Raising the bars
“Please don’t overlook me.”
Jamal Lahiani concluded a job application to the former rooftop bar thirtyninehotel with these four words. It was 2009, and the downtown bar was hiring a new head chef. Among the dozens of applications, these words stood out to owner Gelareh Kloie and manager Christian Self.
The “kitchen” that Kloie and Self were hiring a chef to manage was something that belonged in a studio apartment: a single four-burner stove jammed inside a space the size of a closet on their outdoor deck bar. When Lahiani saw the workspace, his face fell. But he steeled his nerves.
“I will not be dissuaded,” he replied, taking the job.
Jamal Lahiani, a soft-spoken, stocky man in his early 30s, is well known as the opening chef behind a few of Hawai‘i’s hottest bars, including thirtyninehotel, Bevy Bar and Tropics Ale House on the island of Hawai‘i.
Born in Chicago, Lahiani has lived in Hawai‘i on and off for more than a decade. Lahiani’s family relocated to Hawai‘i in 1991. A short time later, his parents separated and his father left, but Lahiani, his mother and his sister remained. He went to Pearl City High School before returning to Illinois to attend Knox College.
Halfway through college, Lahiani already knew he wanted to cook. He graduated with a bachelor’s in liberal arts and immediately began working at different locations in both Illinois and Hawai‘i. He began with a coffee shop inside a bakery in Illinois, then went to Casablanca in Kailua through 2004, then returned to Chicago to volunteer (called “staging” in the food industry) at the famed wine-centric restaurant Bin 36.
“You learn very quickly as a volunteer that if you can’t be helpful, stay out of the way.” Lahiani remembers. “After a while, I realized that it didn’t matter to me what the restaurant was, just that they were respectable and created items from scratch.”
After returning from a year living abroad in Morocco, Lahiani was faced with the reality of returning either to Chicago or to Pearl City. That’s when he spotted thirtyninehotel’s ad. After applying, meeting Kloie and Self, and seeing the cooking space, Lahiani understood the bar for what it was: a passion project that had become one of Honolulu’s biggest nightlife destinations, known for promoting independent creativity. With his experience and tenacity, Lahiani worked hard over the next couple of years building up both the new menu and the “kitchen” itself.
When thirtyninehotel closed in early 2013, former manager Self was already in the early planning phases for a new bar called Bevy. Self reached out to Lahiani about becoming its opening chef.
After designing the initial menu there, he was off again, this time to help open Tropics Ale House. Lahiani has found a niche with bar kitchens—creating innovative and incredible new dishes out of under-resourced kitchens and in the stress of a non-restaurant cooking environment. One of the best parts about the job is that it allows Lahiani a flexibility rarely found in the restaurant industry.
“If I don’t have a job lined up, I’m more than happy to just ride my bike, play ultimate Frisbee with my friends, or go to the gym,” says Lahiani. “There’s a lot of burnout in the restaurant industry, and keeping a great quality of life is important to me. I’m able to keep a cool head in the kitchen because I decompress and keep at peace.”
For Lahiani, who’s worked in so many restaurants in cities around the world, the food industry in Hawai‘i draws interesting parallels to other cities.
“In the food industry, things have generally been unchanged since the ’90s. Now, we’re facing a renaissance in Hawai‘i, as well as nationally, of untapped markets seeing new developments. There are now more commonplace cosmetic renovations to promote new concept-driven spaces. A lot of young people have individual passions, and it’s promoting a change in the restaurant landscape,” says Lahiani. “Hawai‘i’s right there alongside other changing cities around the world.”
Lahiani would like to see more culinary diversity, whenever possible. His priority is the pursuit of authenticity in the kitchen, as well as new options. In Hawai‘i, Asian food is familiar and comfortable. We do it really well—but we’re over-saturated with it.
“Why is there always a line out the door at Olive Tree Cafe in Kahala, or Cafe Maharani in McCully, or Casablanca in Kailua? Part of it is because it’s good food, but part of it is because these spots are some of the only places you can get the types of food they offer, like Indian or Mediterranean,” says Lahiani.
