Senia: Behind The Bites
There have been times over the past few months that chef Chris Kajioka has turned to his wife and asked her, “Why am I opening a restaurant?”
After all, it’s already been a lengthy process for Kajioka to start his forthcoming Senia, which is set to open this summer in Chinatown. Then, of course, there is the fact that the restaurant business is a notoriously difficult one, plagued by a low success rate.
But these moments of doubt never last that long. Soon he’s back to touting big ambitions and back to feeling that it will all be worth it.
After years of honing his skills at a string of renowned restaurants, including, most recently, Vintage Cave, Kajioka is launching a place of his own, alongside chef Anthony Rush. Senia is what they describe as “regional American,” and together the pair is crafting a menu that plays on their disparate influences — Kajioka, who was born and raised locally, incorporates an Asian flair, whereas Rush, who recently relocated from London, is trained in European techniques.
“I want people to be talking about this restaurant in 20 years,” says Kajioka. “I want it to be iconic; I want it to be long-lasting. I would be lying to you if I said we weren’t trying to be one of the best restaurants in the country. That is what we expect of our ourselves.”
That any moments of doubt these chefs may have quickly dissipate perhaps speaks to the fact that this is what they both have been working toward as long as either of them can remember — and now it is finally here.
It’s telling that one of Kajioka’s earliest memories is of eating a tableside-prepared soufflé. Even now, he can recall the way the waiter cracked open the soufflé and poured a glaze over it — he was in awe.
Kajioka’s parents have a photo of him at age 4, wearing a chef’s cap. He doesn’t really know where or when this interest was sparked, he just knows that it has always been there.
“It’s weird because I have always wanted to cook for some reason,” Kajioka says.
While other kids were watching cartoons, he was glued to cooking shows.
By the time he entered high school at Iolani, he knew he wanted to be a chef, and began spending his after-school hours volunteering at various local restaurants. He didn’t get paid, but he didn’t care; he just wanted to be around food.
Initially, his parents were not thrilled. “Cooking professionally wasn’t a very common career path (at Iolani), and not one that they expected me to follow,” he says. “They wanted me to go to a traditional four-year college, and then consider going to cooking school afterward. I didn’t want to waste any time getting into cooking, though.” As a compromise, Kajioka went on to attend The Culinary Institute of America right after graduating high school, and earned a bachelor’s degree there.
While in culinary school, Kajioka wrote down a dream list of five chefs that he wanted to work with one day. Right out of the gate, Kajioka landed a spot with one of them: Ron Siegel at the dining room of The Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. (Roy Yamaguchi helped Kajioka land the job after he had interned at Roy’s Waikiki. Yamaguchi was impressed enough with the young chef to put in a good word with Siegel. “Chris had this fire in him to learn, master his skills, to be a good student,” Yamaguchi recalls.) It became what was just a first step in a meteoric rise in the culinary world.
From there, he went to work at the three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York City (and checking off another chef on his list, Thomas Keller), where he met Rush.
Rush also had discovered food at an early age across the pond. The first time he realized he enjoyed cooking was at 7 years old, when his class had to prep a meal of quiche and gingerbread men. At 16, he entered a cooking competition at school — he won and was offered an internship at a top restaurant.
By both of their accounts, their connection was immediate.
“Within the number of chefs that you work with, you get close with a small group that you also socialize with — and they’re usually the ones that you respect the most,” Rush says. “And Chris was definitely someone I respected and enjoyed working with.”
Kajioka, in turn, was impressed with Rush’s ability to stay calm, even in the high-pressure situations of a high-end restaurant. “He didn’t seem to have a bad moment — that is what I marveled at,” Kajioka says. “He was just very calm, very collected.
“He is definitely one of the most talented chefs I have ever worked with, bar none,” Kajioka says.
