Industry Spotlight: Chef James Aptakin, Chef/owner Layers of Flavor, Seafood winner, World Food Championships.

Exciting food trends are developing in Hawai‘i’s restaurant scene. The islands have always been a mixed plate of cultures and ethnic cuisines and that mix is more prevalent today than ever, with chefs bringing their backgrounds and techniques and fusing them with Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

You have more chefs from New York and Japan and elsewhere bringing new techniques, elevating the quality of people’s dining experiences.

Chefs are using more nontraditional cuts of meat; fermenting and pickling vegetables and working more with farmers. Now we have better access to produce that we didn’t have six years ago making our vegetarian cuisine better than ever.

Presentation of food has always been important but in this social media world, we survive based on how our food looks. Two different restaurants can have the same two dishes, but if one is presented better, that is the one that will get the social media attention and potentially, bring in more customers.

As a result, chefs are creating one-off signature dishes — like the crazy pancake we had at MAC 24/7. [Editor’s note: The Mac Daddy Pancake Challenge invites diners to tackle a stack of three 14-inch, topping-covered pancakes in 90 minutes to get the meal for free. It is a task Adam Richman of “Man v. Food” could not conquer, as aired on the Travel Channel in 2009.]

A challenging environment

Some restaurateurs have had success with fast-casual concepts that require less labor in order to survive the labor epidemic that we’re going through. The food hall trend that started at places like Oxbow Public Market in Napa a decade ago, spread to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Hawai‘i in venues like Shirokiya’s Japan Village Walk and The Street at International Market Place. Food halls that bring restaurants and chefs under one roof with a beer garden and communal tables are celebrating food at costs people can afford. You can sit at a table, meet people from other places, be social and have relatively cheap food and drink  — and experience different cultures while sharing aloha.

Leadership must listen

We’ve had a huge jump in the number of restaurants in the past two years without enough people to staff them. Now, even long-time restaurants are closing, not because they don’t serve good food, not just because of lease issues, but because they don’t have enough staffing to ensure consistency of service. Beyond that, the workforce has changed. People complain about the mindset of millennials, but until we learn how to communicate effectively with them and motivate and inspire them, we will not see the work ethic we need. To learn how to inspire and motivate them, we need to listen to them, learn the way they think and have us understand them. One of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is to seek to understand before seeking to be understood. If we do that, maybe the younger generation will be inspired to seek out rare opportunities, such as the one granted to me by the late, legendary chef Joël Robuchon, to stage at his restaurant. I did a week. It was intense. Just cleaning asparagus took three hours because of his dedication to perfection. He was about taking the simplest food and creating the wow factor.

Loving the life

One of the things I love about being a chef in Hawai‘i is that nobody’s in competition. In San Francisco, chefs are guarded. They hide their secrets and talents in competitions, but in Hawai‘i, chefs are sharing and collaborative, I mean, it truly is ‘aloha,’ nobody is trying to beat anybody. My travels providing catering and consulting services for my company, Layers of Flavor, keep me busy much of the time, but I have ongoing commitments for community events I love participating in like the Lemonade Alley student business competition in April; Mangoes at the Moana in July and this is my fifth year as chef-coordinator for cooking demonstrations at the Made in Hawai‘i Festival. This life gives so much to chefs that we must give back and it’s a pleasure to do so. I got invited to be a judge at the Awamori Cocktail competition as part of the annual Okinawan Festival, and every year I support the Muscular Dystrophy Association by donating wine dinners and my services to the silent auction. This year I was a judge and MC with Guy Hagi. In October I’ll be in California as an MC and host for the taping of a show featuring high-end celebrity chefs that I’m inviting, like Marcel Vigneron and Chris Oh, the Koreatown chef from Los Angeles who recently opened Chingu in Honolulu. It was an honor to be chosen for the role. Closest to my heart, however, is serving at-risk youth and cooking for events that benefit programs for foster kids, such as an event coming up for Family Programs Hawai‘i, in early October.

To learn about Chef Aptakin, check out the website and social links below



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