Food & Wine: Chef Roy Yamaguchi
Courtesy of Roy Yamaguchi

Roy Yamaguchi

F&W Star Chef

Restaurants: Roy’s (multiple US locations; Japan; Guam)

Experience: Le Serene, L’Ermitage, 385 North (Los Angeles); Michael’s (Santa Monica, CA)

Education: Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY)

Celebrity chef and TV personality Roy Yamaguchi’s first restaurant was 385 North, in Los Angeles, and now he’s at Roy’s in Honolulu (and nationwide). He studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He tells F&W why everyone should learn how to make homemade teriyaki sauce, how new chefs are changing the face of Hawaii’s food scene, and how he's always, always, always wanted to own a 10-seat restaurant.

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned?
I was fortunate to learn from a lot of different people. I built my foundation at the CIA. But at one of my first jobs, at L’Ermitage under Jean Bertranou and Michel Blanchet, I really fell in love with sauces. I loved the day-to-day process, and the creativity: Using a sauce to enhance the flavors in a dish. That’s where I started drawing out a lot of my Asian background, with the sauce techniques I learned over at L’Ermitage.

What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
As a professional chef, one of the first dishes I ever made was a poached Napa cabbage wrap stuffed with sea urchin and oysters, with a beurre blanc–style sauce with white wine, cream, butter and seaweed.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
For neophyte home cooks, I’d suggest making teriyaki sauce from scratch. It’s good for everything. You can marinate chicken, fish, vegetables, meat, poultry. And it will keep forever in the refrigerator.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
There are so many great ones! Not to be biased, but I like the CIA’s Professional Chef cookbook. It’s one of the first cookbooks that I ever read in my life. I used it as a student at the CIA. It’s gone through a lot of revisions, but it’s always been a great book. It explains everything so clearly. I like to give it to my younger cooks.

What’s a dish that defines your cooking style?
I don’t think there’s one dish. It’s a combination of things. I like to arrange the components so that every bite can be different, depending on how a customer chooses to eat it. For example, I’ll put the sauce on the side, not on top so a person can enjoy the meat by itself or with the sauce.

Is there a dish from your long career that you’re particularly proud of, that best captures your approach?
We do keep some classics that have been on the menu for the past 25 years. Maybe the one that really showcases what I do is our misoyaki butterfish. It’s a traditional Japanese dish that I’ve played with to make my own. The wasabi-ginger butter sauce I’ve taken from the French, incorporating wasabi, ginger and green onions into a traditional beurre blanc. Then we add some Thai black rice, which incorporates another element of Asia, and buttered carrots, which is classic American cookery. The Hawaiian element is utilizing fresh fish from the island. It’s cross-cultural, which is true to me and to Hawaii. It showcases my background.

What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
The ability to taste. Some people know exactly how something should taste, either because they are extremely gifted, or they’ve traveled a lot and know about the different spices or herbs in a dish. But a lot of cooks just starting out don’t necessarily know how to pull a dish together. Sometimes they tell me they don’t like to try certain dishes because they don’t like them. I tell them that it’s important to try everything once. Whether you like it or not isn’t the point—the point is to at least try it, to understand how it’s supposed to taste.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’d love to know how to make good Indian food. I’ve never been really successful at making curries from scratch.

What are your talents besides cooking?
I enjoy playing drums, but unfortunately I never really get a chance. I have two drum sets set up at home, but I just don’t bang on ’em enough. I mostly like to play rock. One of my favorite drummers was John Bonham from Led Zeppelin. He was just insanely great.

Name a secret-weapon ingredient.
Shichimi togarashi. I use it on vegetables, meat, fish, everything.

What’s the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
We have Jim Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat Chardonnay at Roy’s. It’s just perfect, it has such great flavors. I liked it so much I had him make a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir for me when I got remarried a couple of years ago.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Just about anything and everything. Mostly Chinese food, like roast duck and roast chicken. I just did that yesterday. I guess the number one place I go for carryout is a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu called Duk-Kee. That’s where I got it yesterday.

What three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year, and why?

  1. Mugaritz—I just got back from Spain and I missed that restaurant, but have always wanted to go.
  2. Kyubey in Japan—it’s known to be one of the best sushi restaurants in Japan.
  3. And then I’ve always wanted to try the food in Prague. No restaurants in particular, but I’ve read so much about the city.

It seems that in Hawaii there’s a new generation of chefs following in your footsteps, helping push Hawaiian cuisine. Are there any you’re particularly excited about?
We’ve been very fortunate to have so many chefs coming on board in Hawaii making names for themselves. I can think of three immediately:

  1. Chris Kajioka, of Vintage Cave. He’s an exciting, talented chef. Of course, he worked with Thomas Keller and Ron Siegel, and he worked with us over at Roy’s. But he’s very creative.
  2. Ed Kenney, at Town. He also worked with us at Roy’s. He’s doing a lot of food with local ingredients.
  3. And the newcomer who isn’t really a newcomer, Mark Noguchi also went to the CIA like me, but came back to Hawaii. He used to be over on the eastern part of the island, at a place called Heeia Pier. Now he has a company called Pili and a place called Taste where chefs do pop-ups.

If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
I’ve always, always, always wanted to own a 10-seat restaurant, and have it like a sushi counter, and just make dishes in front of my guests. It’s been done—over and over. But I’ve never had the chance. I would serve everything I love to eat. I’d love that freedom to serve the foods that make me who I am. It’d be, for instance, a simple sushi for one course. It could be a squab appetizer, there could be a Korean pancake, there could be a Spanish tapa, a roast pork type of deal. Dessert could be anything from a fancy ganache to apple pie. So it wouldn’t just be one type of cuisine, but a combination all the things I enjoy eating. Maybe Mark would let me do a pop-up!

The Dish
Receive delicious recipes and smart wine advice 4x per week in this e-newsletter.
The Wine List Weekly pairing plus best bottles to buy.
F&W Daily One sensational dish served fresh every day.