Grind Time: Nice to meet Yu
BY JASON GENEGABUS / email@example.com
Changes are underway at The Whole Ox, just weeks after the Kaka’ako deli and butcher shop celebrated its first year in business.
Gone is chef/partner Bob McGee, who partnered with Alejandro “Aker” Briceno, Lindsey Ozawa, Kanoe Sandefur and Blaine Tomita to open the Ox after stints at the now-closed Apartment3 at Century Center and running his own pop-up, Plancha, at Morning Glass Coffee + Cafe in Manoa.
Replacing McGee is another native New Yorker — Justin Yu, 34, was born and raised in Brooklyn and started his culinary career in 2005 with Momofuku Restaurant Group. He left in 2008 to pursue a newly discovered passion for whole animal butchery, working first on the east coast before heading to the Bay Area for gigs at Quince in San Francisco and Commis in Oakland.
In 2011, Commis chef-owner James Syhabout tapped Yu to open Hawker Fare, a “Asian street food restaurant” where he served as executive chef until his departure for Hawaii about a month ago.
THE ACTUAL process of Yu becoming the Whole Ox’s new chef de cuisine is the stuff movie scripts are based on.
Never in his life had he taken a vacation, he said during a quick chat last week via Briceno’s cell phone. Until February, that is, when he landed in Honolulu for an eight-day visit.
“I came out here and got a couple offers for jobs,” said Yu, who also mentioned seeing an advertisement for his new gig on Craigslist in Oakland. “I went back (to California) and started talking to these guys (at Whole Ox).
“I packed my bags, sold all my stuff and I was out here four weeks later.”
The new Honolulu resident isn’t shy about voicing his opinions on Hawaii’s culinary scene and how he hopes to elevate the mindset of diners who visit his intimate, open-air dining room on Keawe Street.
“The way I see Hawaii right now is we’re more than five to seven years behind the culinary scene on the mainland and around the world,” he said. “My vision here isn’t really changing the concept. It’s a great, grassroots concept that also utilizes the produce this island has to offer.
“I plan on utilizing every single aspect of Hawaii … to run my kitchen. We’ll probably continue with (lunch) where we’re doing burgers and roast beef sandwiches and things like that, but we’re taking things to the next level. We’ve incorporated baking our own breads and making our own mayonnaise.”
Some customers have noticed price increases at lunch. Fans of the Ox’s dry-aged hamburgers will feel a different pinch soon — if not already — as Yu scales back the number of patties coming out of his kitchen.
“We’re not being sustainable in selling 200 pounds of ground beef a day,” said Yu. “I’ve now limited our burger count to 30.
“I believe society today is now, now, now. What most people don’t understand is there’s a huge disconnect between the hamburger they’re eating, the hot dog they’re eating, the tuna they’re eating.
“Cows are only bred for hamburgers. That’s the mentality we have today (and) I want to steer away from that. I want to push the edge here and say, ‘Well, how about not eating big portions? How about eating smaller portions of better quality? How about helping society as a whole by using every aspect of what Hawaii has to offer?’
“I think it’s more about educating the customers and saying, ‘Hey, why can’t we take the culinary scene in a different direction?’”
A QUICK GLIMPSE at a recent dinner menu includes items such as Chilled Carrot Soup ($10) with ginger, curds, daikon, horseradish and tangerine; Porchetta Di Testa ($13) with fried pa’i'ai, pickled peppers and umeboshi; and a Deli Tasting ($18) that includes speck ham, brauschweiger, olives, tomatoes and feta cheese. Larger plates include a vegetarian dish of nothing but mushrooms, plus Shinsato Farms pork and Kuahiwi Ranch beef.
With the same owners as Prima in Kailua, the overall vision at both restaurants is similar, but Yu is very matter-of-fact when discussing his plans for the Ox’s future, which include a new long-term lease from landowner Kamehameha Schools and plans to move into new digs nearby once construction starts in the area.
“This is the first of many, many restaurants to push the culinary edge in Hawaii,” Yu said. “I’m really excited to push the envelope.
“I hope customers understand that I’m not just trying to make a buck here. It’s about the overall sustainability of Hawaii. I think this will benefit all of us in the end.”
“Grind Time” is always looking for the latest places to get your grub on. Email Jason Genegabus with restaurant, bar or any other food/drink-related item at firstname.lastname@example.org.