Entertaining

The Best Lei'd Plans

Throw a modern Hawaiian feast with Senia's Chris Kajioka
Photos: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table
Kalua Pork Belly

Daniel Anthony wakes up at 5 a.m., then trudges over to his kitchen in Kailua, a beachy neighborhood on Oahu beloved for its turquoise waters and soft white sand. For the next many hours, he boils, peels and pounds 150 pounds of taro on handmade stone and mango wood boards into pa'i'ai, fermented blocks of taro once the centerpiece of Hawaiian meals, or what Anthony hails as "the true essence of taro."

His particular recipe comes from sifting through the archives at the Bishop Museum and years perfecting his pounding technique: "I was just a naughty kid, so I was forced to do this with my dad growing up," he says.

And now Anthony's given new life to the ancient Hawaiian art and counts local Honolulu stars like Town's Ed Kenney and Top Chef contestant Lee Anne Wong among his clients. So when I recently called Anthony with a rush order for a meager five pounds of pa'i'ai, he normally would have responded with a firm no and jaunty mahalo.

"Only because it's Chris [Kajioka]," he told me. Two days later, five pounds of neatly packaged, lovingly labored-over pa'i'ai arrived, ready for Kajioka's modern-day luau menu (see the slideshow).

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That's how basically everyone in or from Hawaii feels about Kajioka, an Oahu-born Per Se vet and formerly the opening chef for Honolulu's critically acclaimed, tony blockbuster of a restaurant Vintage Cave.

"That guy is killing it," Sheldon Simeon of Migrant Maui gushes. "He's bringing some really precise cooking, using simple items and presenting it very high end."

"He's the guy who's going to make Michelin-star food in Hawaii," Jordan Keao, the chef of Hawaiian San Francisco pop-up, 'Aina, adds.

So it came as a huge shock to Honolulu when Kajioka left a seemingly ideal position at Vintage Cave a year ago. People asked why (a new son, a change of pace, he explained) and where he was going (staging at Rustic Canyon, later helping his friend Mourad Lahlou open Mourad in San Francisco). However, Kajioka always knew he would go back to the island.

"For such a long time, I wanted to be away," Kajioka tells me. "I really love Hawaii now, and I'm really proud to be from here."

Now the long-lost son of Honolulu is finally setting down roots in his hometown with Senia, which he hopes to open later this year. Kajioka is teaming up with his old Per Se chefs Anthony and Katherine Rush to simply make delicious local food—a far cry from Vintage Cave's 20-course menu filled with little luxuries like caviar macarons. But there will be a tasting menu offered at a small chef's counter, too. "It allows us to get out our artistic side," Kajioka laughs.

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Every grand occasion in Hawaii calls for a luau—the homecoming of Honolulu's rising star, say, or a new canoe in years past. So when we tapped him for a menu, Kajioka dreamed up a sophisticated take on the traditional celebration, sans coconut bikinis, tiki torches and hokey spit-roasted animals—one that pays homage to local ingredients and cooking methods heralded by the ancient Hawaiians.

"I used to hate Hawaiian food when I was young," Kajioka says. "But now I believe that we must look back at the ancient methods of presentation, techniques and ingredients to push forward."

So he's frying up slices of Anthony's pa'i'ai and drizzling them with a funky, sweet fiddlehead fern and lychee salad (see the recipe). And he's twisting the components of storied laulau (see the recipe), usually pork wrapped in taro leaves and steamed for hours; instead he's wrapping fatty cod, purple sweet potatoes and dried shrimp with kale to bring out the leaf's smokiness.

And as for the typical soy-and-tuna poke combo, Kajioka has other ideas.

"There's a million different poke recipes," he explains. "This one is basically kinilaw [a Filipino-style ceviche], which always has coconut and citrus."

Pa'i'ai with lychee, ho'io and dried shrimp | Red snapper poke

Kajioka tosses chunks of red snapper in coconut milk and lime juice, then sprinkles on cracked macadamia nuts and sweet pickled onions for a most luxurious poke (see the recipe). The honeydew-hued cocktail served with the meal comes from his pal, Kyle Reutner, behind Hawaii Bitters Company, and it's an elegant basil- and rum-laced drink inspired by the huge harvest of lychee on the island this year (see the recipe).

Kalua pork, normally whole pig or shoulder cooked in an underground oven known as an imu and then shredded, takes a Vietnamese turn with pork belly shellacked with London-based chef Anthony Rush's warmly spiced, soy-inflected glaze (see the recipe).

"I think he made it in New York. It's just delicious, and it speaks of Hawaii, with the star anise and fennel and sweet soy," Kajioka says.

Even in New York City, where he earned his chops, an 11-hour plane ride away from Honolulu, Kajioka searched for flavors of home.

"I think it's a lot of people's dream here to learn on the mainland, then come home and show everyone, 'Hey, this is what I learned.' I always wanted to come home but wasn't sure when," he says.

"But now I really believe this is a really great time to be a chef in Hawaii. The farmers and cooks are really proud to be here and push the cuisine forward," Kajioka continues. "To me, the quality of the resources allows the cuisine to be world class. Hawaii has that."

And now, all eyes on are Kajioka to make it happen.

Get the recipes:
Kalua Pork Belly
Red Snapper Poke
Pa'i'ai with Lychee, Ho'io and Dried Shrimp
Steamed Black Cod with Sweet Potatoes and Dried Shrimp
Luau Basil Cocktail

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