How I'm Honoring Hawaii's Plantation Workers Through My Food
Roy Yamaguchi. Photos courtesy of Craig Bixel

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How I'm Honoring Hawaii's Plantation Workers Through My Food

I believe the future of what we do here in Hawaii will be great, because there are not too many places on Earth where you have farms, pristine oceans, and such a diverse base of cultures in such a small radius.

Hawaiian food, for me, has been a transformation.

Growing up in Hawaii, my father did most of the cooking and I incorporated a lot of these childhood flavors into what I eventually called Pacific Rim Cuisine. I opened the first Roy's in 1988, but before that, I had started to develop my own cooking style that used a lot of Asian techniques combined with the finesse of French cooking. It's now been 28 years, and more than 30 restaurants later, I'm very happy to say that my Hawaii-based cooking has continued to evolve.

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Humble Market Kitchin is a continuation of this journey that I started from the opening of the first Roy's. The concept is what I am calling "the eating house." It takes the flavors of all the ethnicities of people who worked in Hawaii during old plantation days—Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, Chinese, and Hawaiian—and applies a modern, industrial edge. This style is a tribute to my humble grandfather, who worked on plantations in the early 1900s to support his ten children.

I was born and raised in Japan, but I used to spend a lot of my summers in Hawaii. My dad cooked a lot for us growing up, and he always wanted everything as fresh as possible. I picked up my cooking habits from him.

"The Phoenix Roll"

The theory is that when all of these plantation workers of different backgrounds would sit down out in the fields for lunch, the flavors spread through everyone sharing food with each other. I would say this is essentially where the Hawaii-style "plate lunch" style of food got its start—you know, where you get two scoops of rice and a macaroni salad in the same plate? Maybe with some fried fish, or pork cutlet, or beef stew? Aside from a few indigenous ingredients like poi, almost every ingredient was brought over here by different people who had traveled from different nearby islands.

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About 30 years ago, there were about 11 chefs—including myself, Alan Wong, and Peter Merriman just to name a few—that started this movement called "The Hawaii Regional Cuisine Movement." What we wanted to do was work with our local farmers, because, when I was in LA working at L'ermitage in the late 70s, there was a great movement in Los Angeles where chefs were working with farmers and fresh produce and using really great ingredients. I thought, why couldn't I do the same in Hawaii?

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Rack of lamb with curry essense

Rack of lamb with curry essense

When I returned to Hawaii, we created that very same movement there. This was different than the way cuisine was being interpreted before I got here, when a lot of the chefs were European and they used mostly imported stuff. Menus would have dover sole from Europe, or Atlantic salmon, and not much tuna.

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Today, a lot more younger chefs have opened restaurants, and they're embracing what we started 30 years ago; using local products, working with farmers. Their own style of cooking is now interpreted into their menu. All this being said, to now define Hawaiian cuisine means creative chefs that work with a bounty of products that Hawaii has to offer: the fishermen, ranchers, and farmers; and with quality and freshness and sustainability in mind.

Humble Market Kitchin by Roy Yamaguchi - CHILI PEPPER CHICKEN WINGS - Cole Slaw - KochuBANG Glaze_pc Craig Bixel

Chili pepper chicken wings

I believe the future of what we do here in Hawaii will be great, because there are not too many places on Earth where you have farms, pristine oceans, and such a diverse base of cultures in such a small radius. We have a very, very special place where we really have our surroundings that take care of us. The land and the sea are right here, always right in front of our eyes, no matter where we go.

Humble Market Kitchin by Roy Yamaguchi -Misc Editorial_pc Craig Bixel-8

Szechuan-spiced baby back ribs

It feels great to focus on these traditional flavors of Hawaii once more with Humble Street Kitchin. It all came from those plantation days, modernized by my grandfather, my dad, and now myself. It's me envisioning flavors that represent how that style of eating might look like today, remembering the dishes that my grandfather made, but in a new context.

As told to Javier Cabral

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Roy Yamaguchi is a chef and culinary pioneer in Hawaiian fusion cuisine. For more information on him or any of his restaurants around the world, visit his website. This restaurant is located inside the Wailea Beach Resort.