chef jojo vasquez finds a new home at the plantation house in kapalua

ChefJojoAfter more than 20 years in business, The Plantation House Restaurant in Kapalua changed ownership last year, and Jojo Vasquez jumped on board as new executive chef. Named a 2012 Hawai‘i Rising Star Chef by StarChefs.com, Chef Jojo has been wowing Maui diners for several years, most recently at The Banyan Tree at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.

Chef Jojo savored the chance to join the new Plantation House team. “The Plantation House has a twenty-plus-year success rate in Kapalua as a free-standing restaurant,” he says. “The new ownership has inspirational plans to continue this successful lineage, and I wanted to be part of it.”

Chef Jojo grew up in Chicago. His father is an exceptional chef of Filipino cuisine, and he ran a very successful catering business, where Jojo began cooking as a youngster. But when it was time to choose a career, Jojo initially studied to be a physical therapist. “I was taking really hard classes like anatomy and advanced biology,” he says. “I was great at memorizing things, but I didn’t love it. I did always enjoy entertaining friends and cooking.” So he enrolled in the culinary program at Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois, eventually graduating with a culinary degree. “If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t have spent the money for physical therapy school, and I would also have traveled more to learn about global cuisines,” he says.

After graduating from culinary school, Jojo took a line cook job at Rhapsody at the Chicago Symphony Center. He later worked alongside Troy Thompson in Atlanta’s Fusebox, and in 2000 moved to Los Angeles to help open the Jer-ne restaurant as sous chef to Thompson. In 2005, he earned the title of chef de cuisine at The Banyan Tree. He left a few years later to join Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s team as executive chef at Morimoto Waikiki.

“I have known Morimoto-san since 2000,” Jojo says. “It wasn’t until the opening of Waikiki and Napa that I actually worked for him. We’ve traveled the world together cooking for special events. It was a great learning experience to see him adapt his cuisine to wherever we traveled. He is truly a global force.”

Chef Jojo even had a brief career on television, spending two seasons as one of Morimoto’s sous chefs on “Iron Chef America.” Jojo values highly what he learned from Morimoto: “Morimoto-san showed me that quality products produce quality dishes. This is what he wants to showcase for his guests. When you dine at his restaurants you see that he wants the whole ambiance, décor, and food to be larger than life. All of your senses are awakened.”

Jojo’s vision for The Plantation House is to create wonderful dining experiences for all guests, whether new or returning. “We have a great team, exceptional view, comfortable dining room, and a new cuisine to offer,” he says.

For breakfast, Chef Jojo has kept the menu basically the same, but added some new items he thinks will soon become favorites: house-made granola parfait; his version of lox and bagel; crab cakes eggs Benedict; and duck confit fried rice with stir fry veggies, a sunny egg, and Chinese five spice. For lunch, he’s added several fresh new salads and entrees, like iceberg wedge with tomato, bacon, and herb buttermilk dressing; chop salad with salami, mozzarella, tomato, black olives, garbanzos, and red wine vinaigrette; grilled chicken cordon bleu; and furikake crusted mahi mahi with teriyaki vegetable fried rice. Yum!

It’s a different story for dinner, however—Chef Jojo has completely revamped the menu. My gal pal Janet and I recently had an opportunity to sample The Plantation House’s new cuisine. We started with three-cheese risotto fritters ($13): pecorino-Romano, Monterey jack, and fontina cheeses with sauce harrisa. The fritters were crispy on the outside, and meltingly tender on the inside; the harissa sauce provided just the right amount of heat to offset the mellowness of the cheeses.

The Duroc pork belly appetizer ($15) was a divine work of art—perfectly charred pork belly, lean, rich, and not at all fatty, served atop a bright green sweet pea puree and garnished with whole peas and delicate micro greens. It was a masterful blend of flavors. Next, we dove into the roasted Kula beet salad ($12), composed of juicy golden and ruby-red beets, dill feta, and toasted pistachios, topped with pomegranate syrup and arugula. It was a fresh, colorful presentation, and the peppery arugula nicely counterbalanced the sweetness of the pomegranate.

If there’s such a thing as heaven in a bowl, it’s Chef Jojo’s corn soup ($15). So incredibly light, yet soul satisfying, the soup felt like velvet on our palates. Lime crème and cumin crumbs gave it a pleasurable south-of-the-border hint.

Our entrees were beautifully composed and plated. Janet had the fresh island catch ($35—monchong that evening): moist and flaky, served atop orzo with an ochre-hued coconut curry sauce, accompanied by steamed cauliflower florets and garnished with sautéed baby carrots. I’d selected the 6oz. beef tenderloin ($46), which was seared to a perfect medium rare, served on a bed of potato puree with sauce hibachi, and accompanied by sautéed asparagus and cherry tomatoes. Of course we had to indulge in the herb truffle fries ($7)—they’re the ultimate in decadence. Janet needed a potato “fix,” and couldn’t stop eating them! (Don’t worry…I had my fair share, too.)

Chef Jojo is an executive chef who works side by side with his team. “I want to lead by example, and this creates an atmosphere of camaraderie,” he says. “We prep and cook together every day.” When creating new dishes, Jojo draws inspiration from a variety of sources. “Anything can inspire me,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be food—colors, shapes, smells, even music inspires me when I create. I employ all my senses.” His advice to young chefs is simple: “Be true to your craft, and cook with passion. That’s what you want people to see and taste on every plate.”

When he’s not cooking at The Plantation House, Chef Jojo is a family man who cooks at home for his wife and two children every chance he gets. “We enjoy being outside with the BBQ,” he says. “and I have my daughter Josie [8] and son Jonas [4] help me bake dessert. My daughter also likes to write the menu when we have friends come by.”

Chef Jojo isn’t just instilling in his children a passion for food and cooking—he taught both of them to rap at the tender age of two. “I also taught my daughter’s class how to rap and perform in front of the entire school,” he says. “Both of my kids can now beat box and memorize songs they like.” (Sounds like they take after dear old dad in the memorization department!)

Being named a 2012 Hawai‘i Rising Star Chef proves Jojo has not yet reached the pinnacle of his career. Rising Stars are up-and-coming chefs and culinary professionals who represent the vanguard of the contemporary dining scene in America. In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye on this young, talented culinary artist while he helps restore The Plantation House to its legendary roots as a community gathering center and top visitor dining experience.

–heidi pool

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