Los Angeles restaurant A-Frame, owned by star chef Roy Choi, recently switched to a Hawaiian menu and Executive Chef Johnny Yoo led the big revamp. Yoo, a Korean immigrant who grew up in L.A., spent many years in Hawaii and has devoted himself to crafting a new spin on Hawaiian cuisine. He talks about the rich history behind the eclectic flavor profiles in Hawaiian food and highlights the Loco Moco, a dish served up at the eatery with a lot of range.
Johnny Yoo: When I lived in Hawaii, I was in my mid-twenties. It just had a real big impact on my life. You know, being Korean-American, and living in an area where I’m in America but I see people that look just like me, and the food and the flavors and the ingredients, it was just so familiar to me. I just felt like, a real connection to it.
Rico Gagliano: It’s kind of like a Korean flavor profile but not Korean.
Johnny Yoo: Exactly. It was basically like me. It was a mashed up — it just felt very comfortable and home.
Rico Gagliano: Well, let’s talk about how this mash-up of Asian and American and other cuisines came to be. What’s the traditional Hawaiian food? How does it start?
Johnny Yoo: Well, the food of Hawaii, I guess originated in the 3rd century with migration of the Polynesians. They brought certain staples like taro, sweet potato, seaweed, stuff like that. And the next kind of evolution was in the late 18th century with the Europeans and the missionaries from New England bringing over their influences. Soon after that, about a century later, you got a lot of different cultures from China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, Portugal.
Rico Gagliano: Man, who didn’t come to Hawaii?
Johnny Yoo: Yeah. Well, at that point in time, the indigenous Hawaiians were kind of being spread thin so they needed to have an influx of workers at the plantations.
Rico Gagliano: And that’s when rice becomes a staple, I guess, when the Asian workers bring it?
Johnny Yoo: Yeah, that’s when the Japanese were prevalent. You know, rice became a huge staple. They built rice paddies, and eventually, all these different foods commingled, and local food was kind of invented.
Rico Gagliano: The term “local” food is actually referring to a fusion of all of these different influences.
Johnny Yoo: Yeah, yeah. It’s basically like the Hawaiian Creole food, a mash-up of all these different immigrant cultures. Local food is the backbone of the foods of Hawaii.
Rico Gagliano: And of course, your menu is based on local food. You want to give me maybe your favorite local food dishes you decided to work with?
Johnny Yoo: Well, one of the dishes that’s really popular is called a Loco Moco, and it’s two scoops of rice, a hamburger patty, some gravy, and an egg.
Rico Gagliano: The thing that I love about that dish is that it sounds like something that I, as a kid, would have made up for myself. It’s like, I love rice, I love hamburger, I love eggs. It’s like, why not put it all together in gravy?
Johnny Yoo: Well, that’s interesting you said that because that’s how it, literally, actually came about. From my understanding, it was invented by a gentleman who owned a diner in Hawaii, and there were a bunch of kids who always used to hang out in front, and one day one of the kids asked the owner, “Can you make me something different?”
So, the gentleman went back, and he got some rice, and put a hamburger patty on, and he had some background in fine dining so he made a gravy, threw an egg on there, and he basically named it Loco Moco because the kid’s name was Moco, and it rhymed with loco — he acted kind of crazy — so, it sounded good, and that’s how it came about.
Rico Gagliano: That’s amazing, although my understanding is that your Loco Moco, which I hope I’m going to get a chance to taste here, has kind of like a Japanese curry sauce instead of a traditional gravy.
Johnny Yoo: Yeah, yeah. So, certain dishes, I want to kind of just keep the dish in its form, the same, but just tweak little components and garnishes to it.
Rico Gagliano: Still, it’s like taking a food that is already a hybrid and a mash-up and a fusion, and then fusing onto it some more. Why can’t people leave Hawaiian food alone?
Johnny Yoo: That’s what Hawaiian food is. It’s really defined. I mean, Hawaiian food is always evolving. I feel like we’re kind of just mimicking the evolution of Hawaiian cuisine in our own right.
Rico Gagliano: Can I try some of this Loco Moco?
Johnny Yoo: Sure.
Rico Gagliano: Alright. So, the first thing I have to say is those are not subtle-looking dishes. This is like, a honking huge amount of food.
Johnny Yoo: Yeah, exactly. It’s just right in your face. There’s no pretentiousness about it.
Rico Gagliano: Is this typical if I were to get this on the island?
Johnny Yoo: Oh, absolutely. Maybe not as composed as that, but yeah. If you know anything about Asian culture, which Hawaii’s very influenced by, it’s about feeding, feeding until you can’t eat no more, until you can almost throw up, you know?
Rico Gagliano: Yay.
Johnny Yoo: And that’s how we, you know, kind of exude our love.
Rico Gagliano: Well, there’s a lot of love on this table.
Johnny Yoo: Absolutely.
Rico Gagliano: I’m looking at, it’s like a big cake of rice on top of which is the burger. On top of that is a lovely sunny-side up egg, and then I guess this is pickled onion on the side here?
Johnny Yoo: Yeah, it’s pickled pearl onions that we pickle in a umeboshi pickling liquid.
Rico Gagliano: Alright, let me put all this together in a mess on my fork. Here we go. This is making me so happy. Really nice, bold flavors.
Johnny Yoo: Yeah, it’s full of flavor. That’s kind of Roy’s and my signature. We hit you hard. There’s nothing subtle about anything that we make. I would probably recommend you crack that yolk so it goes all over.
Rico Gagliano: That’s true. The first bite had some salt and some sharpness to it, but now I’m cracking the egg yolk and it’s pouring over the rice, and I’m sure that is going to give it a little bit of a mellow richness. So, I’m going to try that. Oh, yeah. That really changes the flavor.
Johnny Yoo: It does. It does. That egg yolk kind of just like, nicely rounds everything.
Rico Gagliano: My understanding, by the way, is that you’re going to Hawaii tomorrow? Is that right?
Johnny Yoo: I am going to Hawaii tomorrow.
Rico Gagliano: What’s your first dish when you get off the plane?
Johnny Yoo: Oh, god. Some fresh poke. The most basic version is fish, Hawaiian salt, a little bit of shoyu, and seaweed.
Rico Gagliano: Don’t let anybody tell you that Hawaiian food doesn’t have a lot of range. It goes from hamburger to something as subtle as that.
Johnny Yoo: All over the place, all over the place.
[Ed note: Find out Yoo’s favorite dish in Hawaii here.]