From 4-Star to 'da Bar: Chefs on the Move

From 4-Star to 'da Bar: Chefs on the Move

One conversation you might not hear this holiday season is the change in habits many people throughout our communities are now settling in to—even if subconsciously—due to the overall economic downturn that has gripped our country for a considerable time. Many folks have taken on a second, possibly a third job. Some have dramatically curtailed their shopping. Others may have moved in to a new home that matches their new income, having lost job(s) or had wages garnished. Regardless of the level, we’ve all made adjustments; yet it isn’t the first thing we care to talk about among our peers.

There is one sector where the changes have been quite noticeable: The restaurant industry. Perhaps they’ve been subtle changes, while others, not so. Think about the number of reputed, upscale eateries that now send you direct emails with special kamaaina rates on certain evenings, and so on. Or the pub that seems to have “buy-1-get-2” promotion more evening s than not; all an effort to get people in the door, circulating, and the dollars flowing (or, rightly so, the good times rolling, as we all so desperately need).

When we heard the news that Tiki’s Grill & Bar had acquired a new head chef—one that formerly manned a considerable post at the original Roy’s (in Hawaii Kai), our journalistic ears perked up. The move from an internationally recognized, Hawaiian upscale dining establishment to a Waikiki near-institution more known for live, local music, easy-on-the-eyes waitstaff and frosty mugs of Longboard has got the culinary mavens buzzing. Naturally, we decided to dig deeper.

We queried Tiki’s president and owner Bill Tobin about the impressive boost to his kitchen. Here’s what he had to say: ”We have absolutely seen people's dining habits change. Both locals and visitors who would eat at high-end restaurants are "trading down" to conserve their food dollar.”

Not surprisingly, Tobin goes on to mention that his sales of alcohol haven’t dropped in the slightest. In fact, he’s seen an increase in volume of alcohol sold in the last two years, since the economic woes kicked in. Another interesting tid bit came in the type of customer Tobin has seen as of recent.

“We get a lot more business groups in that we didn't see a couple years ago, and I think that has to do with them not wanting to have a high-end steak house on their expense reports. We also see more groups. We believe our large party business is booming because a lot of people shy away from the higher price tags that the hotels charge for special functions,” Tobin shares.

More now from our conversation with incumbent chef Ronnie Nasuti, who now is in charge of revamping Tiki’s menu.

B on Hawaii:  The big question: How do you plan to evolve the food at Tiki's Grill & Bar?

RN:  Evolution comes from natural selection. Tiki's already has a great following and lots of great qualities. We're going to make it greater by refashioning our philosophy about food and conserve our recreational atmosphere.

B on Hawaii:  Tell us a little about your pre-Roy's background. What made you want to be a chef when you first started out?

Ronnie Nasuti:  I knew I wanted to be a chef when I was in eighth grade. My older siblings went to the local vocational technical school so I followed in their footsteps. It had an eighty seat restaurant among other businesses open to the public; our chef instructor went to C.I.A on his G.I. bill. I'm an advocate for vocational education at the high school level—there is a need in Hawaii for it.

B on Hawaii:  Since you made the decision to become a chef, what, if any, has changed your philosophy of "a great restaurant experience"?

Ronnie Nasuti:  I started washing dishes in an Italian restaurant when I was thirteen and was working pantry and cooking at fourteen. Seeing restaurants from the inside out gives you an altered perspective.
In this business I often listen to people critique anything and everything about where they eat. And I listen, it's my job. But when I go out to eat, first I want to enjoy the company of friends and family. Great food and service is a giant bonus. If it's not great, I'll bring my family somewhere else next time. 

B on Hawaii:  Have you traveled extensively in search of the ultimate cuisine? If so, where were you most influenced?

RN:  No one that is successful in this business ever stops learning or growing. Working for Roy, Jackie and Rainer for decades has given me the opportunity to travel, eat and work with the top people in the industry all over the United States and abroad. This to me is the most valuable education I could have ever had. With that, the exposure to the intensely diverse culture and cuisine of Hawaii has been my biggest influence.

B on Hawaii:  Tell us, in your opinion, where you see the current food trends going to in Hawaii. Is it safe to say that more people are seeking upscale comfort foods more often than the elegant night out?
RN:  It's safe to say that in a tough economy the strong survive. But why? The trend seems that upscale comfort or even more elegant dinning restaurants success is ultimately linked to consistent quality and value. People's fear of spending does manipulate their choices for dinning and other luxuries. So regardless of your following, the bottom line is, there are currently more people who want to have great food and conserve so they can dine more frequently in our tough economy.

B on Hawaii:  What is your favorite thing to cook? To eat?

RN:  I love to cook Italian food; gnocchi are probably my single most favorite food to eat. You can make them easy—and you can wreck them even more easily.

B on Hawaii:  What do you make for yourself at home, on the weekends, when you're
relaxed and hungry.

RN:  It's a trick question to any chef. We're (chefs) not home on the weekends, home alone, or relaxing and hungry at the same time. But I love to make fresh pizza at home because it's comfort food to me. My teenage kid, Roman, loves it. You can eat as little or as much as you like, whatever is in your fridge can go on top, it taste great as leftovers and my wife, Suni, got me a Kitchenaid mixer so I don't have to knead the dough by hand. It helps contain the mess a bit. 

B on Hawaii:   Are there any recent ingredients you have found you'd like to incorporate more in to your menu?

RN:  My friend Chris turned me on to "white shoyu", twenty years and thousands of ingredients later, it's new to me!

B on Hawaii:  What restaurants do you frequent/like/admire on your downtime?

RN:  Downtime? For someone who lives in a restaurant I admire taste, quality, consistency, aloha (caring),  innovation, value, ambiance, price, parking and comfort.  I love to go to Le Bistro, Roy's and Korea House, currently.  

"Gnocchi are probably my single most favorite food to eat. You can make them easy—and you can wreck them even more easily."

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