In this second installment of Insider Interview, we are so honored to be featuring Chef Jojo Vasquez. Chef Jojo is the Executive Chef at The Plantation House in Hawaii, was voted one of Hawaii’s “Rising Star Chefs”, and is a good friend of Michelle’s fiancé. Before his life on the aloha island, he cooked his way through Chicago and Los Angeles. Somewhere along the way he worked for Iron Chef Morimoto, at one point his chef de cuisine, and even competed on “Iron Chef America” as one of Morimoto’s assistants! How often can one say “I cooked with Morimoto”? #micdrop
Thanks to channels like The Food Network and hit shows like Top Chef, being a chef in this day and age is like achieving rockstar status. But before the days of glory, these aspiring chefs have been there all along, working those long hours, climbing their way up, sweating their asses off, all for their ultimate love for food. It is people like Jojo who provide the world with beautiful and tasty food every day. The road to rockstar chef-dom is no easy path, but for those of you who dream to be one or are curious, we share with you Jojo’s journey. Enjoy!
Being a chef was never my dream career, but I did know I wanted to do something that would make people happy. I was a very energetic and social kid who always wanted to entertain and make people laugh and smile. My family hosted a lot of parties, and the kids always got together to perform; the girls danced to Menudo and the boys were breakdancing. The Filipino culture is always surrounded by a lavish display of food, music and dancing. This was the core of my personality and I love that this is how I raise my children.
My family led me towards the medical field as I entered college. My father worked for a large medical and Anatomical chart company in Chicago that supplied to all of the hospitals and schools. I grew up with full skeletons, life size flip charts of the human muscle structures, and literature of the body around the house. My mother worked for Swedish covenant hospital in admitting until she retired, and my sister went to school to be an assistance nurse. It was only right that I focused in the medical field so I was heading towards Physical Therapy. I completed classes for Anatomy and Physiology at Harold Washington, and was a teacher’s assistant mainly because it was easy for me memorize things about the body. I even got to dissect a human cadaver which was a highlight!
I got accepted to UIC with my transfer classes, but made the decision to go to Kendall Culinary College instead. My Father had a family-run catering company in the 80’s and we all helped. I always saw how food made people so happy and it was the direction for my career. As a child, I watched Julia Childs, The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook with my Father and these were influences as well.
My first job in the industry, other than my family’s catering business, was at Bacino’s and Bella Vista on Belmont and Sheffield, which sadly I drove by on my last visit and it’s a Walgreens now! This corner was a huge hub to nightlife and foot traffic so we were always busy. I worked as a server so I got to connect with the guests. Sometimes I got to make deep dish pizzas when the chef wasn’t so busy.
This was when I started culinary school as well. When I started I didn’t have to take any of the pre-requisite classes, and I took advantage to stay after school to take on any one on one projects so I was ahead of the game. I was always competitive so I entered as many competitions, essays, or off-site events as possible to assist, so the Chefs knew I was in the zone.
I knew Morimoto-San maybe 10 years before I worked with him. When I was at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey I worked for Executive Chef Troy Thompson, a very inspirational mentor. We did a lot of off-site events together, as our Asian inspired cuisines fit well together. We traveled from Maine to Aspen for the Food & Wine Festival, always working side by side. With the empire of the restaurants being built by Morimoto-San, I was hired to open Waikiki, also assisted with Napa. During the opening of these restaurants I also worked in Moscow for two winters at a Russian restaurant teaching them how to produce his cuisine. It was truly an exciting and worldly adventure! I learned a lot about the finer aspects of his operation and always wanted to make sure that he would be successful.
Not a lot of people know that Iron Chef America started filming in Los Angeles. Morimoto-San’s OG Sous Chefs from the OG Iron Chef were present, and they trained at our restaurant, Jer-ne, at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. I was in awe from their precision and craftsmanship. Whatever I could do to assist I would, just so I could learn and one day hope to join in on a battle. I completed two years of Iron Chef America later while it took place in NYC at The Food Network studios, which is also above his restaurant Morimoto NY. I will always remember the details and intensity of the one-hour battles as we went head to head with some of the best chefs of the nation. All in all, I wasn’t really nervous because my focus wasn’t about the cameras or bright lights, it was always about making the food my chef wanted to be successful.
Proposing to my beautiful wife, Eliza, at Jer-ne Restaurant with flamenco guitars playing in the background and the ring unveiled with a cloche lid for her surprise. Cooking at Chatham Bars Inn with Morimoto-san, Ming Tsai, Susur Lee and Norman Love. Hosting Friends of James Beard events at the Ritz-Carlton Marine del Rey with awe inspiring chefs. Being instantly inspired to create courses just from touching/ tasting ingredients in their prime.
Not having the opportunity to capture quality team members that are as passionate about this career as I am. It just takes a great attitude and the desire to learn to be a great team member.
Talk to chefs in the field or direction you want to go; ask about the real lifestyle of a chef and if you have what it takes to make it. Understand that the process doesn’t happen over night and you have to pay your dues. Keep your head down and cook! Find a mentor Chef and stick with them for at least 3 seasons, move on when you feel you have another opportunity to learn and grow.
Touching guests that are happy with their dining experience.
My knives/ tool box. Vac master. Immersion circulators. Convection ovens. Vita prep.
So tough as I love to eat! Japanese, Filipino, French. If I were to merge these it would be with the direction of Japanese sensibilities, French technique and Filipino comfort.
Well I live on an island, but its not deserted. I would choose food that would help me for survival, sorry if I’m thinking too much.
1. I would bring a chicken so it can lay eggs, possibly more chickens and assist with fertilizing the land.
2. Potatoes as they propagate very evenly and provide vitamins.
3. Beans because they grow in clusters and can be dried out as well.
4. Kale for its nutritional value and ability to cook or eat raw.
5. Tilapia for healthy fat and protein. Fish doesn’t need a lot of up keep and lives long.
It would be a special occasion to create a meal if I had to butcher my animals.
Wow, this is the final answer type question… Kare Kare which is a Filipino Oxtail Stew with Rice and bagoong.
Kare Kare, chicken adobo, afritada, spaghetti, Kampachi Kama, Ahi poke, Fish Sinigang, Tinola, Fried chicken, many more. Freestyle dishes to burn out the fridge too.
Beach time, watch Chicago sports teams, bbq at home with family and friends, watch movies.
Growing up in Chicago I was immersed in the hip-hop culture at a very early age. I was a big fan of the Rock Steady Crew in NYC. Growing up loving breakdancing led me to graffiti and one of my tags was Rok1. It stuck with a lot of my friends as it referred to me loving to dance at any time… I would rock on the one!
Quite a journey huh? Hope you enjoyed the read and keep being inspired! You may follow Jojo on Instagram @jojovasquez. If you ever find yourself in Maui, plan a dinner at The Plantation House and give Jojo an aloha!