It’s been a banner year for Senia. Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush reflect as their joint project turns one.
“It’s just food, let’s not take it too seriously” says Chris Kajioka who is sitting at Senia’s coveted corner booth behind the restaurant’s Chefs’ counter. From across the table, Anthony Rush adds “we want to make people happy and cook the food we like to eat.” Kajioka and Rush, Senia’s executive chefs and co-owners are despite the late afternoon, close-to-dinner service hour, relaxed as they reflect on their upcoming one year annivesary.
It’s not often a restaurant opening in Honolulu solicits the kind of national media attention Senia received. This includes a shout-out in The New York Times and an international contingent of avid followers who watched Senia’s pre-opening journey for more than a year on Instagram. When the doors finally opened on Dec. 14, 2016, there was a collective WOW.
The opening of Senia changed the expectations of what a Hawai’i restaurant could be: two menus and two experiences under one roof—a 12-course tasting menu served just seats away from a menu offering snacks and share plates, Hawai’i in tenor, but grounded in French discipline and technique. The menu reflects an understated duality where one chef is European and the other from Hawai’i. “I wanted Senia to be a neighborhood restaurant where you can come in weekly and have a few dishes and a glass of wine, but I also love the concept of the sushi counter, where the chef is right in front of you, interacting with you. You hear it all at the counter, you get input right away” says Kajioka, who before Senia never worked in a kitchen where diners are just a countertop removed from the kitchen.
How does Senia work with two executive chefs? “Chris and I worked at Per Se together and that experience grounds us with a common approach to cooking and how things work in kitchen. We have a huge amount of respect for each other, before Senia, Chris and I might not speak for months but it’s the type of relationship that you don’t need to” says Rush.
Beyond a shared professional background, their childhoods are similar in both knew before they were 10 that cooking was their calling. Growing up in Devon, England, Rush was just 7 when he felt that first rush of excitement “I made a quiche and lemonade in class for parent’s night” recalls Rush. By his teens he was cooking at the Horn of Plenty, followed by time at Le Champignon Sauvage cooking with chef David Everitt-Matthias when the restaurant was awarded its second Michelin star. Eventually making his way to the U.S. and The French Laundry. The year was 2002, and it was a fantastic time to be in the kitchen at The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller was in the kitchen cooking and for Rush it was an opportunity to work intimately with one of the world’s most exemplary chefs. When Per Se opened in New York City, Rush was on the opening team. He returned to the U.K. for a stint at The Fat Duck before returning to Per Se in 2008 where he and future Senia partner Chris Kajioka crossed paths.
“Every Halloween I would dress up as a chef, I would watch all the cooking shows as a kid” recalls Kajioka who says his favorite shows as a 4-year-old where Graham Kerr’s Galloping Gourmet and the PBS series Great Chefs of the World. He’s a little baffled on where this early food-love came from saying food wasn’t a focal point at home or in school. Adding more bewilderment, Kajioka who fell in love with Japanese cuisine on a first visit to Tokyo five years ago said growing up his mom didn’t cook traditional Japanese food. “She made baked spaghetti, she didn’t cook anything Japanese” says Chris who now visits Japan whenever he can and hopes to one day open a small Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. “I’d love to train as a sushi chef.” But for the near future, Kajioka’s roots are in Hawai’i where friends who are also investors in Senia put their faith in his talent after experiencing his cooking at Vintage Cave. Fueled by a passionate owner with deep pockets, Vintage Cave was Kajioka’s homecoming after cooking at Per Se in New York City, Azziz and Ron Siegel’s Dining Room in San Francisco, and the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. It was at Vintage Cave, supported by an owner who allowed him free range to create, that Kajioka found a platform to showcase his vision and culinary experiences. For many local residents it was a seminal moment, an exciting and proud moment to celebrate a Hawai’i-born and raised chef creating dining experiences they where accustomed to travelling off-island to enjoy. The investors came calling and gave Kajioka the chance to have his own venue.
At the same time Anthony was ready for a change and half-jokingly told Chris he’d move to Hawai’i to be his commis (apprentice) chef when his restaurant opened. Instead Chris invited Anthony and his wife, Katherine Nomura (Senia’s General Manager) to be partners.
What’s next for the partners? More collaborations. At Senia expect collaboration dinners in 2018 with visiting guest chefs, something Kajioka did frequently while at Vintage Cave. In the planning stages is a collaboration dinner with Brady Williams, the young chef of Seattle’s legendary Canlis restaurant.
The executives chefs will also be working with the Hotel Wailea, sharing their expertise and talent when the hotel opens its new dining concept, Ondine, in the fall of 2018. The Hotel Wailea is Hawai’i’s only Relais & Chateaux property and when the hotel’s owner and an investor in Senia asked them to consult on the food and beverage for the restaurant, both chefs where excited by the opportunity to be a part of the distingushed Relais & Chateaux community. Stay tuned for an exciting 2018 for Senia and beyond …