What’s Cooking at Roy’s Ka’anapali? Interview with Maui’s Top Chefs

Interviewing all the top chefs at Roy’s Ka’anapali, a high-end restaurant known for its Hawaiian fusion fare, might be my favorite course from my recent trip to Maui. It all began with the first meal of the day. Typically, I don’t eat breakfast, but I was so glad I didn’t skip breakfast before interviewing chefs Roy Yamaguchi, Troy Guard, Taylor Ponte, Chung Chow, and Graham Elliot. Basically, breakfast was just eggs and toast, BUT this blew me away! What was in that magic sauce?

The interviews were part of the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival activities. You’ll enjoy learning more about these kitchen wizards Roy’s Ka’anapali. You’ll want to get to Maui ASAP to try the food for yourself. Tasting is believing.

Thank you to chefs Roy, Troy, Taylor, Chung, and Graham for hosting and spending the day with us.

Top Chef Roy Yamaguchi

Chef Roy Yamaguchi is the Roy behind Roy’s Ka’anapali and serves as co-chair of the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival Team.

Ann: … what’s a stepping-stone profession to becoming a chef?

Chef Roy: … So, I think that’s also something that maybe some people might not, you know, might have thought of. A lot of chefs are musicians.

Ann: I didn’t know that.

Chef Roy: A lot of chefs have a past performing. I’m a drummer.

Ann: I was going to ask what is yours?

Chef Roy: Yeah, I’m a drummer.

Ann: Are you in a band?

Chef Roy: I was in a band. Guy plays guitar. I played in a band. Emeril Lagasse plays drums, too. So, there’s a lot of chefs that, you know, are pretty heavy-handed in music so I think that’s pretty cool.

Chef Troy Guard &  Huli-Huli

Ann: … tell us more about your path to becoming a chef.

Chef Troy: … and then every summer I’d come and visit my dad. My dad’s a big barbecue guy and people would hire him to huli-huli or

Ann: What’s huli-huli*?

Chef Troy: So, they have a spit and they just rotate it. And he would do pieces of beef on there, pork, anything like that. And actually, I’ll have to find some pictures, but every year for Thanksgiving, they’d have about fifty turkeys in the ground up in Kula (a district of Maui) and they’d tell everyone be here by 6 a.m. 

They drop it off and come back in six hours and everyone has their turkeys ready. 

Ann: Oh, you just cook it for them. That’s so unique.

Chef Troy: And then my mom was a great baker and loved cooking, but I went to junior college in San Diego, so for two years I worked in the kitchen, and I did, you know, schoolwork and then I was like, “I don’t know if I really like this.” I like cooking so I want to stay with it, but it wasn’t until I turned 21 I moved back to Maui and I started working at Roy’s (Yamaguchi) and then I was like “Wow?” So, he kind of took me under his wing and hats off to him. 

Ann: Why do you think it has taken so long for Americans to appreciate different foods?

Chef Troy: You know, I think, my opinion, it’s always been dumbed down right. So if you, again my opinion, if you eat Chinese food in Denver it’s dumbed down. If you eat Chinese food in New York it’s authentic. You have to cook for what people like and they’re used to a certain Mexican or certain Asian or a certain whatever, so you come here and it’s always the same stuff so now I’ve seen it really branch out.

*Huli-huli chicken is grilled chicken dish that is barbecued over mesquite wood and basted with a sweet sauce.

Chef Chung Chow Carries On with Carry-Out

Ann: What’s a dish or style of something you’d like to cook but haven’t worked up the nerve yet?

Chef Chung: Thai and Indian cuisine are tricky because you got to master the spices, right? That different combinations and stuff that I am not too familiar with because of spices in India I’ve never heard of before, and I think Indian cuisine is one of the harder ones.

Ann: Do you want to challenge yourself?

Chef Chung: You know I want to, but I don’t want to fail miserably too much … trying to attack doing it, so I think that’s one of the hard ones to do Indian cuisine. Yeah, good suggestion. 

Ann: So maybe we’ll find a new dish on the menu.

Chef Chung: Yeah …

Ann: So, how did you fare during COVID?

Chef Chung: In the beginning … it was a lot of challenges, right? How to deal with my staff, myself, you know. Every restaurant wants to stay open but you don’t want your staff to be compromised for it. You know getting people sick … whatever … especially in the beginning nobody knew how to deal with the disease yet. But, um yeah, we closed down for probably less than half a year. We opened for take-out, like a lot of people did. And I think, um, now that we obviously took all the precautions and everything we were supposed to do and we came out stronger and better. Our menus changed and adapted and became portable for a lot of people, yeah, before receiving it pretty well. 

Ann: … changed menu for carry-out?

Chef Chung: Yeah, the carry-out is better, so we have more grab-and-go style of food.

