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Balancing Upscale Cuisine And Community Cooking

Chris Kajioka is known for fine dining favored by tourists and travelers, but the pandemic solidified a new commitment to the serving his community first.

Chef Chris Kajioka has been a nominee and semifinalist for multiple James Beard Awards over the years. He’s currently chef and partner at Hawaii restaurants Senia, Miro Kaimuki, Papa Kurt’s, and the new Hau Tree.

We were set to open Miro the third week of March 2020. The pandemic started to surface a little bit that February, but it hadn’t really come to Hawaii yet. We had onboarded staff, and we were doing friends-and-family dinners. We had just released reservations. We were booked up for a month. Then the state shut down in the last week of March.

It was shocking. I don’t think any of us quite knew how serious it really was going to be. A lot of people thought it would be over in a couple of months. For a week or two, I was like, “Oh, my God. What do I do?” We had hired all the cooks already—cooks need a little bit more time with training. Front-of-house people hadn’t been onboarded yet.

We had to figure it out. We did a lot of different things. We started with higher-end meals to go. We did that for a few weeks. We were originally going to do a prix-fixe menu. But food that goes into a takeout situation is much, much different. The food’s got to be suited for that. So it was one pivot after another until we figured out something that worked. Then we started to do these $12 bentos. It was very simple, local food. That was a hit—we would sell 1,000 a week.

That was game changing for us, because we reached a lot more customers. People who would not typically come to the restaurant started hearing about it. By May, we would sell out within an hour or two for the whole week. But it was a blessing in disguise, because we really got to touch a lot more people.

The dining room at Miro Kaimuki. Photo: Kevin Kabei.

Still, we were shell-shocked for about three months. The state finally opened in June. It was so busy. We didn’t have time to think about anything else except getting the job done every day. After those three months, there were a lot of pent-up people wanting to get out.

We were open for about two months, and then the cases in Hawaii started rising every day. As a business owner, I feel very responsible for the health of my employees. We were so busy that I thought that any day someone could get it. It was prime time. We were packed every night. It was getting to a point where I asked my staff if they felt safe. A few of them who lived with their grandparents said no. If someone got sick, I don’t know how I would feel. So I made the decision to close for June, July, and August.

We closed down and regrouped. We took a month off. We paid everybody because we had some cash flow at that point. We started back in October when the city got under control again. We ebbed and flowed with how the city was doing. We operated in October, November, and December pretty normally, but with a ton of restrictions.

Papa Kurt’s definitely came out of my experience with those bentos. I’m not necessarily known to cook that kind of food, but I grew up in Hawaii eating it. It was one of those ideas, like, “Why don’t we have a concept of hits more people?” It’s a change of mindset, wanting to serve the community versus serving a few people. That really came to light during the pandemic because a lot of the places that are supported by locals are fine. The rest of Waikiki and the tourist places are still closed. We were very fortunate.

In the last few years, I’ve had a change of mindset where I don’t necessarily want to just serve tourists or destination travelers. I want to focus more on my community. I think anyone who grows up in Hawaii is extremely proud to be from here. I wanted my places to reflect the locals. It just so happened that this mindset came up during the pandemic. It proved to me that there are people who would probably never come to Senia or Miro Kaimuki who are now enjoying something geared toward the same style, but at a different price point. I think that has a lot more impact.

Cheeseburger at Papa Kurt’s. Photo: John Ulep.

Any time you have a really great team around you, you feel reassured. So either we continue and we don’t grow, and they leave, or we grow and they’re given an outlet. That’s what it came down to. Obviously it was much more difficult opening in 2020, but I have people around me that I trust, that I’ve spent years with. I know they’re going to make the right decisions.

Miro is obviously not a $12 bento restaurant. We do six courses for $65. For me, from living in San Francisco and New York, I think that’s probably one of the best values. We spend a lot of time sourcing great, local ingredients. I could raise prices—and probably should, business-wise. But we are in a community that I grew up in, a neighborhood that I grew up in. The restaurant doesn’t serve the community if it’s a high-priced tasting menu. The menu is a reflection of what’s going on right now in Hawaii, so I want everyone to be able to come. I think we’re seeing that.

I’ve always been pretty hands-on—probably too hands-on. I’ve learned, now that I have more than one place now, to trust and delegate. I’m lucky that I have great people. My trust level is very high with them. Going forward, seeing how many people were affected by the pandemic just in our state alone, that trust really needs to be a huge focus of mine going forward.