Interview

Chris Kajioka – Chef Owner, Senia

Can you tell us about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?

I was born and grew up in Honolulu. I always wanted to cook, like since I was 4, for some reason. My parents definitely aren’t in the industry. Both are Japanese, born in Honolulu. I think I’m fifth generation, but I didn’t grow up eating Japanese food. We grew up eating meatloaf and spaghetti, very American. But ever since we were young, my parents always took us out to nice restaurants, so I think that’s probably how I got interested. And I used to watch a lot of cooking shows, like Great Chefs of the Hotels, instead of cartoons. It’s the only thing I really wanted to do.

My first job at a restaurant was a place called Pacific Café. The chef was really French, he’s a founding father of fine dining in Honolulu. I think I was fifteen, so I worked throughout high school just for free. Working there reinforced that I really wanted to do it.

How did you decide to apply to the Culinary Institute of America?

I worked at Roy’s Hawaii Kai in high school. So he’s really my mentor and the reason why I went to CIA. I actually did a Bachelor’s program there, so I spent about 3 and a half years there.

What was it like for like a kid right out of high school from Hawaii to show up in upstate New York?

Super homesick. Culture shock. We traveled as kids but I’ve never been to upstate New York. It’s different. Especially Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park. I started – it’s a crazy story, my start date was October 1st, 2001. It was two weeks after 9/11. Crazy time. There was a class with a start date of September 11 but it was pushed back, so a lot of the kids who were supposed to start on that day were in my class. I remember going to the city, and the steel beams were still burning. It was crazy – my mom said “Don’t go.” and I was like, “What do you mean? I’m gonna go.” So it was a crazy time.

Where did you decide to do your externship?

So I applied to the French Laundry and I applied to Roy’s. Roy said yes first – so I came home and I probably spent 6-7 months here and then – kind of vowed that I would never come home again so after I graduated I worked in San Francisco for Ron Siegel. At that time there was a dining room at the Ritz Carlton, which was probably like the number one fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. I worked there for three and a half years. So he’s definitely a mentor to this day. He taught me everything that I base my skills on today.

Ron was the opening chef for the French Laundry, with Thomas Keller and Steven Durfee, so after I was done with my time with him he said, “Where do you wanna go next?” I wanted to go back to New York, and he said you should go to Per Se. Jonathon Benno, who was Chef de Cuisine at the time, was Ron’s extern at French Laundry back in the day. I called Jonathan and he said come in three weeks and I went in three weeks.

I never really applied for a job, you know how it is. Chef’s call each other and it’s kind of how it goes. I spent two years at Per Se and that’s where I met Anthony and Katherine. [Senia’s Co-Chef Anthony Rush and GM Katherine Nomura] It was a really interesting time. I feel like that was when Per Se was really at their peak. That was maybe 2008 to 2010. They won every award and it was so busy. We look back at who we worked with and everyone now is so successful, it was a pretty daunting crew to be working with. After New York I moved back to San Francisco and I worked for Mourad Lahlou at Aziza. I kind of got burnt out on the French thing and I just wanted to try something completely different. Moroccan is pretty much the most different. So I think the use of spices is what really caught me. Because French cuisines doesn’t use spices, they build flavor in a different way.

I told everyone I was going to work at Aziza and they were a kind of puzzled. I just kind of really bonded with Mourad and I was his sous chef at Aziza, just for a year, and then after Aziza, I had an opportunity to come home and work at Vintage Cave, which I took. We weren’t planning to move home but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down and I stayed there for two years. And after that, I moved back San Francisco and opened Mourad’s new restaurant. I took a couple of my guys from Hawaii with me and they are still there. I even lived with Mourad, he owes me his life. I was away from my family, and my kid for a year.

How did the first ideas for Senia come together? Does it go as far back as working with Anthony at Per Se?

Me and Anthony always worked stations next to each other. We always worked very well together. The crew is so competitive that right away you find people that work really well together, and he was just one of those people. Through the years he would come visit, we stayed in touch and we were both, at the time, planning to do our own restaurants. I think he was having a little more trouble doing that in London, where he was. Literally he texted me and said, “I’ll come to Hawaii.” I was like, “Holy Shit!”

Just like that?

Just like that! Literally, just like that. Two weeks later, things were signed and that’s how it came to be. I think we both wanted to do a small restaurant, where it’s casual but also have a tasting menu offer, which we do at the counter. We were both on the same page with that, it was pretty easy.

Do you feel like you share the same food philosophy?

Absolutely. Philosophy, yes. Style, not really. Very different.

How so?

