In 1987, when Roy Yamaguchi was one of L.A.'s youngest top chefs, his ambitious restaurant 385 North ran into trouble and had to close. I asked him what he was planning to do next, expecting to hear about some new concept fusing, oh, Japanese and New Southwestern cuisines.
Instead he replied, in a surprisingly determined tone, “I’m going to Hawaii.”
He might as well have said he was going to take over Hawaii. The next year he opened Roy’s in east Honolulu-- and it was almost immediately acclaimed as the best restaurant in the islands. Five years later, “Hawaii Cooks With Roy Yamaguchi” began to air on PBS, as it continues to do to this day.
“Hawaii Cooks: Flavors From Roy’s Pacific Rim Kitchen” (Ten Speed Press; $32.50) is a companion volume to the current TV series (complete with acknowledgment of its corporate underwriters at the end). If you’ve seen the show, you know what to expect: unusual combinations of boldly flavored ingredients from all over the Pacific, treated with the fastidiousness of Yamaguchi’s Japanese and French culinary background but leavened with a little of the informality of Hawaii, where he spent part of his childhood and now lives.
It’s an idiosyncratic vision. In an introduction titled “Defining My Style,” he analyzes flavors and divides them into six fairly traditional categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and umami (“tastiness,” the Japanese term for the effect of amino acids on the palate). Then he adds one of his own: “oceany,” which includes basically fish roe and seaweed.
And it’s an eclectic vision. Yamaguchi takes chicken sauteed with a Mediterranean combination of tomatoes, herbs and saffron and serves it on a bed of stir-fried tofu and Asian vegetables. His version of Chinese char siu pork adds the French touches of red wine and veal demi-glace to a black bean-based sauce, along with clam sauce for, I suppose, oceaniness.
It’s an attractive cuisine, but this is definitely a chef’s cookbook, not one for casual use. Many recipes call for ingredients that require a real search; as an artist, Yamaguchi is reluctant to suggest substitutions. The ingredient lists are sometimes long, but the procedures are basically simple.
There are a few inaccuracies in the recipes. Lilikoi Pudding Cake doesn’t give an oven temperature (anybody who bakes would automatically use 350 degrees, which proves to be correct), and the yield is really 10 cakes, rather than eight. They’re lovely, delicate little things, anyway.
Many other recipes sound as good. I might substitute regular sweet potatoes for the purple Okinawan variety Yamaguchi serves lamb steaks on, but I know for sure I’d scare up the sugar cane to make the dish of ground shrimp and pork broiled on sugar cane skewers with mango-pineapple jam.