Chef Jonathan Mizukami’s creativity and culinary wisdom shines through in three tempting tasting menus at The Kahala.
While many marveled at the stars while atop Haleakala, a young Maui native contemplated a different cosmic journey — one that would charter a course around the world, connecting him to some of the world’s finest three Michelin-star establishments. Decades later, after consorting with culinary celestials over his resplendent career, the deceptively boyishly-vis- aged Jonathan Mizukami has a wealth of expertise and a constellation of affiliations that enable him to deliver some of Hawai‘i’s most illustrious dining experiences at The Kahala Hotel & Resort, most notably at its flagship restaurant Hoku’s.
From an early age, Mizukami was exposed to a gamut of cuisines. “My mother was a good cook,” he proudly discloses. “We had goats, geese, duck eggs and unusual ingredients such as kohlrabi in the refrigerator. She would pick cuisines such as German, Thai or Japanese and cook them.” Excursions to fancy restaurants with an uncle further bolstered his ambition to become a chef.
After heeding his mother’s suggestion to attend Maui Culinary Academy, Mizukami established a firm foundation in the local milieu by working for Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. However, his sights were set on a bigger dream: to work for The French Laundry. He perused the restaurant’s cookbooks to acquaint himself with Thomas Keller’s style. With the assistance of his mentor Alan Wong, who personally knew Keller, he was awarded an opportunity to work at the Napa Valley landmark.
Two weeks of training at Per Se in New York and another day of instruction at The French Laundry made the line cook apprehensive as he performed solo at the canape station adjacent to Keller. “I heard new terms, spices and techniques that I did not know. I would write down words like ‘pimenton’ and ‘Esplette’ and look them up later.” However, he immediately adapted to the new vocabulary base.
During the winter when The French Laundry closed, he strategically chose some of the world’s most eminent restaurants at which to stage — Alinea under Grant Achatz, The Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal and the eponymous Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. In 2010, he worked an entire seven-month season at El Bulli under Ferran Adria, with the blessing of Keller. He became sous chef at The French Laundry and continued his tenure until contacted by an old friend, Charly Yoshida, who urged him to helm the kitchen at Vintage Cave.
Accepting the offer, Mizukami spent a year at the exclusive establishment before moving on to work with Chef Mavro for another. After one more year in Maui, he secured a position at The Kahala Hotel & Resort in January 2020.
“I want to create something that is unique to where I am and that creates a ‘sense of place,’” he asserts in his role as executive chef. “It is responsible to who I am, and that is respectful to my environment.”
Mizukami is inspired by flavors and seasonality. He appreciates the classics and prefers to deconstruct them before reconstructing them with his own twist, manipulating ingredients and techniques while infusing regionality. “Creating an experience unique to Hawai‘i is appreciated by locals, who see a refined version on things they grew up with, and by those from the Mainland, who get a slice of what locals have.”
The opus of his endeavors comes in the form of three menus — a tempting four-course tasting, an inspired “Tasting of Vegetables” degustation and a celebrated The Kahala Grand Tasting. While the other menus are brilliantly conceived and executed, I firmly believe that The Kahala Grand Tasting best chronicles Mizukami’s creativity, culinary wisdom and star-studded connections. The first bite, the Japanese-inspired Tartare of Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna, combines fresh fish with the smoky umami of a bonito gelee, luxuriated with a measure of Regiis Ova caviar and refreshed by scallion slivers. It is a seductive whisper, graceful and aromatic, that alludes to the enticing breaths ahead.
The zeniths of Maui’s hook that ensnare me are the intensely earthy, sugary gold- en and red gems in The Salad of Oprah Farm’s Beets. Mizukami befriended a Valley Isle farmer who tends the farm owned by Oprah Winfrey, the steward of the land whose mission is to provide food perpetually and to protect the ‘aina. Pairing the beetroots with crisp cucumbers, chef adds familiar strokes of texture with puffed rice, a slightly tangy foundation of creamy Big Island goat cheese balanced by a crowning mound of shiso ribbons, and a docile vinaigrette that extracts the natural sweetness and aromatics, preparing the palate for the next course.
My brow is elevated after the first bite of his Sweet White Hawaiian Canoe Potato Agnolotti. Sumptuously tiny parcels of creamy white sweet potato are enrobed in a delicate pasta that is one of Mizukami’s takeaways from The French Laundry. The palula, or braised potato leaves, and black Perigord winter truffles added to the emulsified butter sauce transports me to a heavenly state.
The Confit of Kona Kahala gently cures Almaco jack fish with salt before it is confited in olive oil. The integration of tart and sweet green apple juice, fatty avocado, crisp hearts of palm and peppery radish, and a finishing drizzle of mustard seed oil makes for an unconventional aggregate that may initially ambush the senses with its robustly juicy essences. However, once the palate adjusts, it is curiously brilliant in its concept, making it a delightful presentation.
The Lobster Luau Stew elevates the familiar by consolidating steamed taro leaves with butter-poached Keahole lobster braised in coconut milk. Curried shallot accents with smoky paprika aromatics cavort with the unconventional.
Implementing techniques that manipulate the senses, the Grilled Snake River Farms “Dry Age” Beef Rib Eye creates the impression of dry-aging through the use of koji, cooked rice or soy beans inoculated with a fermentation culture. The beef assumes a nutty profile, one with pungent blue cheese-like notes, that marries beautifully with a Gruyere pain perdu of brioche, braised endive and a caramelized onion jus enriched with veal stock. The amalgamation reconstructs the elements of flavors of a French onion soup but on a plate.
The first dessert, a “pavlova,” is a classic that is reconstituted with a local approach. The granite retains enough passionfruit acidity to gracefully balance the meringue’s sweetness and luscious vanilla custard. The follow-up Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate Tart featuring Maui’s only bean-to-bar chocolate on a buttery sablé crust is complemented by a Hawaiian red salt caramel and a scoop of haupia sorbet to consummate the stellar gastronomic expedition.
His Grand Tasting Menu will change twice a year with the gradual infusion of new dishes. “I love to keep creating new things, as ingredients and seasons keep me moving on to the next thing,” shares Mizukami, who may have reached another apogee in his career at one of the most iconic resorts in the world. Fortunately, his ever-evolving parallax to classical cookery and his expanding cluster of luminous connections will enable this star chef to continue burning bright for years to come.