2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Jojo Vasquez is no stranger to the limelight. A former Morimoto sous chef (and later chef de cuisine), he was one of the chef's assistants for two seasons of “Iron Chef America.”
But it wasn’t always bright lights for Vasquez. It was food. Growing up in Chicago, Vasquez began his culinary sojourn as his father’s “mini sous,” helping with the family’s Chinese-Filipino catering business. After a quick detour through physical therapy training, Vasquez enrolled in the culinary program at Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois, eventually graduating with a culinary degree. Vasquez then took a line cook job at Rhapsody at the Chicago Symphony Center. He later worked alongside Troy Thompson in Atlanta’s Fusebox, and in 2000 moved to Los Angeles to help open the Jer-ne restaurant as sous chef to Thompson.
In 2005, he earned the title of chef de cuisine at Banyan Tree at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, though he left a few years later to join Morimoto’s team as executive chef at Morimoto Waikiki. Vasquez returned to Banyan Tree in 2010, bringing with him his refined approach to cooking, which included notes of molecular gastronomy from his tours of Spain and France, a love of pan-Asian flavors, and his desire to further refine Hawaiian cuisine. In late 2012 he joined The Plantation House as executive chef.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Jojo Vasquez
Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jojo Vasquez: My father. We had our own catering business. I’ve pretty much been bred into the hospitality industry. In the Filipino world, we eat, we party, we dance. Having a catering company, it was all hands on deck: prepping, cooking, serving. It taught me what had to be done. Then the serving aspect of hospitality is about the celebration. It wasn’t a hard thing for me to decide. When I got older, it was a major change. It wasn’t what I went to school for. When I went to culinary school, I had a base of knowledge, and was the focused one that rolled everything through. I went to my first restaurant and all the cooks were college alumni.
NR: So were your parents happy about your move into the cooking world?
JV: My mom was just rehashing how I originally went into physical therapy (that’s what they wanted me to do). I was in an advanced anatomy and physiology class. It was easy for me, but there was enlightenment for me during a class. Somebody said, “you’re really good at this stuff but it doesn’t seem like you like it.” And I realized that it wasn’t my passion.
NR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JV: I think the best of what is happening now is that whether it is the harvest of a vegetable, or protein, it is all encompassed with infusing various techniques. I always want to have a “wow factor” to showcase the best of all elements.
NR: How do you feel about molecular cooking?
JV: I dabbled in molecular gastronomy. I’ve traveled to Paris and Barcelona. And I was just in Chicago. Back in the day I was immersed in [molecular gastronomy]. It is used in my cuisine only as a garnish. It is never the star of the plate. I like to keep my menu very simple, but it’s something that you would love to eat. [I] want to get layers of flavor, something you know you cannot replicate at home. That’s what separates [us] from other restaurants.
NR: What culinary trends do you see in the Maui?
JV: In Maui, we aren't really big on trends. Since a majority our guests are visiting from all over the world we just take every opportunity to showcase what our beautiful islands have to offer using different styles and approaches.
NR: Why did you change to Plantation House?
JV: I’m in a clubhouse-style restaurant, but have a majestic view of Molokai. It is beautiful. I’m going to have an army of golf carts like mini-food trucks. We are renovating the whole kitchen, from start to finish. I’m working with a real entrepreneur who is doing it right way.
NR: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JV: I’m very particular in asking everybody to do the best of who they are everyday. I shoot for very high goals, because if I miss them, I’m still at a high level. I want to make this place the best.
NR: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JV: Here are a few of my tried and true rules to work by: Be true to your craft. Give the best of yourself everyday. Find a mentor chef and be a sponge. Write everything down. Be in it to win it. Work on consistency and speed will follow.
NR: How was it competing on “Iron Chef”?
JV: Intense. The cooking part wasn't hard. I needed to be focused on the final product and take care of my chef. I grew up always having a competitive edge so the quest to win is addicting. I would love to do it again for myself one day.
NR: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
JV: In the beginning of my career I cooked for three years straight and by passed vacations because I had to make money to survive. I knew of classmates from culinary school that were planning trips to different parts of the world to either stage or travel on culinary sabbaticals. The only way I could have gone is if I put myself into debt. I had to pass. I do wish that during that time when I was younger I took that leap and immersed myself into cuisines while spanning the globe.
NR: How do you define Hawaiian cuisine?
JV: A mixed plate of ethnic backgrounds represented with the pristine local fare amongst our islands. The Hawaiian cuisine is as diverse as its heritage. The window to the local chef is only changed by their style and presentation.