After two years together at Per Se, they both went their separate ways to other kitchens, but kept in close contact. Rush returned to England, while Kajioka did a couple stints at West Coast restaurants before returning to the islands as the opening chef of Vintage Cave. Kajioka became something of a press darling, drawing attention for helming the exclusive restaurant, where a prix fixe menu costs $300 a person — and at just 29 years old. As executive chef, Kajioka was tasked with creating the menu and he earned a number of recognitions for his work — including award nominations by Food & Wine Magazine and the prestigious James Beard Foundation — before calling it quits in 2014 with the goal of starting his own place.
He has only good things to say about his time there —”It was an amazing job and I got to cook with a lot of amazing people” — but ultimately, he wanted a restaurant that was accessible to a wider audience, people that couldn’t afford the high price-point.
“(Fine dining) is not what I like to eat when I go out. I want to cook food that everybody likes to eat and what I like to eat on my day off,” he told Honolulu Magazine shortly before his exit.
The real impetus for Senia came from a little across-the-world text message banter.
After he left Vintage Cave, Kajioka was texting Rush about his plans to open his own restaurant locally, and Rush was divulging his difficulties in starting his own venture in London. Then, a fateful message: “I think he jokingly texted that, ‘I will come be your commis (prep chef),'” Kajioka recalls. “I was like, haha. And he was like, I am serious.”
“I think for any chef … (owning your own restaurant) is your ultimate goal,” Rush says. “You don’t want anybody to say no to you. You want to do your own thing. I want to cook what I want to cook.
“There are no limits,” he adds.
Currently, Kajioka and Rush are in the process of developing the menu — experimenting with ingredients, going through dish iterations.
They describe Senia as having a “broad lens.” And while they are still finalizing the menu (they currently are having the good-to-have issue of trying to rein in their creativity and narrow the options), they know it will have pasta, Asian-inspired items and their spin on classic dishes.
Senia will be almost like two restaurants in one. The main restaurant, which seats 50, will feature approachable, casual items. A couple of dishes that have been confirmed to be on the opening menu are Roasted Bone Marrow with Beef Cheek Marmalade and Hawaiian Sweet Rolls, and Maui Venison Tartare with Asian pear, pickled sea asparagus, egg yolk gel and yukke vinaigrette.
Then there is also counter seating for seven, and a chef’s table facing the kitchen for four or five that offers a more refined, fine-dining experience. There, they’ll serve a 12-course meal featuring higher-end ingredients like caviar or truffles. It’s something of an experimental area — the dishes they concoct there will change on a daily basis.
“It’s all about what we want to cook and what inspires us,” Rush says. “And that is what keeps us alive and interested in doing what we do and it doesn’t become …”
“Monotonous,” Kajioka finishes.
The fact that the pair can literally finish each other’s sentences says a lot about their partnership. While their menu might sound overly broad, it’s a purposeful move: They don’t want to pigeonhole themselves. And that is where having dual chefs at the helm really plays a part. Kajioka is familiar with Asian flavors, while Rush leans more toward a classic French persuasion.
“We are learning a lot from each other in the months since he has been here,” Kajioka says.
“We play off one another,” Rush says.
“Chris is introducing me to a lot of new (local) ingredients that I have never seen before, and I’ll approach those ingredients with a European mindset,” Rush continues. “And he says, ‘well, no, you don’t use it like that.’ Well, what if you did?”
For both of them, having Senia exude a sense of place is key.
“We want to stay as true as possible to local ingredients,” Rush says. “Hawaii has phenomenal produce and many other things … We want to utilize those ingredients.”
After all, for Kajioka, the desire to represent his home state in the larger culinary world is a big part of it all. He always intended to return home to Hawaii at some point. He admits that his homecoming came a little earlier than he had anticipated, but that was partly fueled by the way he saw the culinary scene had developed in his years away.
“I have seen over the past five or six years a big change — some really great restaurants coming up,” he says.
“We have a chance to do something really special,” he continues. “I think a lot of people forget about (Hawaii) because we are in the middle of nowhere — but they are going to have to look at us very soon.”
Senia is set to open this summer; the date is to be announced. It will be open for lunch Monday–Friday and dinner Monday–Saturday. The counter and chef’s table will serve dinner Tuesday–Saturday. To keep up to date, visit restaurantsenia.com.