In Hawaiian, ekahi means number one, makai means from the sea, and mauka stands for toward the mountains, inland. At Matsubara’s former restaurant Japengo at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort, he took his Hawaiian roots to heart with a menu that spans all that the islands are, with a whole lot of European and mainland flourishes. For ekahi, say, Kauai shrimp, hibachi style, with Japanese pickled plum, Nashi pear, and Red Thai watermelon. Makai can be the Hawaiian fresh catch of the day teamed with kukui-nut-and-truffle butter, with limu, tomato, ginger, and sesame soy. (The kukui nut tree, by the way, is the official tree of Hawaii.) And mauka? Maybe a Pulehu rib-eye steak with sake creamed spinach, Hamakua mushrooms, garlic potatoes, and a Bordelaise sauce. Jon is currently the Culinary Executive Director of the Kaono Aina restaurant at Bloomingdale’s in the Ala Moana Center.
That may be because Matsubara himself is the sum of his native Hawaii and of the classrooms and kitchens he’s learned in. Having earned his B.A. in Native American history at the University of Puget Sound, Matsubara turned to studying law and then had a change of heart. And yes, Matsubara went to cooking school, at the French Culinary Institute, but when he first made the switch from the law to the stove he started at square one—as a dishwasher. “I started backwards,” Matsubara has said. That said, he was washing dishes at Hawaiian restaurants manned by the likes of Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, which is like graduate school before your freshman year. After the FCI, he went on to become chef de partie at some of New York’s finest—Bouley, Tabla, and Jean-Georges.
Returning to Hawaii from his successes in New York, Matsubara hit the kitchen of Canoe House (in the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel). In 2010, as executive chef at restaurant Azure, he helped it garner Honolulu Magazine’s award for Hawaii’s Best New Restaurant and the Ilima Award for Hawaii’s Best Restaurants Critics’ Choice. At Japengo, where he’s been chef de cuisine since 2013, Matsubara has made Hawaiian regional cuisine his mantra. Says Honolulu Magazine , “it’s a reason to head to Hawaii.”