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The Weekly Eater: Coronavirus crisis forces Hawaii restaurants to pivot

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Chef Jeremy Shigekane and cook Jenny Malone Moss prep take out order sandwiches in the kitchen of Chef Mavro Restaurant on March 24.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Chef Jeremy Shigekane and cook Jenny Malone Moss prep take out order sandwiches in the kitchen of Chef Mavro Restaurant on March 24.

When news of the coronavirus outbreak started making headlines in late January, most of us thought it would be contained to Wuhan, China.

Restrictions were put in place to quarantine visitors returning from Wuhan province, but it was too late. The stealthy virus had already begun making its way around the globe.

Not knowing what was about to hit us, we went about business as usual, which for chef/restaurateur Chris Kaji­oka meant preparing for the grand opening of Miro Kaimuki, which was to have taken place last Thursday. He purchased Cafe Miro last year and had trial dinner events scheduled from mid-March, plus reservations booked through the first week.

“We were so excited to show everybody our menu,” he said, intending to carry on the Miro tradition of affordable prix-fixe tasting menus while adding a la carte selections for walk-in guests.

He’s had to put those plans on hold during the crisis, and also shut the doors to Senia, the lauded Chinatown restaurant he co-owns.

“There was definitely not a Plan B for something like this. Our food doesn’t translate to takeout and we didn’t want to have a big group working together in a small space. We thought it was best to stay home.”

This hasn’t been easy for the chef, who watched Netflix for the first time last week.

“I’m a busybody, so it’s pretty awful. It’s so tough, because there’s so much uncertainty now. I don’t normally cook at home, but I’m trying to cook more to relieve stress. The main thing is making sure everyone’s OK and everyone stays healthy.”

KEVIN AOKI was preparing for the opening of two new restaurant concepts, Qing Mu Noodle and 1938 Indochine.

Qing Mu, an affordable, casual Vietnamese concept opened on March 12 with a shortlist of spring rolls, pho and excellent $7.25 banh mi, filled with such options as pork belly with chicken liver pate, Vietnamese meatballs and lemon grass chicken, now available to go.

The restaurant business takes a strong backbone, and for Aoki, who grew up working for his father, Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana of Tokyo restaurants, the ups and downs are just part of a complicated balancing act to be managed.

Establishing a new normal meant switching his Doraku and Qing Mu restaurants to takeout formats even before government mandates kicked in. He had to trim his roster of 325-plus employees at 10 restaurants, including locations in Miami and Atlanta. Key salaried employees are now tasked with everything from answering phones to cleaning.

“It’s tough. It brings back memories of opening my first restaurant, Doraku, in 2008. Now I have a little company with 20 to 30 people. I feel like I only have one restaurant and I’m doing everything I can to keep it running successfully. That means I have to do everything from cleaning the restroom to taking pictures of food and uploading them to Uber Eats, things I had other people doing before.

“I’m looking at this as a challenge to make our company stronger. Once this is behind us, we could end up with a strong takeout business in addition to sit-down business.”

What he’s learned has surprised him. At Doraku, where his current offerings include all-day happy hour at home, he said people are ordering high-end sushi such as uni, otoro and chutoro.

“I thought I was gonna end up eating it or throwing it away,” he said.

Aoki is a third-generation restaurateur. His grandfather had about 20 restaurants in Japan, starting with a small coffee shop called Benihana. Just as his father paid tribute to his dad with the name Benihana of Tokyo, Aoki named 1938 Indo­chine in reference to the year Rocky Aoki was born. The restaurant is to focus on casual, contemporary French-Southeast Asian fare. “I was hoping to open in April,” he said.

In another coronavirus- related snag, he was awaiting the arrival of chef Khin Le Nghia from Paris, to collaborate on the menu, but a few days ahead of Nghia’s trip, the U.S. was closed to European travel.

The current crisis is one more setback for a project he’d originally planned to open in spring 2018. Delays in permitting and other issues led to mounting debt.

“It would be easy to point fingers at everybody but at the end of the day it was more important for me to figure things out and keep moving forward,” Aoki said.

“I love working, and I love building and designing restaurants. I get an adrenaline rush when I’m building, and I don’t know what I would do without it.”

QING MU NOODLE

602 Ala Moana Blvd. (former Comp USA site), 544–0005

>> Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

>> Menu and online ordering: qingmunoodles.com

HIGHER-END restaurants have had to shut down or switch gears to address the new marketplace.

Over at Chef Mavro, chef Jeremy Shigekane, who purchased the restaurant a year ago, had started making sandwiches about three weeks ago for friends, family and staffers, “just to try and get feedback.”

The experiment turned into a new dining concept, M by Chef Mavro, with $10 sandwiches and $30 three-course meals, available to go. Recent sandwich options have included a Peterson’s Upland Farm egg salad with capers, tarragon and Sumida Farms watercress; San Daniele prosciutto with tomato, lemon aioli, spinach and fontina; and mushroom fricassee with basil pistou and arugula.

Dinner entree choices have included a catch of the day with warabi, tomatoes and yuzu-brown butter sauce, or poached chicken with cream of mushroom. Everything is subject to change based on availability from local purveyors.

“Everything is the same quality as people receive when dining in-house, except it’s not fine dining,” Shigekane said.

Now that many people are doing their own cooking, he’s also selling chicken and vegetable stocks as bases to use in the home kitchen, as well as basil pistou sauce to add to pasta, sandwiches or soups, at $7 to $15. He will soon be adding pasta sauces and meal kits as well.

Rather than feeling panicked, he said, “I enjoy this kind of thing. I’m going to keep going and try to do some R&D. Usually in this type of situation, fine dining doesn’t come back immediately.”

He said he’s contemplating reopening the dining room, when the time comes, as an upscale lounge with an a la carte menu and casual bar.

“I always thought, for the survival of this brand, I needed to be more diverse,” he said. Now the marketplace is forcing him to be more nimble, not only in keeping the restaurant running, but to put loftier community-oriented projects in place, such as starting a soup kitchen to help ease hunger and homelessness.

He said it was important for him to stay open, as vendors told him, “Thank you for trying to keep going, because if you stop, everybody stops.”

“I’m just taking this day by day, trying to help everyone out, because we’re all in the same boat.”

CHEF MAVRO

1969 S. King St., 944-4714

>> Pickup is 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays (lunch) and Wednesdays and Thursdays (early dinner). Order by 9 a.m.

>> Pick­up is 5 to 7 p.m. for dinner Fridays and Saturdays. Order by 3 p.m.

>> Updates: @chefmavrorestaurant on Instagram


Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at nkam@staradvertiser.com.


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