This year, award-winning Chef Roy Yamaguchi is celebrating 20 years of Roy's, his eponymous high-end restaurant chain. He's throwing himself a big party and is celebrating at his restaurants around the globe. I recently had a chance to talk with him, and he was such a delight! He has morning breakfast rituals with his son, and got into cooking to meet ladies! To find out more about Chef Roy, including what he thinks of the current celebrity-chef trends,
YumSugar: Thanks for chatting with us so early [it was 8:30 a.m. his time].
Roy Yamaguchi: Oh it's not that early, I've been up since 5 or 5:30. I usually get up and have breakfast with my son.
YS: What did you have for breakfast?
RY: There are two places I go for breakfast. One place is called Zippy's, it's a local coffee shop sort of place, and the other is Ruger Market. Today I went to Ruger Market. I go with my son and we always order the same thing, chicken long rice. Basically it's chicken that's cooked with rice noodles. We always get that, and the ahi poke and the pork laulau. And what we do is we always sit on a bench right outside the market near the parking lot.
YS: So it's been 20 years since you opened up the first Roy's. Did you ever think it would grow into an internationally-acclaimed enterprise?
RY: No, but at the same time, when we first started — actually that's a question I get asked a lot. What happened is that even I never thought we'd get this big, what I did was surround myself with very talented people.
YS: So what have you learned after all this time?
RY: For me, I've learned every day. The greatest thing about my role is that every day there's something new that happens to our company or to myself. There's not really one thing that comes to mind, but it's a great learning experience. I'm able to use my mind, my eyes, my hands, and my passion to work with every situation. Every day I wake up and feel energized to come to work.
YS: Speaking of passion, how'd you get started?
RY: I had a friend in high school, he asked me if I would consider taking home ec. I said I don't know what that is. He said don't worry about it, we'll be able to meet a lot of girls. [Laughs] I took it with him and fell in love with it. Don't get me wrong, my father loved to cook, he made most of the meals at home. So I already had that experience at home. I took home ec and a light just shined. At the end of the semester we made a Thanksgiving dinner and I invited the school counselor as my guest. He really enjoyed it and he said, "Hey Roy what do you want to do with your future? Cooking could be something interesting."
YS: Have you ever talked to him again?
RY: Unfortunately, he passed away years ago, but I did have a chance to talk to him and the teachers that wrote the recommendations.
YS: Is there anything you'd do differently in your career?
RY: Well, no, not different. At the end of the day, I think the greatest thing that can happen to an individual is that you can learn from your mistakes. Before Roy's, I had a restaurant that didn't work out. Those things are heart wrenching and tough, but because of situations like that, I was able to decide to open Roy's and really figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.
YS: What's your opinion of the word "fusion"?
RY: Well, when I first started out, fusion was not a bad word. Then halfway into it, fusion became a bad word all of a sudden. Then you turn around and today it's a good word again. To me, fusion never had a bad connotation. It's just what I did. I come from being raised in Japan and then the US and then living in Hawaii, you know what I mean?
There's cross-cultural things that make our world what it is today. So fusion's needed to infuse cultures into things, but some people were doing weird things. But to me, fusion means progress. A lot of thinking is needed to put it together in a way that's better than the stand alone. So to me, fusion is a great word. It's telling people who we are.
YS: What do you think of the whole celebrity-chef culture?
RY: Well, there's two sides to the story. First there's the old-school celeb chefs who have become popular because of their great reputation in the culinary world. Then there's your so-called celebrity chefs that have made it through media via TV or Internet. And I mean, I'm not saying it's right or wrong, or one is better or not, but my personal opinion is that great chefs have gone through a lot of hard work building a foundation and spending time as an apprentice and working at restaurants. Then there's the chefs that become popular overnight because of TV. I'm not saying you have to cook a long time to be a great chef, I mean some people can cook for 50 years and still be a lousy chef. Years aren't really a big factor, but at the same time, when you do build a foundation, then you become a solid individual.
As for celebrity stardom, I think it's great for the industry and makes it more well known. But I don't want the people who have made it big via media to get, well how can I say it, get cocky, or think they're the greatest things ever. That would kill the industry. They should continue to educate and institute, because they're who the young kids look up to.
YS: Thanks for talking with us, I don't want to take up too much more of your time. Do you have any words of advice for the home cook?
RY: Keep it simple. Not everyone can afford to go out and buy kobe beef, but try and buy the best you can and the freshest you can. Stay organized and have everything ready. A good kitchen is a happy kitchen.
If you're interested to learn more about Chef Roy — he was so much fun to speak with! — you'll be able to see him at the remaining dates of his 20th Anniversary Culinary Tour.
San Francisco, CA — Thursday, April 10
Chicago, IL — Thursday, May 22
Philadelphia, PA — Tuesday, Aug. 19
New York, NY — Wednesday, Sept. 17
Atlanta, GA — Tuesday, Sept. 23
Baltimore, MD — Thursday, Sept. 25
For more info, contact the Roy's near you.