Meet 'Fusion' Chef Roy Yamaguchi

I jumped on the chance to interview James Beard Award winning Chef Roy Yamaguchi, having enjoyed dining at multiple locations of his Roy's Hawaiian Fusion restaurant across California and Arizona. The Japanese-born Yamaguchi opened the first Roy's in a suburb of Honolulu, Hawaii in 1988.

I’ve often referred to Roy's as my “favorite chain restaurant” and was curious how Yamaguchi had created a 30-plus location restaurant chain where each location was not a carbon copy of the next.

Aside from a handful of SoCal restaurants (Anaheim, Downtown Los Angeles, Newport Beach, Pasadena, Woodland Hills,) he has deeper local ties, having ran a restaurant on La Cienega in the '80s called 385 North. "A lot of Asian influence with French food," he said of the food. "Really, nobody was doing that. It was well received, but we just didn’t executive financially, so it didn’t work out.”

Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion recently launched a rewards promotion, the Ohana Tour, that runs until August 31. “We were looking for ways to get in touch with or guests more,” he said. “Since we have five restaurants that are in close vicinity, we felt that it would be a good chance for us to reach out and have this program where the guests can come to three of the five.” The grand prize is a trip to Hawaii to dine with Yamaguchi.

LAist recently had a chance to chat with Chef Roy, in from Hawaii, who was paying a visit to his Woodland Hills location on Topanga Canyon.

LAist: What is the philosophy of Roy’s food?

Roy Yamaguchi: In a nutshell, I still have the same philosophy that I started many, many years ago -- this Hawaiian fusion. Our food started with the memories of my childhood, of having my father cook for us. Basically, the flavors that we have today’s on our menus are flavors that I had as a kid and along with that I spent time with Hawaii growing up, working in my grandfather’s market, being able to see the seafood the produce as a child. I think that was embedded in me.

Our food relates to spring and summer because it’s light and refreshing compared to something that’s heavy and dense.

We still have to make sure to give a reason why our guests should continue to come to us. In that sense we have to make sure to keep our eyes open, be creative, come up with these new dishes, but at the same time, keep our classics, keep what made us Roy’s.

What are some of your classics?

Blackened Ahi, for sure. Probably the Misoyaki Butter Fish -- that’s a dish that’s been around in Japan for ages. Our Szechuan Babyback Pork Ribs.

Talk about the importance of regular customers to Roy’s.

You reach back to when we first started Roy’s in Hawaii. Back then my daughter was four and my son was just born. We wanted a restaurant where we could cater to kids and to really take care of them. I felt that we would be better off if we were able to take care of our kids rather than having them go to a babysitter, and for them to experience good food and a good environment.

At the same time, you have to look at Hawaii and say “what’s important to Hawaii?” What’s important to Hawaii is just generations of people eating together. From the time we started our restaurant, we used to have grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren eating together.

How much control do you have over each location?

If I had to approve of everything they did we would not have all these Roy’s. Our guests sit down and say “what can you do for me today that’s not on the menu.” “What can you do for me spontaneously,” for instance. So, naturally our chefs have to be strong. If they have to say, “I have to get the approval from Roy,” then we’re not doing our job. What I have to do, and what our team has to do, is make sure we make our chefs strong enough to be able to perform.

Do your menus change seasonally?

We try to utilize what’s fresh for the day, or what’s in for the season. So, naturally, if there’s things that’re seasonal that’re grown in the areas that our restaurants are in, we try to utilize that, rather than just having something on the menu for twelve months. It’s up to each restaurant to focus in on what’s fresh in that region, and to try to use seasonal fruits and different types of vegetables that the farmers may be growing around the area.

Are there types of fish you won’t serve?

I don’t want to serve shark. In Hawaii, some people’s spirit are sharks, so when you start eating sharks, you’re taking away someone’s spirit. A lot of times, you see a lot of people get attacked by sharks. I don’t mess around with sharks. *laughs* I also don’t serve Walu, cause it’s too oily. It doesn’t break down in your stomach.

What about mercury content?

You have to understand that just because someone tells you that tuna has a high mercury content, that doesn’t mean that all tuna has a high mercury content. You have to take a look at where your fish is coming from and how big are they and how you think they may be effected in that area. In Hawaii, our waters are pretty clean. An older fish can collect any type of disease. It could carry more parasites because it’s a larger fish.

Do you have a favorite restaurant chain?

I love In ‘N Out, for burgers. I like Perkins, for breakfast. If you want eggs and pork chops or eggs and ham for breakfast, Perkins in incredible. If I’m going to get comfort food, you have to go to Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is where I get my chicken fried chicken with gravy, a side of overcooked green beans, and beet tops or turnip tops. You can’t beat it. Cracker barrel is where I get my fix.

Have you opened restaurants in markets that have proved difficult?

Texas is pretty hard for us. Texas is a meat state. People love their food there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more of a barbecue and steaks. I’m not sure you can change that in our lifetime but it’s a great state to be in.

Where do you have to eat when in LA?

I’ve always tried to go back to eating at Matsuhisa because Nobu is a really good friend of mine. I’ve known him for about 26 years now. Nobu used to come to Roy’s as a guest chef in Hawaii when I first stated out. He used to come every year to visit me and be a guest chef until he started expanding and now he doesn’t really have the time to come to Hawaii except when he visits his own restaurant.

I don’t really have the chance to visit some of the more happening places because I’m always in the restaurants working. Other than that, like going to Japan, I try to maybe eat a bowl of noodles somewhere, like Little Tokyo.

Mobile food trucks have grown very popular in LA. Is this something you’ve thought about?

I think that if you have a restaurant it’s probably a good thing to have a truck because you can actually market your restaurant.

It’s kind of interesting because the truck has been around for such a long time. Food trucks in Hawaii have always been big, especially on the North Shore of Oahu where you have all those shrimp trucks. I used to go to shrimp trucks 20 years ago and have deep fried shrimp. Now, in LA, you have all of these different trucks popping up.

Would you open one?

Not anywhere other than Hawaii. I like the reasoning behind a food truck, because number one, you can go to different places and park so you can reach a lot of different clientele. At the same time you’re not paying rent. When you don’t pay rent there’s a lot of things you can do for your guests. You can give more back to your guests.

When you start paying rent, you start paying for support, then you have to charge more for it, because you just have to, you have to pay for over heard. If you have a truck -- which is very little overhead -- you can move it, so you’re not paying a constant rent, and then you can cut back on your labor. If you do 200 guests from a truck, you’re not going to have maybe four people. If you do 200 people here, we have to have a full staff.

Are you going to create a new brand, beyond Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion?

In Hawaii, in August, I’m going to be opening The Princeville Tavern on the North Shore of Kauai. We’ll see if it works. My grandfather left Japan when he was 19 and settled in Maui. He ended up opening a tavern in the 1940s. He’s the reason why I’m doing a tavern. His was really just for feeding the plantation workers comfort foods for a quarter or a nickel or something -- big pot of stew, big pot of curry. I figured I’d do a tavern, a more upscale tavern than he did, naturally. You can’t sell anything for 25 cents anymore.


Photos courtesy Roy's Hawaiian Fusion

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