Cooking With Aloha
Sam Choy’s culinary legacy lives on in foodie-approved establishments here in Hawai‘i, as well as on the mainland and overseas.
Celebrity chef Sam Choy’s secret ingredient for success is aloha. Relatable, down-to-earth and brimming with enthusiasm for all things culinary, Choy is currently spreading aloha far and wide with a bevy of new restaurant openings and franchise locations, an upcoming breadfruit (‘ulu) cookbook, new in-flight menus for American Airlines, and the ongoing success of his ever-popular TV show, Sam Choy’s in the Kitchen, still going strong Sunday evenings on KHON2.
Although Choy spends a lot of time on the road, the longtime Big Island resident has never considered moving from North Kona, where he shares a home with his wife, Carol, that they built in 1984.
“Back in the ’80s, we were looking for a place to live in Kona that wasn’t too hot,” he says. “One day, we were driving around Palisades and saw a person pounding a stake into an empty lot for sale. We bought the lot and built (a) home there, where we raised our two boys and our dogs. My mom lived across from us; it was a real family thing.
“I thought, let’s do a restaurant in Kaloko and another one at the bowling alley, Sam Choy’s Diner. I had this vision. You build it and they will come.”
Today, Choy’s ever-growing culinary business has expanded across the globe. Currently, he has five restaurants and 12 food trucks in the Seattle area. This July, he will be opening a Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max franchise at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, by the Alaska Airlines gate. San Francisco International Airport is next on the horizon, which follows the success of his San Bruno location near YouTube corporate headquarters. In October, another Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max will be heading to Auckland, New Zealand.
Additionally, Choy recently unveiled Pier Nine by Sam Choy at Aloha Tower Marketplace in Honolulu. Open to the public, the 142-seat restaurant operates as Hawai‘i Pacific University’s student dining facility. Meanwhile, on Kaua‘i, Holoholo Grill at Kōloa Landing Resort at Po‘ipū features Sam Choy’s signature favorites like poke, island fish stew and braised short ribs.
“I like the challenge, it’s fun,” he says. “I’m a one-man working crew. You envision and start creating. That’s the nice and exciting thing, the opportunity to be creative and bring out the best. That’s what I like.”
Choy’s culinary career began at the venerable Hukilau Café in Lā‘ie, tucked away on O‘ahu’s North Shore, where he grew up. A local landmark to this day, the little diner was featured in the movie 50 First Dates.
“It was adjoined to my dad’s store,” Choy says. “I never went to culinary school, except for a few weeks at Kapi‘olani Community College. I was doing Hawai‘i regional cuisine in my mom and dad’s kitchen before it became a culinary movement.”
After a stint in New York City as head chef at Waldorf Astoria, Choy moved to Kona in the mid-1980s and served as executive chef at Kona Hilton (now Royal Kona Resort). Soon thereafter, his signature style was on full display at his first namesake restaurant, which opened in 1991 in Kaloko Industrial Park. The no-frills warehouse-style venue attracted visitors and residents alike.
“It really had the ‘wow’ factor of the food, and the prices were affordable,” recalls Choy. “That’s when the lobster started coming in … We had lobster salads with a full lobster cut in half and dropped onto the salad. They used to bring me salmon, and I’d fry it up whole.”
The Kaloko restaurant earned the Gallo of Sonoma American Award from James Beard Foundation in 2004. (Sam is also a four-time nominee for the James Beard Best Pacific Regional chef award.) In 2011, Sam Choy’s Kai Lānai restaurant opened at the former Wendy’s location perched above Keauhou Shopping Center. Although Choy is no longer affiliated with the restaurant, his name still shines on the marquee and menu.
Known as Hawai‘i’s culinary ambassador, Choy has hosted countless poke contests across the islands, and has authored more than 20 cookbooks, including three about poke. Last summer, he re-released his iconic first cookbook, With Sam Choy, Hawai‘i’s Easy Cooking From the Heart, published in 1995. He decided a wire-bound, softcover version would be perfect for the second edition.
Right now, he’s working on a cookbook entirely devoted to ‘ulu, slated to be unveiled by Christmas 2019.
“Growing up in Hawai‘i, we had breadfruit everywhere in our yards,” he says. “I’ve been pushing for this (‘ulu movement) for the longest time. I’m working with Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative on this book, as well as a doctor from Kaua‘i who saved 250 species there.
“The interesting part is that we are also coming out with a breadfruit vodka called Mutiny. It’s going to be huge.”
Choy, who enjoys mentoring young chefs, says the next generation of talent is really taking off. His best piece of advice is to pay attention to presentation.
“You got to create it where you see it on the plate,” he says. “You can’t just put everything in a pot, and here it is. I would never put a garnish on the plate if people aren’t going to eat it. Rosemary? No! It’s all about chemistry. You got to really put that balance in there. That’s the magic of food.”