"Choy to the World, The Food has Come"

It's almost the New Year and I share a resolution with 90% of the civilized world - I am going to need to go on a serious diet in January!  We all eat too much during the Holiday Season. The food at all the Holiday Feasts are so great... It's impossible to resist. 

Ever wondered why Hawaii's unofficial state pastime is eating?  It's because the ethnic diversity of our population provides us fortunate locals with an unlimited supply of ono grinds!  Where else can you take a mango and serve it up 647 different ways?  Where else is Spam revered as much as it is here?

Hawaii411 talked with one of Hawaii's (if not the world's) finest chefs.  Sam Choy exploded on to the cuisine scene and quickly carved a niche for himself in multiple industries - He's a television host, he writes newspaper columns, he has authored many books, he manages a chain of restaurants bearing his name... He's an unstoppable artistic powerhouse who just keeps on pushing forward.  He could rest on his many achievements.  He could stop where he is and still have accomplished more than ten normal men ever will in a lifetime.  BUT, that just wouldn't be Sam Choy.

Sam's Breakfast, Lunch, and Crab is a wonderful place, and their food is first rate... The setting was perfect for one of our "talk story kine" Hawaii411 interviews.

Hawaii411: We first remember you from that Hawaiian Electric commercial with the music by Hiroshima in the background.  It seemed to put you into the spotlight, for the first time people could put a face with their food.  Was that a turning point for you?
Sam: Hilton did an ad campaign off of that, “The Good, The Bad, and the Hungry” and had all these other print ads.  Of course you have to back it up with the food.  It was a turning point for moving Hawaiian food into the direction where we took the plate lunch out of the closet.  Everybody’s coming on board now, which is great, but you know what?  We’ve been there-done that.  We’ve kind of moved it already, so it’s out there.  The bottom line is that food in Hawaii has come a long way.  It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s great.  I think all this mainland competition that’s coming into town is great because it gives the local people a chance to drop in, see how junk it is, and come back to us.  James and I (James Lee is Sam's good buddy and business partner), we’re local guys, born and raised here, never stole a dime in our lives, and still working hard.  We enjoy what we do, and have great employees working for us.  You can’t ask for anything more than that.

Hawaii411: With your multiple restaurants, books, TV shows, and public appearances, how much time do you actually get to spend in the kitchen?
Sam: I spend a lot of time on my food.  We meet every Monday and talk to the chefs.  I’m talking to the chef on the phone almost every day.  It’s really an ongoing challenge to make sure we get the food to what it should be and how it should be.  I think we manage it very well.  I think the real key is, when you look at some of the larger restaurant chains, we might not have their cookie-cutter recipes, but we do the recipes to the food indigenous to the area and add our cooking style.  I think a lot of it is training.

Hawaii411: Do you think we can get a full time Hawaii Show on the Food Network?
Sam: I think Hawaii needs another cooking show, I don’t think we have enough.  I think we could, it’s just the part of pitching it to them.  I’m sure that one of the chefs in Hawaii is going to be knocking at the right door at the right time, and God bless them.  The bottom line is, it takes time, it takes work, and there’s no money in it.

Hawaii411: Bruddah Sam (Langi of Local Kine Grindz) had mentioned that he would like to hook up with the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, and start a food show nationwide to promote Hawaii through food.  What do you think?
Sam: It’s too bad he doesn’t cook, though… they make food look fun, but the food audience out there is very akamai.  They’ll ask the right questions, and ask 'Why is it cooked this way?'.  It’s more of an entertainment kind of thing.  He might get lucky and do it.  That would be great.

Hawaii411: You have multiple restaurants, where are they located?
Sam: Asia, Guam, San Diego – we’re still trying to figure that one out, and three in Hawaii.  We also have the sauces.

Hawaii411: Are your sauces nationwide?
Sam: No, just at some pocket stores.  We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to do with them.

Hawaii411: You’re a big name in Hawaii, but how big is your name in places like Tokyo?
Sam: I don’t know how big it is, but I think people recognize me.  We’re not in the status of Konishiki and Akebono, but people do recognize me when I walk around in Japan.  On the west coast, we’re starting to get bigger.  I think everywhere we’ve gone, people recognize us.  I know we’re in the Spam Hall of Fame.  That’s big for us, because not too many guys get the opportunity for that.  When you walk in the Spam Hall of Fame, and you push the button, I appear on the Big Screen - ‘Hi, Welcome, Aloha.’

Does the cuisine in your restaurants change from region to region?
Sam: We stay the same (hold to our local style cuisine) and we try to educate the people to cook it the way we want them to.  That’s the challenge.

Hawaii411: Are we going to see Hawaiian food on a plate in France.  Is that one of your goals, to introduce Hawaiian cuisine to the world?
Sam: I’m sure that will be one of our great accomplishments.  Either in a restaurant, or in a frozen food state.  That’s all our long-range plans, sharing our Hawaiian style of food.

Hawaii411: Do you ever wish you could go back to Sam Choy, the chef, where you are just cooking?
Sam: No, we're not even half-way to where we want to be.  When it’s all said and done, James and I are going to have our own sailing vessel, and that’s when we know we've made it.

Hawaii411: What do you think put Hawaii’s food into the spotlight?
Sam: I think a lot of it came in to Hawaii with the yuppie kind of food.  We kept plugging away at the local food of Hawaii- the upscale plate lunch.  Everybody goes to Kaka`ako Kitchen, but you know what? We’ve been there and done that. They kind-of sat in our restaurant for three hours and watched what we did.  Basically it’s a take off on us.  I’ll be straight up front, it’s the truth – everybody who started to do food today, at one time or another, either saw me at a demonstration, or saw me on TV, or grabbed my cook books.  It’s very flattering.

