For a chef and restaurateur whose name has become synonymous with Hawaii’s revitalized regional cuisine, adolescence was filled with usual mischief, but little doubt about the future. “I first took up Home Ec in high school because I liked the odds of being the only boy in class,” Yamaguchi admits. But it also set fire to a passion he had always harbored. “Even as a boy I loved to cook, whether it was fried Portuguese sausage and eggs, or a full-on Thanksgiving dinner – which I once prepared for my family – growing up in the middle of Tokyo, Japan.
It was Yamaguchi’s passion that propelled him, after graduating from high school, from Tokyo to upstate New York, where he was enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating in 1976, he chose the Los Angeles area in which to embark upon an aspiring chef’s usual 12-hour/7-day-a-week grind. “It was more School of Hard Knocks,” as Yamaguchi describes his years in three of L.A.’s finest French kitchens, L’Escoffier, L’Ermitage (under the legendary nouvelle cuisine chef and personal mentor, Jean Bertranou), and Michael’s. It was work ethic plus talent that eventually earned him a “boy wonder” rep, and titles of executive chef, at Le Serene and Le Gourmet.
In 1984 Yamaguchi was able to form a partnership to create his own restaurant, 385 North in West Hollywood, where his highly personal “Euro-Asian” style (as he likes to describe it) came into bloom. There his natural aplomb and dim sum – in startling arrays of French style sauces, laced with the likes of wasabi, oriental herbs, mustards, root vegetables and peppers – found him in good stead with both the Hollywood foodies and California critics. And as a measure of their respect, the California Restaurant Writers Association named Yamaguchi their “Chef of the Year” in 1986/1987.
Yet in spite of the Lotusland accolades, Yamaguchi yearned for still another life – in the original home of his father and grandparents, in the Hawaiian Islands. When he finally made that move – opening the first “Roy’s” restaurant in Honolulu in 1988 – is did not go unnoticed. Local and national critics rushed to praise, or at least ponder, his emphatic, sometimes unpredictable, but fully realized style of fusion cooking.
Typical of the to-do, Honolulu magazine boldly predicted that “Yamaguchi may very well become a pivotal figure in the creation of a true contemporary Hawaii cuisine – that blend of East and West and Polynesia that’s been long expected and slow arriving.” And it did: what has since become known as “Hawaii Regional Cuisine” has sent ripples clear across the U.S., with Yamaguchi seen clearly as its doyen.
Since then Yamaguchi has more Roy’s restaurants (including a Roy’s Tokyo and a Roy’s Guam), and the awards have kept rolling in: including rankings amongst Forbes/Gault Milieu’s “Top 40” in the country, Conde Nast Traveler’s “Top 50,” Nation’s Restaurant News’ “Fine Dining Hall of Fame,” and the coveted James Beard Award for being 1993’s “Best Chef in the Pacific-Northwest.”
Great Chefs caught up with Roy in 1995 for their GREAT CHEFS – GREAT CITIES series (Episodes 32 and 75) and their GREAT CHEFS OF HAWAII series (Episode 5). He was also featured in the GREAT CHEFS OF HAWAII cookbook.
For all of this, Yamaguchi believes he is far from done. “I still start each day as if I have to prove myself all over again,” he recently revealed. “I’m constantly in search of new ideas.” Five minutes from his home in Honolulu’s Hawaii Kai district – where he has settled in with his wife Janne, and two children – Yamaguchi can still be easily found, laboring seven nights a week, in the open kitchen of his first Roy’s Restaurant. As he puts it, simply: “Cooking is my life; and when I’m in my kitchen and I look out the window, I can’t help but think that I must be one of the luckiest persons in the world.”