Why The French Laundry sous chef packed his knives for Vintage Cave

There was no sound of clanking silverware, wine being poured or dishes being swept away from tables to make way for the next course at Vintage Cave—at least not at press time. Takeshi Sekiguchi’s underground lair had been sitting empty the past few months, doors closed to the public, as it prepared itself for its next all-star lineup. After the departure of dynamo Chris Kajioka from his post as executive chef last July, there’s a new sheriff, er, chef in town. Enter Jonathan Mizukami—calm, collected and tight-lipped about details regarding the culinary storm he planned to unleash on Honolulu.

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Mizukami portrait by Tony Grillo/courtesy Vintage Cave

Yes, he spent the last decade honing his craft at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, which holds three Michelin stars. And his stints before Napa comprise a veritable list of who’s who in the restaurant industry (establishments that were or continue to be on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants) including Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, Keller’s Per Se in New York City, and Gordon Ramsay’s three-Michelin-starred flagship restaurant in London. And while his experience is worldly, his roots are local—34-year-old Mizukami hails from Maui and cut his teeth at Alan Wong’s on King Street during his early 20s, where he worked with Charles “Charly” Yoshida, the current GM at Vintage Cave.

“Alan prepared me for going to The French Laundry because of the training I got at his own high-caliber restaurant,” Mizukami says. “Being in his kitchen, he opened my eyes to how a fine dining restaurant runs…”

Like many who leave the islands, eventually, Hawai‘i comes calling back. Mizukami, too, was ready to return home. Fortunately, all fell into place. He had heard that Vintage Cave was searching for a new chef to replace Kajioka from a sous chef at Per Se. “He mentioned that Charly was looking for someone for Vintage Cave, if I was interested,” says Mizukami. He was.

“The reason I came back home to Hawai‘i is because I wanted to bring back what I learned [abroad] and share it with the people here; to teach the younger cooks and show them what I’ve learned.”

Honolulu diners will surely benefit from his return as well. Mizukami plans on incorporating contemporary French-American fare, while using as much local product as possible. “I think I’ll have more freedom to be a little more playful here than at The French Laundry,” he reveals. Now that Vintage Cave is open once again, experience Mizukami’s new offerings firsthand. As the old adage goes: The proof of the pudding is in the eating! So go eat…