My mainland friend wanted his brother to learn how to cook fish like we do in Hawaii, so I gave him one of your cookbooks...
Sam: We’re very flattered by that.  It’s really virgin territory to introduce Hawaiian food up there.  If you look at P.F. Chang’s, they’re a restaurant chain that does great half-ass Chinese food.. but you know what? They make a lot of money.  That’s a lot of influence from Asia, and for those of us from Hawaii, our background is almost solid Asian.  All the ethnic groups that come here, they all come with little bits of their culture as well as little bits of their food.  Our chefs in Hawaii are like little kids in a candy shop, with all this to choose from.

Hawaii411: What process goes into developing a new dish?
Sam: It’s a balance between availability and food cost.  There’s execution, how many steps it’s going to take (in the preparation).  On availability, we ask "How long are we going to have this product?"

Hawaii411: What would you tell someone who was interested in becoming a chef?
Sam: Start cooking, and understand the complexity of the business and prepare to work really hard, because there is no substitute for that.

(Another customer greets Sam and Sam responds warmly)

Hawaii411: You have a real family atmosphere here (at Sam Choy’s Breakfast Lunch and Crab).
Sam: We’re very family oriented here.  Hawaii is our family, and I think it’s important that we keep that.

Hawaii411: Did you have trouble adjusting to your celebrity status?
Sam: Half-way through it, I was getting frustrated, because there was no time to enjoy and go out and sit down quietly and have a meal.  My wife educated me about that and said, ‘If you want to be who you are today, then you do it right... or don’t even do it at all.’

Hawaii411: With your celebrity status and success, you’ve taken the time to become involved in a lot of charity work, can you elaborate on that?
Sam: We’re involved with a lot of charities.  That’s one of the most exciting things about our whole company.  We do Big Brothers, which is our biggest one, and then the Poke Contest/Celebrity Golf Tournament over on the Big Island which goes to the Kaiwaihae Transitional Home, where they try to get people back onto their feet into the community.  We help a Legal Outreach program in San Francisco, that helps give legal services to abused children and women.  We help the Lupus foundation, HUGS, The Ronald McDonald House, and the list goes on.  We’re not going to reach the finish line filthy rich, but we’re going to reach the finish line comfortable, and we’re going to sleep good.

Hawaii411: What’s the dream for Sam Choy’s Restaurants?
Sam: Our dream is to be very successful all the way around – a great restaurant to come to, happy employees, watch our employees grow, and be financially happy.

Hawaii411 Conclusion: This is one man who knows the real secret to making people happy.  His success is not luck - it's the calculated result of hard work, maintaining quality control over his food, and akamai marketing.  We were really impressed with the amount of time and money that Sam and his food empire gives back to the community.  Happy New Year to you Sam, and thanks for helping us introduce millions worldwide to Hawaii's unique, diverse, and fantastic local cusine.

Hawaii Five-Oh Questions - The Icebreakers

1. Favorite place to be in Hawaii?
Sam: On the Big Island… Pine Trees – a beach area with nice swimming ponds.  I like to take my granddaughter and swim in there.  That, or a golf course.

2.  Are you a rice or poi kind of guy?
Sam: Rice – calrose rice

3. How do you like your fish – Raw or Cooked?
Sam: Raw – poke style

4. What is your favorite type of food?
Sam: Chinese food!

5. If you could have any dish prepared for you, what would it be?
Sam: I like stir-fry vegetables… how about some boneless chicken stir-fry on cake noodles?

Quotable "Sam"-isms:
"We don’t hide anything.  We enjoy what we do. It’s an exciting business we’re in.  It’s a tough business.  I think food in Hawaii is well on its way… very competitive.  I think what we don’t do, the competition picks up on."


more interview:

You credit your parents a lot in your books for influencing you, how did they influence you?
Sam: My mom - she cooked a lot, and when we got older, she took us to restaurants to get exposed.  I remember sitting in Crouching Lion and ordering Cornish Game Hen, and going "Wow, it’s the whole chicken."  My mom cooked roasts, and the stews, the whole chickens, and the baked goods.  My Dad did the Chinese food – the all-day soups, the steamed fish, the noodles, the gon lo meins, and all the wonderful dishes that the local Chinese people have.  My Dad worked at Pearl Harbor (an electrician), and my Mom was a Housewife.

Hawaii411: Your motto is never trust a skinny chef…
Sam: You know, my dad actually educated me about that.  He told me ‘don’t go into a restaurant at the peak meal time (breakfast,  lunch, or dinner) if it’s empty,’ and he said, ‘never trust a skinny chef.’  It’s funny, because he always said that but he was 120 pounds.

Hawaii411: What about Roy Yamaguchi, and the other guys, they’re kinda skinny so…
Sam: Nah, they’re all good chefs.  They’re good guys!  It's just a saying.

Hawaii411: Did you always want to be a chef?
Sam: Yeah, I always wanted to cook.  I always enjoyed cooking.  I fell in love with the artistic part of it, and being creative and taking food from a raw state to where it is today, and watching people light up. 

Hawaii411: Do you consider yourself an artist?
Sam: Cooks and chefs are artists.  You take the raw food and create this (points to an appetizer on our table).

Hawaii411: Where was your first job as a chef?
Sam: Turtle Bay on the North Shore.

Hawaii411: What do you do in your spare time?
Sam: I like to golf.

Hawaii411: What’s your Handicap?
Sam: My weight (laughs), no really, it’s about a ten.  I like to golf and spend time with my Grandaughter.

Hawaii411: Do you still fish?
Sam: Yeah, you know, I go to Tamashiro market to catch the big ones (laughs), and I go Safeway for my poke…


Sam Links:

Visit samchoy.com and check out the latest in local recipes and ono grinds.