Philippe Padovani Re-Invents Himself As A Chocolatier

Chef & Restaurant Owner on his Quiet (For Now) Re-Birth

Philippe Padovani Re-Invents Himself As A Chocolatier

The wares at 841 Bishop Street are neatly stacked within a pair of long, glass cases. Carefully hand-printed signs give brief descriptions of what resides on each silver plate: "Orange Pekoe and Pekoe Cut Black Tea" is one, the contents of which emit a sweet floral scent when the dark chocolate shell is snapped open. "Almonds and Blueberries, Together" pit caramelized nuts against dried fruit, melded together with chocolate ganache. "Cherries and Brandy" offer the perfect blend of fruit and spiced liquor, "From a bottle that I used to pour $80 shots of at my restaurant!" shared Philippe Padovani.

We at B on Hawaii first met Philippe Padovani at Simply Grape-Padovani's neighbor on the Queen St. corridor-that sees Honolulu's top lawyers, bankers and real estate agents stroll past each day. He had ventured over from his shop next door, with flour on his fingertips, a plate of sweet and delicate offerings, and a craving for sauternes. We sipped a glass, and asked exactly how he came to be "Padovani-The Chocolatier" after being a well-known culinary fixture throughout The State of Hawaii.

His answer was not short winded.

Philippe and Pierre Padovani were born in France, and raised in Australia-spending a fair amount of time in both places. At 20 years old, Philippe trained with a master chocolatier in Lyon, France; It would mark the start of this fascination with the culinary arts.

"Here I learned to do magic with nothing. It was my first lesson in cooking," said Padovani.

Shortly thereafter, he found himself behind the grill at La Mere Blanc in Vonnas, France, working alongside one of New York's current top chef-restaurateurs (and long time friend): Daniel Boulud.

"We spent more time drinking wine and talking food than going to church, if you know what I mean," said Padovani.

Always intrigued by island life, Padovani made his way to Hawaii in 1984, where he became consulting chef at La Mer in the Halekulani. By 1986 he was the hotel's executive chef. In 1990 he was lured to the Big Island where he open the Ritz Carlton (now the Fairmont Orchid). Two years later, he island hopped to Lanai, where he would orchestrate food operations at the Manele Bay Hotel until 1998.

While being courted by the Four Seasons to operate one of their island resorts ("They couldn't afford me," Padovani beams), the opportunity came a-knocking to open his own restaurant. Padovani Bistro and Wine Bar appeared at the corner of Ala Moana Blvd. and Kalakaua Ave. It could not have been a more ideal location.

"Except if it wasn't in a hotel," Padovani corrected.

His dozen or so years working for each of the major luxury hotel brands had left Padovani with knowledge that he openly claims could bring down the entire resort industry: Most resorts don't have the knowledge, the funds nor the desire to maintain successful food and beverage operations.

"It's just not in their nature," Padovani chimes in. "It's not hard. You just need to drive the people filling your rooms to the restaurants. Yet it's one of the last things on the managements' minds."

DoubleTree, which operated the hotel that encompassed Padovani Bistro and Wine Bar, was no exception. Padovani claimed that he made zero dollars during breakfast and lunch, yet entertained (and pleased-greatly) the masses at dinner. It made for uneven service, and a less than happy staff. After 7 years, the restaurant went bankrupt last January-forcing Padovani to close his doors.

He found himself in a precocious position: He had the culinary chops to open his own restaurant, but with bankruptcy looming overhead, a business loan was out of the question. He spent a great deal of time referring almost 40 protege to top eateries around Hawaii (and beyond-he sent one of his top young chefs to work with Boulud at his legendary eatery on Park Avenue in Manhattan). But it wasn't satisfying enough.

When he was alerted to a small retail space on Bishop-not far from the kitchen he was still paying for in the DoubleTree-he snapped it up. Padovani began importing the best quality chocolates known worldwide. Valrhona and a number of boutique French brands included, Padovani managed to find a small amount of product, slightly closer to home. "Did you know that Dole currently has 17 acres of cacao growing on this island"" he asks. "They are considering doing the same with 3,000 acres."

The possibilities excite Padovani, as quality, local made chocolate would add a huge allure, not to mention cut down drastically his importing costs.

"Murdock [owner of Dole, Inc.] could do it with a million dollars. For him, it would be like me handing you a $10 bill. But there are a lot of politics in this State," Padovani stops himself, knowing he may be doing business with Murdock in the near future.

What that future holds for Padovani (and his chocolates) is unknown, albeit, he has some ideas. Neiman Marcus is the sole seller of Padovani's handmade chocolates outside of his Bishop Street shop. The upscale department store has already approached him with a nationwide contract to provide to their 100 mainland stores. Roy's has also approached him to do the same. Although he would love to do both, Padovani cannot produce chocolate that fast by hand.

What will it take" A million dollars, Padovani claims. "That is all. $500,000 for a factory, $500,000 for top equipment. And I'm in business."

At presstime, he is unsure of who will be the investor, but he acts as if the right person is right around the corner. Let's all hope-for our palate's sake-that the right person truly is. Until then, Bishop Street is your only option for fine, Hawaii-made chocolate by one of our state's top culinary wizards.

"Murdock [owner of Dole, Inc.] could start chocolate production here with a million dollars. For him, it would be like me handing you a $10 bill. But there are a lot of politics in this State."