"Choy to the World, The Food has Come"
It's almost the New Year and I
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.
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.
your multiple restaurants, books, TV shows, and public appearances, how
much time do you actually get to spend in the kitchen?
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
Do you think we can get a full time Hawaii Show on the Food Network?
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.
have multiple restaurants, where are they located?
Guam, San Diego – we’re still trying to figure that one out, and
three in Hawaii. We also
have the sauces.
your sauces nationwide?
just at some pocket stores. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to do
a big name in Hawaii, but how big is your name in places like Tokyo?
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.’
the cuisine in your restaurants change from region to region?
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
you ever wish you could go back to Sam Choy, the chef, where you are
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.
do you think put Hawaii’s food into the spotlight?
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.
mainland friend wanted his brother to learn how to cook fish like we do
so I gave him one of your cookbooks...
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.
process goes into developing a new dish?
a balance between availability and food cost.
There’s execution, how many steps it’s going to take (in the
availability, we ask "How long are we going to have this
would you tell someone who was interested in becoming a chef?
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)
have a real family atmosphere here (at Sam Choy’s Breakfast Lunch and
very family oriented here. Hawaii is our family, and I think it’s important that we
you have trouble adjusting to your celebrity status?
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.’
your celebrity status and success, you’ve taken the time to become
involved in a lot of charity work, can you elaborate on that?
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.
the dream for Sam Choy’s Restaurants?
dream is to be very successful all the way around – a great restaurant
to come to, happy employees, watch our employees grow, and be
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
Five-Oh Questions - The Icebreakers
1. Favorite place to be in
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
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?
"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."
credit your parents a lot in your books for influencing you, how did
they influence you?
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.
motto is never trust a skinny chef…
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.
Did you always want to be a chef?
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.
you consider yourself an artist?
and chefs are artists. You take the raw food and create this (points to an appetizer
on our table).
was your first job as a chef?
Bay on the North Shore.
do you do in your spare time?
like to golf.
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
and check out the latest in local recipes and ono grinds.