A dream come true

D.K. Kodama finds success in restaurant business

Ten years ago, describing D.K. Kodama’s style was easy. He was the laid back, funny guy in shorts and slippers who ran a great sushi bar over on Maui.

When I first met him, and ate at Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar, I thought the concept so ideal for Hawaii and the chef so perfectly suited to the style, that we’d see a chain of Sansei’s before too long.

I was right on one level. There’s a blossoming empire of d.k. restaurants emerging throughout Hawaii but the surprising thing is that they’re not all sushi bars.

“It’s not that surprising to me, “Kodama says. “I like variety. I’ve always liked to do things a little differently, and each restaurant came about at the right time in the right way.”

What surprises him more, he admits, is he has more than one restaurant at all.

“I really always just had that dream of owning one restaurant,” he says. “From the moment I was bitten by the bug, I really wanted to have one restaurant that was all my own.”

Kodama spent time on the mainland working in hotels and restaurants, learned his trade and came back to Hawaii to open up his first restaurant with a group of investors. But it didn’t work out.

“I’m not good with partnerships,” he says. “I grew up with the team mentality, where everyone works together and a partnership doesn’t really do that. It’s more about egos and other people making decisions.”

So, left to his own devices, Kodama opened Sansei. It was an instant hit, which is something rare in the restaurant business, and even rarer on Maui.

“We had a lot going on in the beginning,” Kodama says, “and a lot of food and magazine writers helped to spread the word about us.” Before long, tourists began beating a path to the door of the good natured, shorts-clad chef. And really, that should have been it.

“It was my dream come true,” Kodama says. “This was something I had wanted to do since I was first bitten by the bug.”

In case it seems a little too easy, Kodama remembers the 16-hour days, 7-day weeks that he worked for three straight years.

“It was a lot of work,” he says. “And then I started to wonder, ‘What’s next?'”

Kodama arrived at the tail end of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, but had always been aware of chefs such as Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, and that these “local guys” were reaching phenomenal success with multiple restaurants.

“I saw Roy, and chefs like Jean Marie ( Josselin) opening two or three restaurants, and I started to look for a restaurant in Honolulu,” he says. So a second Sansei was born, and then the chef who has a passion for variety began to diversify.

“I love to try different things, I love variety,” he says. And with D.K., if he likes variety, then he’s pretty sure you’re going to too. “I love Italian food,” says the Oahu-born Kodama,

So Vino came next, and then it seemed like the perfect time to open Hiroshi’s. By now, Kodama had begun assembling a first-rate team that included Ivy Nagayama, one of Hawaii’s leading female wine experts and the (then) state’s only master sommelier Chuck Furuya.

“I believe in letting people do what they’re good at,” he says about his management style. And for Kodama, much of his own success comes from knowing what he can’t do.

“Of course I’m not good at everything,” he says. “And I think when you recognize that, you become a better team player. Letting everybody do what they’re best at, and leaving them to prove how good they are, works for us. When people are expert at one or two things, I rely on them to bring that excellence to our team.”

So far, it’s working beautifully. Between Vino, Sansei, Hiroshi’s and d.k.’s Steak House, Kodama has an enthusiastic, vibrant, passionate staff who obviously love what they do.

But if the upside of running a growing chain of successful restaurants is that you get to serve the food you like, with the attention to detail that it deserves, then the downside is surely spending less time in the kitchen.

“I have been out of the kitchen for a while,” Kodama says. “And really, it’s what I love to do. Creating the food, playing with new flavors, making food that just tastes good, that’s what it’s about for me.”

So recently, he’s been back at the chopping board. “We’re working on developing new styles of sushi,” he says, remembering the early days of Sansei where the hand rolls were pink and green, and he once made a picnic lunch for a contest with a live waiter in the basket. “We’re doing ceviches and rice-less sushi and tartars, and different kinds of hand rolls,” he adds, with building enthusiasm. No doubt inspired by the fact that world-renowned chef, Nobu Matsuhisa has arrived in town, Kodama is back in creative mode, redefining sushi in Hawaii.

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