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Hawaiian chef Sam Choy takes cuisine sky high

By Chris Betros

When you chat with Hawaiian chef Sam Choy, don’t be too hungry, otherwise your mouth will start watering and you’ll be begging him to prepare something for you. Choy, an award-winning restaurateur, best-selling cookbook author and TV host, also designs in-flight meals for first and business class on American Airlines and was in Tokyo recently to oversee a new menu for the launch of airline’s Haneda-New York service.

In recent years, airlines have put a lot more effort into their meal service, enlisting celebrity chefs like Choy. However, it's not about the chef, he says. “The bottom line is the food. The passengers couldn’t care less if the meal in front of them was designed by Wolfgang Puck, Neil Perry, Sam Choy or Roy Yamaguchi. You have to provide cuisine that makes them happy, just as if they were in your restaurant," says the genial Choy.

So what is making passengers on the new AA service happy? For starters, there is Tahitian crabmeat soup – a hearty, creamy soup with coconut milk, spinach and crabmeat; seafood pasta salad with dill dressing; Kalua pork Eggs Benedict – tender pork shoulder, scrambled eggs and sautéed spinach on top of a fresh potato cake with hollandaise sauce accompanied with caramelized apples; and salmon moco with shiitake mushroom sauce.

The Eggs Benedict dish adds an interesting touch, using a potato cake instead of an English muffin. “Because food is prepared about two hours prior to flights and then put into the plane’s heating units, English muffins can become like a hockey puck. It would be sliding all over your plate. So I thought a potato cake would be better. The Haneda flight is a challenge to design Asian-fusion breakfast and brunch items for because it leaves at 6:30 a.m.”

Choy, whose father was Chinese and mother German-Hawaiian, has been cooking professionally since 1971. He opened his first restaurant in 1995 in Waikiki, and the Breakfast, Lunch and Crab in 1997 in Iwilei. He has a TV program in Hawaii, called “Sam Choy’s Kitchen,” and is considered one of the founders of “Pacific rim cuisine” – a fusion of cooking styles brought by immigrants to Hawaii.

“Growing up, we cooked every day at home. We always have big luaus. Every New Year we have a big bang at our house and this year we had 250,” Choy says of his background. “I was really blessed at a very young age to be exposed to food at that level. My dad taught me how to clean chicken and prepare pork. A lot of chefs today get everything through the back door. The chicken is already plucked and cleaned.”

He first got involved with American Airlines six years ago, designing menus for the carrier’s inbound and outbound Hawaii routes. Prior to that, he had worked with another airline. “I remember chatting with Wolfgang Puck a long time ago and I told him I was going to work with an airline and he goes: ‘Sam, I would not even put my coffee on board because those guys can’t even do that right.’ But I like challenges. If 20 people tell me I’m wasting my time, it doesn’t matter.”

One challenge has been redefining the image of Hawaiian food. “In the old days, there used to be a joke that if you wanted good food when you went to Hawaii, you should bring your own. Hawaiian food -- poi, Kalua pork, sweet potatoes, loco moco, that’s pretty much what many people still think Hawaiian food is all about. But we’ve got fresh seafood, beef, poultry, vegetables and amazing fruits.”

Choy said that one day he’d like to open “a fun Hawaiian-themed restaurant” in Tokyo. “Japanese tourists come to my restaurants in Hawaii, holding a magazine story about it and point to the item’s photo and ask for it. That’s why it is so important to have a quality product. It’s also important to be wide open to new ideas and be open to criticism because if you don’t, you can only go to first base.”

Choy travels out of Hawaii about seven months of the year. When he is at home, he and his wife share the kitchen duties for the family (they have two sons). His favorite cooking utensils are a set of very sharp knives. “A craftsman took all my old knives and he created some wonderful handles out of black coral. The handles are probably worth more than the knives.”

Well known for being Hawaii’s culinary ambassador, Choy may soon be seen in another light – as a guest star on the new “Hawaii 5-O” TV series. “I have been approached about it. I’m not sure what it will be, but I’m fine with that kind of marketing,” he said.

© Japan Today

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The only place I ran into the name Sam Choy's was in an Outlet in Yokohama. It's only fast-food mostly under 1,000yen. Is it really related to this man? It wasn't bad, but it's Hawaian food = loco moco kind of restaurant.

I would like to try their restaurants with real food.

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mackemack: Sam Choy...Any relation to Bok?

That's funny.

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Lived there several years.

IMO, there is no such thing as "good" Hawaiian food beyond the level of a lunch plate or Kalua pork. There is, however, good Hawaiian versions of other ethnic foods. Chinese being the first to come to mind (I'm convinced that the best Dim Sum on the planet is at Legends in Honolulu's Chinatown). Japanese a close second. Hawaii also has some good Vietnamese places if you like pho.

Sam's place in Kapahulu (next to Waikiki) is overpriced and relies way to much on his name. Menu is expensive and food is, at best, mediocre. The breakfast joint he has down by Nimitz is... without a doubt... amazing. If he has any other than those, I don't recall having been there, so it wasn't memorable either way.

I will say... the BEST Sam Choy's I ever ate at was the one in Guam.

If you want great food in Hawaii, visit one of the places owned by Roy Yamaguchi or Alan Wong.

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What about us in the cattle car section?

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Can't say that I truly know what Hawaiian cuisine consists of, the few hawaiian dished I tasted so far left me wanting for something else.

But I would guess his cooking and restaurant(like many others) are beyond my normal eating out allowance.

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Never had good Hawaiian food. Does it exist?

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Sam Choy's restaurants in Hawaii are amazing... Great food. The presence of his signature cuisine on AA will be an impressive addition for the passengers. I hope Delta, ANA, or JAL would someday consider having his dishes on their flights.

Right on! I mua Hawaii!

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Sam Choy...Any relation to Bok?

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Airline companies can impress passengers as well as keep new ones to fly their flights with new in-flight menus with signature chefs. But ticket prices must be attractive as well as service quality.

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