An Interview with JG's Chef de Cuisine Colin Hazama a Week Prior to Opening
Colin Hazama, chef de cuisine of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Kaua`i Grill at the newly unveiled St. Regis Princeville may be the most fortunate 28-year-old chef in America. We sat down with Hazama at a table hovering over Hanalei Bay, just days before he was set to open the pinnacle restaurant at what is being hailed at Hawaii's most luxurious resort. We chatted about how he arrived to this moment, and naturally, followed up our session with a tasting in the restaurant's kitchen. Read on to hear about what you can expect from Jean-Georges' first Hawaii outpost, how Hazama's 2 month crash course in New York City—at 6 of Vongerichten's signature restaurants—prepared him to open Kaua`i Grill, and what you won't be eating while visiting Kaua`i's North Shore.
B on Hawaii: Less than a year ago, you're making a name for yourself at RumFire on O`ahu, cooking tapas for hipsters. Next thing, you get the nod from Jean-George, arguably one of the worlds' most celebrated chefs, to help his first Hawaiian restaurant. Walk us through it!
Chef Colin Hazama: I had seen an internal note while at the Sheraton Waikiki [at RumFire] that Jean-Georges was looking for a chef de cuisine for this restaurant. So I applied. I was chosen to head to New York and do a tasting for him.
B on Hawaii: Something tells me 'Doing a tasting with Jean-Georges' doesn't involve kicking back at a table and sampling some food with him.
Chef Colin Hazama: Yeah, no. I had a little time to prepare two dishes for him. One of my own choice that represents my style, and one straight out of his recipe book, following his preparations to perfection.
B on Hawaii: So what did you make?
Chef Colin Hazama: For his dish, I was asked to prepare an avocado salad that is served at Spice Market. For my own dish, I did a deconstructed Asian gaspacho, with pear, tomato consume with a cucumber gelee. It came out well.
B on Hawaii: Give us a little background here; how familiar were you with his cooking?
Chef Colin Hazama: I actually ate at his signature restaurant, in the Trump Tower in NYC, in 2006. I said right there that it would be a dream to work for him. Not even three years later, there I was, prepping a dish for him and his executive chef Gregory Brainin, hoping to get the call up.
B on Hawaii: Then you get the call. What was next?
Chef Colin Hazama: It was pretty insane. I flew to New York, and I trained at seven of his restaurants—Vong, JoJo, Perry Street, Spice Market, Nougatine, Jean-Georges and Mercer Kithcen. I worked directly with the chef de cuisines and executive sous chefs at all seven, plus the people from Culinary Concepts, his consulting firm.
B on Hawaii: It's hard to not draw parallels to being called to the Big Leagues. So you're in the kitchen with all these huge up-and-coming chefs, and what are you doing?
Chef Colin Hazama: I'm basically learningn sauces and components. I already felt I had a really good idea of what he's after in his dishes. But I needed to get the set of refinements under my belt before I headed back home, to Kaua`i, to get cooking.
B on Hawaii: For those who don't know, tell us a little bit about what Jean-Georges cooking is all about.
Chef Colin Hazama: Jean-Georges is all about bold, bursting flavors, that are simple and straightforward. It's about the whole dish. It's very different from Alan Wong's, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and the other all-stars I've worked with or tasted. In many of those kitchens, every component of the dish needs to be seasoned to perfection, so it can stand up on it's own. Jean-Georges really looks at the whole dish, and says, 'If you eat this all together, you will get that perfect flavor bursting in your mouth'. There's a defined balance.
B on Hawaii: You worked for Alan Wong, no?
Chef Colin Hazama: I did. I started as a dish washer, and made my way up through pastry to a line chef. He taught me what it takes to think like a well-rounded chef. I owe him a lot of credit. I also worked with Gary Danko in San Francisco.
B on Hawaii: So will we see any of those dished you learned in New York, or is this a completely new menu for JG? Will there be any of your flare in there? Or are you following his recipes verbatim?
Chef Colin Hazama: I'm definitely doing his food. Maybe I'll get to integrate some of my stuff down the line. You know, I've had his books for 11 years, since I was 17 years old. So his style is a big part of my style. But there will be one dish on the menu for each of the restaurants in New York that he had me train at. A dish from Spice Market, a dish from Vong, and so on. Also, he has trusted me to make substitutions for local ingredients wherever the need presents itself.
For example, in New York he has this amazing dish that is Sea Bass crusted with seeds and nuts, served in a sweet and sour jous, with mushrooms, a brown butter emulsion and pearl onions. It's a twist on a French-Asian dish. So for the dish here, we're going to use moi. It's over the top.
B on Hawaii: O.K., you got us salivating. Bring some more...
Chef Colin Hazama: We're going to do an onaga—in New York they use snapper—with a warm sesame vinaigrette, water chestnuts, sea asparagus and finish it with lavender. Another dish I'm really stoked on is an Australian lamb in a mint puree. It will be crusted in chillies, and served with slow braised artichoke. Another one I really like is a pan roasted foie gras with caramelized Meyer lemon and young ginger. This is a dish from Vong.
B on Hawaii: Will you use any local product, since JG's dishes hail from so far away?
Chef Colin Hazama: We're going to use at least forty percent of local product, probably more as time rolls on. We're using a lot of stuff from Kaiulani and Kauai farms.
B on Hawaii: Does JG subscribe to a lot of the trends in food? It seems like lately, perhaps spurred on by all the cooking competition shows on T.V., that there have been some real fly-by-night trends in the last decade.
Chef Colin Hazama: What is true is that New York really sets the trends for the food scene. For a while there, molecular gastronomy was really hot [the charge led by Wylie Dufresne of N.Y.'s WD-50], and so on. But it's really come full circle: Chefs are back to showcasing good, clean food again. Jean-Georges, in my opinion, has always been about that. Yet, he does step outside of the box.
B on Hawaii: Thanks for your time Colin. Any final thoughts?
Chef Colin Hazama: I'm basically incredibly humbled, to say the least. I'm also seeing the broader realm of what's coming to Hawai`i in the future. It's about showcasing the more modern edge. It's an exciting time to be cooking and eating in Hawai`i.
Following this interview, we tasted two of the appetizer dishes that will be presented on the menu at Kaua`i Grill. The first was a Kona kampachi served with wasabi, golden pineapple and Meyer lemon. This dish was pure artistry: The pearl-colored slabs of kampachi were lined on the plate like the teeth of a zipper, with alternating patterns of a single purple basil leaf, and a dab of freshly ground Japanese wasabi. Hazama's use of a protein that is quickly becoming as Hawaiian as ahi, melded with what he described as Jean-George's balance to the entire plate really shined in this dish. With each bite there was ample basil, wasabi, olive oil and lemon, which exploded in unison in the mouth.
The second dish we sampled was more straightforward, yet just as explosive. Hazama selected top-quality grade ahi tuna medallions, and crusted it with crushed arare rice crackers. Painted on one side of the dish was a pungent coulis, a cream-based scallion or green onion relish, that offered an intense accompaniment to the ahi. The rice crackers supplied the always-necessary soy element to the ahi, while the coulis provided a silky yet wildly (and welcomed) pungent finish to the dish.
"I'm also seeing the broader realm of what's coming to Hawai`i in the future. It's about showcasing the more modern edge." — Chef Hazama