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Hawaiian Chef Chad Yamamoto On Abundant Fish And Community Spirit

Living in the spirit of ohana, while making time to stay uncomfortable.

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Born and raised in Pāhoa on the island of Hawaii, Chad Yamamoto has been working as a chef for 27 years, most recently at the Four Seasons Hualalai’s ULU Ocean Grill and now as the executive chef at Merriman’s Hawaii, which has shut down for the pandemic.

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Here in Hawaii, it’s not as crazy as the rest of the world. But for such a small community it’s pretty scary. We temporarily shut down Merriman’s, but we still come in every so often to keep an eye on it—making sure the electrical is okay, run the fans, check coolers, make sure there are no gas leaks.

Just like any restaurant all over the world, normally the fishermen bring you their catch of the day, tell you what recently came in, what they’re going to get. The farmers tell you what’s going to be growing. A few weeks ago, I had four separate farmers walk in through the door unannounced, saying, “We got fresh Buddha’s hand, fresh rambutan, snapper, fresh Tahitian limes.” And those are the things that you can’t say no to. Yes, I’ll take whatever you have.

I have one fishmonger that calls me every day and emails the price listings on what they have available. For the local fishermen, the crisis impacts them a lot. Living on a small island, you have nowhere else to go. Fish prices dropped almost 80 percent. Something that was 20-something-dollars a pound, they’re selling it for almost $5 a pound.

But as scary as it may sound, especially economy-wise, it’s also a break for the environment right now. It’s an unfortunate situation, but it helps out the environment. It actually gives fish a break, you know?

When you think about the future and the sustainability of our profession, once you give that environment that time to breathe, to relax, everything else comes back together as an abundance. So I feel like it’s going to be a good thing. Instead of worrying “if I’m going out, how much am I going to catch?” When you get that time, you get that break—everything comes together, and you don’t have to worry about not catching anything or bringing something back. If you take what you need, you’ll get what you need.

We all knew that overfishing was probably one of the biggest issues, with fish farming and how we’re going to do fish farming. But now everybody wants wild, or if it’s sustainable, they want it done the right way. With all this happening, it gives the opportunity for the environment to get back to where it was. Two or three months is a long time.

It’s scary and exciting at the same time. We will bounce back, and when we bounce back it’s going to be even better. There is some small business outreach going out to everyone. Not only to the restaurants, but also to the farms, fishermen, and whoever owns a small business. A lot of the fishermen out here are not commercial—they do it as a hobby or a side job. You got guys that do it on the weekends. You have people who work in construction, other people who work in the hospitality business. Anytime they get weekends off or a three-day weekend, their hobby turns into a little side business. My brother is an electrical contractor, and on the weekend he does a lot of fishing. Whatever he catches, he either gives it to the family or goes out and sells it.

Almost all the restaurants out here closed, especially at the resorts. Four Seasons closed down, the Marriott closed down—so all that fish, it has to go somewhere. The local fishermen will take a little hit with that, but they will be fine. One of the fish guys that I deal with, he calls me up and says, “Hey, can you help me out? I have so many snapper that I need to get rid of and I don’t want to lose it. I’ll give it to you at this price.” So I called some of the team members and said “If you want some fish at good prices to feed the family, we can get it for $5 a pound versus $20 a pound.” Just to take it off their shoulders so that they have no loss versus even wasting the fish.

So now we cook it for the family. That was one outreach—If you’re going to give it to us at $5 a pound, we’ll have the community come in, and we’ll buy it versus a business.

As a restaurant, we’re doing little care packages for the front-of-house staff and kitchen staff, and also for the farmers that we work with. We’re working with a farmer named Hudge, and he supplies a lot of the vegetables for the restaurant, so we went out and bought vegetables from him and made little packages for the team.

We look at the farmers as part of the team—you want to make sure they’re well taken care of. We have around 10 to 12 different farmers that we work with. A lot of them are worried, but they know what is best for the restaurant industry. They know that sustainability is key. If we can take the right steps now, we’ll sustain the future.

