Eclectic small plates at Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill on Kaua’i.

Nationally acclaimed and regional legend Jean-Marie Josselin is a founding chef of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine (HRC), an entrepreneur with 10 restaurants to his credit and the only Kaua‘i-based HRC chef who cooks at his restaurant.

Twenty-two years ago, Josselin, along with 11 other chefs, brought worldwide recognition to Hawai‘i by blending an eclectic mix of French sauces, Asian seasonings and fresh, local ingredients. HRC appears on many modern menus, but the movement provided local growers with an expanding market and forever changed food in Hawai‘i.

“The farm-to-table concept is nothing new,” says Josselin. “It’s something we started more than 20 years ago. When I first came here, there was nothing and I had to develop relationships with farmers so they would grow food we could cook with. Today, people use farm-to-table as a marketing tool, but if you want to cook, you better only use fresh ingredients, because that’s the only way it’s going to taste good.”

In 1989, Josselin won the National Seafood Challenge with his Hawaiian-inspired, sesame-crusted mahimahi and lime-ginger beurre blanc. He revived the Kaua‘i dining scene in 1990, when he opened his first restaurant A Pacific Café, which was one of Hawai‘i’s earliest chef-driven restaurants.

“At the time, doing a spring roll with Chinese duck and candied nuts was unheard of,” Josselin says of the groundbreaking era. “Now, it’s a little bit more common.”

James Beard Foundation nominated him three times for Best Chef of the Northwest; Bon Appétit magazine named A Pacific Café as one of the best restaurants in the country and Condé Nast Traveler chose A Pacific Café as one of its 50 Choice Restaurants Around the Country.

Throughout the ’90s and early into the 21st century, he became one of the most influential chefs in Hawai‘i. His farm-to-table cookbook, A Taste of Hawaii: New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific, was published in 1992, and is still relevant today. He opened seven restaurants on Kaua‘i, Maui and O‘ahu as well as 808 Seafood Restaurant at Caesars Palace, which Wine Spectator magazine voted as one of the Top 10 Restaurants in Las Vegas.

In 2008, Josselin left the restaurant industry and spent two years tasting his way through Europe, South Africa and Asia. Teaming up with co-owner and general manager Andrew Ha, Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill, located in The Shops at Kukui‘ula in Po‘ipu, opened in May 2010.

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Josselin's Tapas Bar & Grill, located in The Shops at Kukui'ula in Po'ipu, opened in May 2010 (photo courtesy Josselin's).

“When you do something that is different from everybody else, you’re that much ahead,” says Josselin. “I wanted to turn that page. You purge the past and build a future in the present.”

Later this summer, Josselin will open Jo2 (pronounced Jay-oh-two), his second Kaua’i-based restaurant, which will be located in Kapa’a.

“The food at Jo2 is going to be like A Pacific Café, but with a modern touch,” he says. “Food has changed and so has the customer. You have to stay fresh and always surprise people with new ideas.”

Josselin has always worked closely with farmers and provides heirloom seeds to see if they will grow in Hawai’i’s subtropical climate. Sometimes, he waits six months only to learn the crop isn’t going to work. Despite this, he feels strongly about supporting the local farming community and serving vibrant, fresh ingredients.

“I hate the word ‘vegetarian’ because it categorizes people,” he says. “At Jo2, we will be serving vegetable-based cuisine, which is more than basil or tomatoes and inspires customers when they see what can be done.”

At Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill, exotic ingredients are combined with cooking techniques and flavors from around the world. Tapas range from portions that are devoured in a few bites, to meal-sized plates that are worth lingering over.

“I try not to stop at one taste, one idea, but to really expand an idea and not have any borders,” he says. “I want to do a little bit of Mediterranean, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I want to do a collection of dishes that are not necessarily one thing.”

Josselin presides behind the bar of the open kitchen. Three sous chefs line the counter with him; hands busy at work, ears pricked for his slightest command. Josselin scans the dining room and nimbly reaches into a kiawe wood-fired oven, the heart of his kitchen.

Slow-cooked Butterfish ($31) sits on a bed of vegetables, charred from the firey heat. Steamed buns ($11), filled with braised beef, are surrounded by a pool of spicy garlic sauce. On top, a dollop of lemon crème fraîche and pear jam hold tiny edible flowers.

Clouds of mist rise from Rock Shrimp Tempura ($17), a cold platter of sushi rice, diced avocado and cucumber topped with baby deep-fried shrimp tossed in a kimchi ranch dressing. Pressed Rainbow Roll “Tapas Style” ($17) includes a rectangle of sushi rice topped with marlin, ‘ahi and salmon sashimi. Red bell pepper purée swirls at its edges and a citrus, butter miso sauce is pooled on top and sprinkled with black sesame seeds and bits of roasted garlic.

The 36-Hour Braised Pork Belly ($29), is succulent and generous enough to be a meal. Thick wedges of pork, layered with tender meat and creamy fat, are crisped and glazed with lehua honey, which is gathered by bees from ‘ohi’a blossoms on an indigenous Hawaiian tree. It’s stacked on a bed of oven-seared baby potatoes, zuchinni and carrots and garnished with cubes of apple kimchi.

“To me, when you have tapas, you have a couple of appetizers, a glass of wine and leave,” says Josselin. “It’s not necessarily a three-hour meal, but it can be. Tapas are all about instant gratification!”

Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., #F-207A, Koloa, Kaua’i, (808) 742-7117 or www.josselins.com

Marta Lane, a food writer on Kaua’i since 2010, offers farm to fork food tours and is the author of Tasting Kauai: Restaurants – From Food Trucks to Fine Dining, A Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island. For more information, visit www.tastingkauai.com.