How acclaimed Hawaii chef Roy Yamaguchi created an empire built on respect

Picture this: It’s 1988, and in an office building somewhere in Honolulu, a shy young chef has come to ask an architect’s advice. Hearing his proposal, the architect reaches across his desk for the phone and makes a call.

“There’s some guy here in my office, thinks he wants to open a restaurant in Hawaii Kai,” says the architect into the phone, and then adds, laughing, “In an office building.”

“He thought I was crazy,” says Roy Yamaguchi, recounting the story. In the 20 years that have passed, Yamaguchi’s enjoyed phenomenal success with a culinary style that is so well-defined, the term “Hawaii fusion” is copyrighted and used in his 37 restaurants throughout 11 states, Guam and Japan. With an estimated 3,000 employees and revenue of more than $150 million a year, it’s safe to say the Hawaii Kai restaurant changed the way the world looked at Hawaii’s food.

Those keen to find the key to Yamaguchi’s success point to an exceptional talent for merging the flavors of his Japanese heritage, French classical training and summers spent with his grandparents on Maui. But look closer and you’ll see that this is a business where the core comes back to one single ideal – respect.

More than “the father of East-West cuisine,” more than Hawaii’s most successful chef, more than an ambassador for these islands, Roy Yamaguchi is the guardian, of sorts, of flourishing agricultural partnerships where chefs and farmers work together. As a teacher, mentor and passionate supporter of farmers, their families and the micro-communities they represent, he is as close to the heartbeat of the Hawaiian Islands as anyone who’s ever lived here. He is, in essence, the “godfather” of Hawaii’s culinary movement and a man whom almost everyone respects.

“He is so much more to the industry than a chef or a restaurant owner,” says Nalo Farms owner and longtime friend Dean Okimoto. Okimoto adds that “he respects everyone he works beside,” especially those small, independent farmers.

“He has this tremendous respect for everyone he deals with,” says acclaimed chef and Yamaguchi’s friend of 20 years, Alan Wong.

International celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose own chain of restaurants spans the globe, has been coming to Hawaii for decades, largely to visit Yamaguchi. “Roy is as respectful to a valet as he is to a shareholder,” says Nobu, “Everywhere he goes, he treats people with great humility and respect.” Then Matsuhisa adds with a grin, “He’s just not too good at golf.”

Not surprising, really, that he’s not had much time for golf these past two decades. For the first eight years in Hawaii Kai, Yamaguchi worked almost every day. “He rarely took a single day off,” says president of Roy’s Hawaii, Rainer Kumbroch.

Today, with a multimillion-dollar income, a line of cookware, dressings and sauces, three cookbooks and a PBS TV series syndicated to 300 channels in the U.S. and shown in more than 60 countries, Yamaguchi does take the occasional evening off to spend time with his children (Nicole, 21, Roy, 17 and Hoku, 3), hang out at favorite haunts like Side Street Inn and pursue passions like playing the drums. “I like to play along with great rock music,” says the aspiring musician.

But then he’s always had a little rock star in him. “He has charisma,” says Kumbroch. “He’s the kind of guy people want to hang out with, and the kind who makes you want to be a better citizen.”

From the early days (and after the personally painful failure of his first restaurant), Yamaguchi decided that the key to a strong restaurant would be finding the right people to have around him. “I wanted great people in the kitchen,” he says.

What’s interesting is not how he gets great people, but how he keeps them. Hundreds of Roy’s employees have been with the company for more than 15 years; key people have been there since day one. It’s due in part to an almost formulaic system that allows chef partners creativity and a freedom to interpret the signature Hawaii Fusion style. There’s a “Roy’s way,” but unlike other chefs afflicted with more outrageous egos, it’s not the only way. You can go to Roy’s in Tokyo, Chicago or New York and find your experience to be both familiar, yet new. Yamaguchi, known for his humble affect and willingness to pass on credit, has no problem letting others shine. “We want people to be successful,” he says. “If they leave and become competitors, I’m happy for them because they’ve been taught well and they’re set up for success.”

When they stay, Roy’s becomes stronger. “Our business is fuelled by the talent we nourish,” he says.

But what’s truly remarkable about Yamaguchi and his philanthropic modus operandi, is how Hawaii has benefited.

“When Roy left L.A. to open his restaurant in Hawaii Kai, it was the beginning of change,” says chef Alan Wong. “The national media followed him here, and after they’d eaten at Roy’s, they’d eat at other restaurants, too, and write about them. Roy was the catalyst that sparked the interest in Hawaii.”

And if further proof were needed of the respect Yamaguchi commands, look only to the list of superstar chefs arriving in Hawaii this month to celebrate Roy’s longevity. Charlie Trotter, Alessandro Stratta, Tetsuya Wakuda, Francois Payard, Ming Tsai and “Iron Chef ” Hiroyuki Sakai are just a few of the chefs taking part in events that include a $1,000-a-head gala dinner at the Honolulu Fish Auction on Oct. 4 and a grazing event for 1,500 at Kapiolani Community College on Oct. 5. Proceeds will go to culinary students in Hawaii.

“He’s willing to teach anyone who wants to learn,” says Kumbroch. “Most of his success comes not because of a belief that’s just about the restaurant; it comes because he believes in what he does, in teaching and in focusing on the community.”

In 1988, in a Waikiki dominated by European chefs and imported ingredients, a gathering of this ilk seemed impossible. As was the thought that a restaurant in an office building could be the catalyst for culinary change.

“Twenty years later there are more successful farmers, more successful restaurants and more local kids staying home to become successful chefs,” says Wong, “because of Roy Yamaguchi.”

But while Yamaguchi spends most of his time traveling (he’s just completed a seven-month tour of all 37 restaurants), it’s at home in Hawaii with friends and family where he’s happiest.

“Twenty years from now I want to be here having dinner with my kids and grandkids,” he says.

And that’s the way Hawaii’s chefs, farmers and foodies would like it too.

“Without him,” says Okimoto, “a lot of us wouldn’t be here at all.”

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