of miso that I always craved. That’s reflected in my cooking today. At one of our restaurants we make a noodle dish that’s similar to a Kung Pao ramen. (Photo: Cara Eisenpress)
As a kid, this Okinawan stir-fry was a go-to dish for our family. It has pork, eggs, and soy sauce, but it also uses bitter melon. Kids usually shy away from eating bitter things, but from the age of three or four it was part of my diet. It helped me become open-minded about different foods. (Photo: YouTube)
A lot of the time stews are just gravy with beef and carrots. My dad made his with a tomato base and braised the meat, so there were these large chunks in broth that was more like a soup than a traditional stew. The crazy thing about it is that he would make a huge pot of stew on a Friday, and then on Saturday he would turn the meat into a beef curry with a package of spices. When I got into cooking, that taught me to be versatile. I now make my own mother sauce that leads to different dishes. (Photo: Hawaiian Style)
Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs are something I ate all my life. I always want them. My father used to marinate them with vinegar, butter, garlic powder, and salt, and I know it’s what made me want to develop the wood-smoked, Szechuan-style ribs at Roy’s. (Photo courtesy Roy’s)
My parents didn’t have that much money, so we didn’t go out to eat often when I was growing up. When we did it was for Korean BBQ that we cooked on the table ourselves. My dad loved the innards, and so as a kid I learned to eat liver and tripe. They would bring out the pig intestines and chicken and beef hearts and we would just grill them and eat it all up. (Photo: On The Road Again)
A long time ago, when I asked Nobu to be a guest chef at our restaurant, he made his famous black cod dish with miso marinade. After I tasted it I realized I wanted to make my own version. That’s what inspired the butterfish, a staple on our menu. This preparation, with miso and sugar, has been around for hundreds of years in Japan, so I took that recipe and made it stand out at Roy’s with a sauce of bell peppers, garlic, and ginger, served with bok choy. (Photo: Facebook/Roy’s Restaurant)
I participated in an event about 12 years ago called Cuisine of the Sun. A chef from Thailand was invited and he made this curry dish I was intrigued by. He braised the pork in coconut milk, kaffir, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. I kind of do the same thing now with chicken, but afterwards I take the juices and turn it into a very strong red wine demi-glace served with lamb. (Photo: La Fuji Mama)
Lobster Cassoulet at L’Ermitage
I worked at L’Ermitage when Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, and the Troisgros brothers would come and cook for a week. I had a chance to work with these amazing chefs from France, and so one of the dishes I made that got me really interested in sauces was a lobster cassoulet with pearl onions and chanterelles. You would actually cook the lobster in its shell with shallots and garlic and then sweat it out with butter. When the lobster was cooked halfway you added sherry and cream and when it was almost done you reduced it. It was thick with flavor and then you added the sautéed mushrooms and pearl onions. There was no better source of knowledge for understanding how to cook stocks. (Photo: Foodspotting)
Truite au Bleu
At L’Ermitage, they kept all the rainbow trout in the fish tank, so if someone ordered truite au bleu, they would just take one directly from there. You would have to grab the fish and break its back and neck, and then poach it in a court-bouillon of vinegar and vegetables. It was deboned in the dining room. This dish showed me how important freshness is. When cooking the fish in the vinegar, your fingerprints showed up on its skin. You wouldn’t see that with one you bought ahead of time, only one right from the tank. (Photo: Picsora)
Nobu sizzles hot oil with sesame on kampachi or tuna, and adds garlic, ginger, and green onion, then serves it with soy sauce and yuzu. That contrast and acidity are revolutionary. Years and years ago, when he was my guest chef, he made it and I knew it was pretty cool stuff. (Photo courtesy Nobu)