We both grew up in Thomas Keller’s kitchen. Classically we’re trained in the same way, so we do things the same way. I fell in love with Japan over the past five years. And my style, for sure goes more towards that. It’s certainly different than French, but Anthony trained very classic. In that way we’re different.

Do you collaborate on dishes together?

Absolutely.

Everything is a collaboration. Everything is pretty joint. There are some dishes that we come up with that, just, we talked about it but I had no say in it. But the tasting menu is very much a collaboration with our whole kitchen. Right now we’ve gotten to the point where we have one person, one cook who does the whole tasting menu – he preps the whole thing. So me and Anthony don’t have to do anything for it, we talk about it a week before and it gets everybody involved.

And how often are you changing the menu?

So we used to kill ourselves and try to change it every week. We really came to this awakening about three weeks ago. So we would kill ourselves every week and just struggle to always do something new. And the cooks weren’t understanding the techniques because we would do it for four days and never do it again. Finally we’re like, “why don’t we change it every month?”

Because we do get return guests a lot, actually, for the tasting. These people would set reservations on certain days every month. So we tried to do different stuff for them. But for the majority of people, we change it every month.

Are there specific ingredients that you’re excited about using right now?

Matsutakes, I love white truffles. We’re not a typical Hawaii Restaurant. We bring things in. And that’s, selfishly for us but also for our cooks, we’re used to working with those ingredients and I really like to use them. In the fall we did a Matsutake Donabe and rice, with a grilled zabuton (steak) for a main course. When I do the main course, I love super simple but super good ingredients, very Japanese I guess, but we play around with everything. The truffle risotto is always on the menu, it’s classic. It’s like the best way to eat it, I think.

What about seafood? Is a lot of what you’re using from Japan, or is it local?

We try to use as much local as possible. I would say, the fish we have here is very good, but also Japan fish is so expensive. We use it occasionally at the counter, but for the dining room, it doesn’t make sense cost-wise for us.

Do you cook at home at all?

No. Never.

What do you like to eat at home, even if you’re not cooking?

Something super simple. My wife’s a pretty good cook, she makes a really good tofu soup. She’s Korean. So kim-chi, tofu soup, 9-grain rice. Something I don’t need to think about when I eat. I hate cooking at home because I don’t have a good kitchen. If you don’t have a good kitchen, it’s awful.

Favorite tools or techniques that you want to share?

Knives. I love knives. I’ve bought too many.

Technique, I’ve always wanted to do ikejime. Learn how to do it. Most of the fish that we get from Japan obviously is ikejime but I would like to learn how to do it with the fish we have here because the number one thing I think that differs from Japanese fish is how they take care of it. How it’s killed, how it’s caught. That’s the quality difference. We could have that quality, I feel, but we don’t know how to do those proper steps after it’s killed, you know. That’s the big difference.

There’s no fisherman in Hawaii that are doing that technique at all?

I had a long talk with the chef at Sushi Sho, He’s really passionate about teaching the local fisherman about handling fish better, not bruising it but, things have been done a certain way here. It’s so hard to tell an old guy what to do, change the way he does things.

It’s hard to change the culture. There’s got to be some kind of incentive.

It’s got to be a financial incentive, and there isn’t. If they could charge more for doing ikejime I’m sure they would but it also those guys make money on the bulk catch. It’s super labor intensive! I feel like it’s gotta be someone young and passionate rather than the old dog.

Favorite places to eat here, New York, anywhere in the world?

Tokyo. Favorite place, obsessed, probably – favorite places there, Matsukawa, Ishikawa, I love Kaiseki, I love, like simple, the best crab on rice is like magic.

New York, we love to eat at Per Se and their salon, but I really love what Eleven Madison Park does, to me they have the perfect packaging. Nomad is my favorite place to go, to just grab food and drink. I love Nomad.

I love Blackseed Bagels. So good. New York and Tokyo, you can’t beat those cities. San Francisco is great too. Every chance I get, I go to Japan. And I’m still blown away every time.

30,000 restaurants in Tokyo alone.

I tell everybody, it’s really hard to find a bad meal. Like you have to try really hard.

Even 7-11 is good!

That’s what I’m saying! That’s the first place I start when I go there. I get water, and an egg salad sandwich. karagi and onigiri.

How about in Honolulu?

Sushi Sho. That guy is like… I’ve been in shop three times before he moved here, and that guy is just on a different level. So smart. He’s doing aging on local fish… staying really true to edo-mae on local fish. I think he’s by far the best chef in Hawaii.

He’s still cutting edge, he’s just the master. I love what he does. I wish I could eat there every week. Palmetto’s, wine food, there’s a lot of good hole in the walls here. Ethel’s.