Ann: … with COVID, with the carryout, as far as economic, did you make it or …

Chef Chung: We got some PPP loan and stuff like that so that helped in the beginning when there was less business in the beginning, right. And eventually, um obviously carry-out picked up. It was really good in the beginning and when we finally reopened completely for the indoor dining and outdoor dining, not only did we get more, uh, business indoor and outdoors, but the business continued to go on, I mean not as much as before but it still kept us pretty busy.

Ann: I think it’s going to change the landscape …

Chef Chung: Carry-out in general with all the apps, yeah. 

Chef Taylor Ponte’s Popular Pop-ups

Ann: Back to the pop-up pod that you set up, do you think that’s great for advertisement?

Chef Taylor: I think so. It kind of keeps you on the road. It’s a lot like musicians going from one place to one place and you have to have a following you know. It’s hard not having a consistent area to do the dinners and whatnot. But it also forces me to have new menus, come up with creative ideas, come up with how I can execute out of that kitchen. It’s great for marketing because it’s constantly changing in the world where we are looking at social media. People aren’t really wanting to watch like really, really long things. They kind of a like short quick bursts and get back to what they are doing. Oh, so they’re at this place this week and this place.

Ann: What’s your favorite stop? [That you’ve done a pop-up at.]

Chef Taylor: Um, we really love Esther’s. We have a great relationship with them. They used to be bartenders at our old restaurant. And we have a great relationship with them. And uh, kind of a like-minded culinarians-bartenders. We want to have a great ambience, a great time, and use products that we all support and are happy to stand by. And they use a lot of their own syrups and thing they’ve made from herbs … I support that a lot. I love their place for that.

Ann: But is it challenging in the fact that it’s a new pop-up place? Do you find yourself missing the items?

Chef Taylor: Oh, extremely. It’s like being, uh, a drag racer and driving a different car. You know? You don’t know if the stove is going to work, if it’s calibrated. If they have a hood/good system. Most we have to talk to them months out, investigate the kitchen, check how it works, what kind of foods I can execute. Do they have a table to put food on, a dishwasher? Do they have an ice machine, proper refrigeration? It keeps you on your toes.

Ann: You said the stoves have to be calibrated. Can you explain that to me?

Chef Taylor: Yes, have you ever used someone’s oven and it takes longer to like brown something or it cooks really really fast. So, it’s under/over super calibrated. You know if the oven’s at 500 degrees and you put a thermometer in and it’s at 250. You know. It’s crazy. If you think about it, how difficult cooking Thanksgiving dinner is. Imagine doing it in a kitchen you’ve never used before. It can be stressful. But, that’s what the experience is …

Vote for Graham Elliot

Ann: Why do you think mainstream America has taken so long to know and appreciate good food and cooking?

Chef Graham: Uh, because, if you look at it, everything was farm-based, then after the war, there was, you know, we created the freeway system. Food was able to get shipped from point A to point B. So all the ingredients were as generic as you could get right? Tomato, iceberg, lettuce, you know, piece of chicken breast, whatever. So that’s what people were born and raised eating.

 Ann: I see …

Chef Graham: And there was no internet, travel, etc., where you were seeing regions of food, so you basically were eating what was right there in front of you, you know. And now in the last 20 years with the world getting smaller, with the internet, with social media now, cooking shows, things like that, everybody has been exposed to it, you know. It’s kind of like with music. If you only listen to what’s on the radio and it’s like Adele, you know, the Weekend, and whatever genres. It all kind of sounds the same, but then you really were exposed to tons of different genres, it was like oh my god, this is incredible and now I know way more about music than I ever thought I would. So, you know, exposure it’s the biggest thing.

Ann: What would the average person find surprising about you?

Chef Graham: Um, my love of history and politics. It’s what I want to do …

Ann:  Oh so, is that your second life?

Chef Graham: I think so. I think that I was just saying that the planet’s 5-billion years old and if we are lucky we live to be like 80 or 100 and to be able to build a vision in a kitchen for cooks to get behind servers doing TV and having millions of people at home, uh, like your personality. Why limit that to making a menu and collecting? Growing up in the Navy, you know my dad was in the Navy, going to 15 schools. I feel like I can get along with people right away and build consensus and so yeah, I’d love to do something like that. 

Ann: You have any idea what direction, where to start yet?

Chef Graham: Um, well they say all politics is local, right? So, you know, probably running for city council. Yeah, but I love the executive idea, right? Not legislative. So eventually like a mayor. I think would be the dream job. 

See? Chefs — they’re just like us! Each of us have our own dreams and pathways to make them come true. There is one thing we all share, though, and that is the love of delicious food. Let me remind you to add Roy’s Ka’anapali to your bucket list, and when you find out the magic sauce used for the eggs and toast, share with us.  I’ve just added a return visit to my bucket list. If I find out first, I’ll be sure to share.  Aloha.

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