Photo: Courtesy Chad Yamamoto.

If we have no farmers, we have no restaurant. If we have no fishermen, we have no restaurant. We have no ranchers, we have no restaurant. And that’s what I mean by the sustainability of the business—closing our doors is not only going to help us sustain the restaurant’s future, but everybody else’s, too.

When you have a small community, everyone tries to support as much as they can. You can see the community going into the local places doing the takeouts. I’ve done it myself, as much as I can. We call it “ohana,” which means family. Hawaii is a lot about community. Everyone knows everyone growing up. And if you’re here long enough, you’ll hear that word. Especially when you work in the kitchen and you’re working at a restaurant, one thing that everyone says is that we treat each other like family because we spend a lot of time here—weekends, holidays—and so, community is big. Ohana is what we say.

If you look, everyone’s kind of coming together a little bit more. For me it’s strange—in 27, years I’ve never had a break like this before, even when I’m on vacation, you know? The first three days I didn’t know what to do because all I know is one thing, and that’s work. Being in the restaurant business, we work 10, 12, 14 hours a day. We work weekends, we work holidays. So staying home is like “Wow, in two months we can catch up more than in a year.” So I spend my days at home, hanging out with my wife, my granddaughter, unless I have to come up here and check on the restaurant.

But we don’t know what the future is going to hold, especially for smaller businesses. It’s scary to run a restaurant. It’s a lot of money.

If you just do the right thing, by making sure that everyone is taken care of, as well as your staff—they need to come back and work for you. Right now it’s about just doing all the right moves and knowing where you can save that extra dollar to help you reopen, because reopening is going to be just as hard as running. You’ve got to restock your inventories, open up a couple of days before you actually open to get things cleaned up, get the coolers working again. It takes a certain amount of money to open up, before you even start making money.

As much as possible, we try to take it day by day. We reach out to the team to see how everyone is doing and ask if anyone needs assistance financially or spiritually or whatever it is. That’s why we do these grab bags every week, to see how they’re actually doing when they come in and pick up a bag of food. Some of them love this time—they finally got to spend some time with their family and have different opportunities that they can actually do now that they have the time.

Being a state where it’s summer year round and everybody wants to get out, and also being a very active community, it’s very difficult. On the island we don’t have as much medical assistance as some places. The roads are empty, the shopping centers are empty, and everyone’s doing their part. Being a small community, they want to see it bounce back as soon as possible.

Seeing the numbers rise, it’s terrifying. The US has the highest number of cases in the world right now. When it first started here, Hawaii had only seven confirmed cases, and by the end of that week it doubled, and then it started tripling and quadrupling. So it’s very scary. You’re very conscientious of what you do now, when you go out and go to the gas station to pump some gas, you’re like, “Okay, I’m not going to touch that handle or I need to wash my hands soon after.”

Hawaii is not like living in any part of the world. We’re like our own country, as you would say. It’s a special place. It’s very cultural and lives by its own sets of rules. The way we live, the way we treat each other. The community is tight.

The hardest thing during this period has been shutting down the restaurant and knowing that you don’t know where anyone’s fate lies. You don’t know how much you’re going to bounce back, or how long it’s going to take to get back. And that is scary.

But the surprising thing is seeing how positive everyone is. Usually when it gets this bad, a lot of people will think about themselves—which is the smart thing to do as well—but seeing everyone come together and support each other is amazing.

Photo: Courtesy Chad Yamamoto.

Evolving is what we want to be, right? We always want to evolve and sometimes your best work comes out of the pressure of being in an uncomfortable situation.

Sometimes being uncomfortable is what’s best for us in this business. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not going to take that next step. It’s necessary in order for you to keep learning and keep that passion and drive. When I was at the Four Seasons, where I was very successful and very stable, I was terrified of leaving. But I told myself, you got to live up to your own words. I got a pretty cool offer at Merriman’s, and I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And to this day I’m still uncomfortable.