On Stage

Chef Jon Matsubara is shaking up the Honolulu food scene with ‘couture cuisine’

Friday - May 18, 2007
By Alice Keesing
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Executive Chef Jon Matsubara surrounded by (from left) Cainan Sabey, Jammuel Pusio, Matt Yoshihara, Brian Nagai, Mark Okamura, Edison Ching, Jose Lorenzana and Ron De Guzman at Stage
Executive Chef Jon Matsubara surrounded by (from left)
Cainan Sabey, Jammuel Pusio, Matt Yoshihara, Brian Nagai,
Mark Okamura, Edison Ching, Jose Lorenzana and Ron De
Guzman at Stage

TEN YEARS AGO, JON MATSUBARA WAS washing dishes.Today he’s executive chef of Stage, the hot new restaurant in town.

Stage opened in the much-heralded Honolulu Design Center last month. Matsubara is there because people think he’s Hawaii’s next big chef. He, himself, wears his ambition openly on his crisp, white chef’s sleeve. He wants to deliver a jolt to Honolulu’s food scene,which he believes has been in a state of stagnation for years.

“There’s no reason why the food scene in Honolulu can’t be as good or better than anywhere else in the world,“the chef says.“There’s no reason why people from here can’t compete with the big boys.”

For a while,it looked like the Hawaii Kai-grown Matsubara was destined to be a lawyer. After all, he’s surrounded by them, from his dad to his brother, his uncles and aunties. And after graduating from Punahou and earning his bachelor’s in history at the University of Puget Sound, Matsubara even started law school in San Diego.But something wasn’t quite right.

“I was sitting in class, I think it was civil procedure,and the guys were getting all excited about the law cases and I realized ... I didn’t have that passion, it just wasn’t my thing,” he remembers.


In fact, Matsubara was more likely to be sitting in class thinking about what to cook. Always one to entertain and party, Matsubara’s college place had become a magnet for crowds of people whenever he cooked.

His first memories of good food and good company go back to his dad’s Sunday barbecues. The whole family would get together when his dad turned out his feasts with dishes like smoked pork chops, stuffed onaga or cherrystone clams.

When he was a junior in high school, Matsubara started whipping up dinners for his dates.He picked up tips and recipes from the firefighters with whom he worked at his part-time job at a moving company.

“I did the whole nine yards for (my dates),“he says, laughing.“They were impressed - not by me, but by the dinner.”

Thinking that he might like to follow his passion,Matsubara talked with Russell Siu at 3660 On the Rise. Siu warned him off the career, citing bad pay, hard work and long hours. Still, Siu hooked him up with a friend at the Plaza Club in San Diego, who let Matsubara come in to watch the kitchen.Matsubara stayed for 12 hours just soaking it all in.

“It was fast and furious and beautiful, and I knew right then that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says.

Matsubara and Executive Sous Chef Ron De Guzman share a laugh in the kitchen
Matsubara and Executive Sous Chef Ron De Guzman share
a laugh in the kitchen

So Matsubara quit law school,came back to the Islands and went straight to the top,asking Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi if he could get a job. They laughed when he said he wanted to work in their kitchens with no experience.

“They said you can be a dishwasher - see how bad you want it,” Matsubara says.“Alan and Roy used to laugh that they’d never had a lawyer wash their dishes before.”

Matsubara started moving up in Yamaguchi’s kitchen after just a couple of weeks. But at Alan Wong’s he stuck at it with the dirty dishes for nine months before a better slot opened up.As he washed, Matsubara watched Wong cook, absorbing and learning all the time.

Matsubara eventually worked his way up to line chef at both restaurants. He then moved to New York with his girlfriend, J’mi Arrastia, to train at the French Culinary Institute with masters like Jacques Pépin,André Soltner, Alain Sailhac and Jacques Torres.


Matsubara graduated with distinction, making such an impression that his teachers helped vault him into a four-star restaurant right out of school. For three years Matsubara worked as chef de partie at restaurants including Bouley, Tabla and Restaurant Jean Georges.Then he and Arrastia (who is, fancy that, an attorney) decided it was time to come back home to Hawaii and get married.

Matsubara got a job as chef de cuisine at Mauna Lani Resort’s CanoeHouse Restaurant on the Big Island.And he started getting noticed. When Thomas Sorensen was plan-

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