Lahiani’s father is Moroccan and comes from a culture where food is taken very seriously. Lahiani’s mother is German. The Germans take food culture seriously as well, but as a single mother cooking alone for two children, Lahiani remembers family meals were often more utilitarian and practical than complex or delicate. Culture and experience have combined to shape Lahiani into the chef he is today: one who cares about utilizing the fewest, simplest or most modest ingredients to create cuisine that is both intricate and delicious.
“Coincidentally, German food and Moroccan food go really well together,” Lahiani muses.
When he tries food today, Lahiani goes out to many different restaurants, oftentimes not returning to favorite restaurants until he’s eaten at a few others offering similar food, to sample the diversity.
“I believe in my industry and have to support it. Eating out in restaurants all the time can get pricey, but to believe in the value of my industry is to be a patron of my market.” says Lahiani.
In sampling Hawai‘i’s cuisine, Lahiani’s not necessarily looking to try all the high-end restaurants and bars. His concern is with the chef’s purpose. The intention is sometimes more meaningful than the end result; after all, deliberately simple food can gain a cult following, while overly complicated food can fall short of being crave-worthy. Even if a chef fails trying some new and unusual dish, the effort put into food experimentation is the spirit that will move the local food industry forward.
“A place that has good food, but it’s just a replication of another type of cuisine or a chain—I’m not interested in that. Who’s trying something new? Who’s reaching to grow and evolve and raise the bar for all the food service folks and consumers in Hawai‘i’s food scene? That’s what is going to take us all to the next level, and I want to see the bar of quality raised more consistently.”
Moroccan Lemon Chicken with Green Olive
8 to 10 skin-on chicken thighs, sprinkled with a thin layer of salt and pepper on both sides
2 sweet onions
3 Tbl. minced garlic
3 Tbl. minced ginger
1/4 cup olive oil and/or the rendered chicken fat resulting from the oven browning
Start with 1 or 2 tsp. of the following spices, and add more of any to taste: cumin, coriander, turmeric, fennel powder, black pepper, salt, saffron (optional), garlic chili paste (optional)
1 cinnamon stick or 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 Tbl. Dijon mustard
2 Tbl. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup white wine
4 green olives per piece of chicken; any green olive whether pitted or not
2 to 3 cups chicken stock or water
3 Tbl. cornstarch made into a slurry with 1/2 cup stock or water
4 Tbl. chopped parsley and cilantro
2 lemons, zested and juiced; both reserved separately
1/2 stick of butter
Put chicken thighs skin-side-up in oven to brown and render fat off skin. The oven on broil or on 500 would be fine; the point is to brown the skin quickly without fully cooking the chicken, as well as using the oven to save stove space to do other things. Remove from oven and reserve; drain fat if using to cook the onions in it.
Saute the onions, garlic, ginger, olive oil, and/or chicken fat and sweat covered until tender. You should use a large pan, cast iron, pot, or dutch oven that will be able to accommodate all of the chicken pieces and cooking liquid.
Add the spices and seasoning, and stir around to toast.
Stir in Dijon and then pour over white wine to reduce till pan is almost dry again.
Embed the reserved par-cooked chicken into the spiced onions. Pour in the reserved lemon juice, then pour enough stock or water till the contents of the pot are not yet fully covered. Bring to a busy simmer for 30 or 45 minutes, turning the meat several times to impregnate with sauce. You can skim fat from the edge of the pot if you like. Remove chicken pieces to a serving platter or back to the baking dish to reserve.
To finish the sauce (which should resemble an onion gravy), as you bring up to a boil the remaining liquid, reduce slightly and whisk in the reserved cornstarch slurry for two minutes to thicken. Taste the sauce to adjust for seasoning and lemon juice. Remove from heat and swirl in the knob of butter. Also stir in the reserved lemon zest or sprinkle it over the entire dish once on the serving platter.
With chicken cooked and sauce adjusted, you can pour the saucy onion and olives over the chicken to serve, or if you’re patient or are cooking ahead for tomorrow’s dinner, you can cool the chicken inside of the sauce pot overnight to reheat while preparing the other side dishes the next day; this is good to do because the meat rests and soaks in all of the nice surrounding flavor.
Serve with bread from Shaloha Pita, Fendu Boulangerie or Breadshop. Make a vegetable salad with a simple vinaigrette, a potato dish or spaetzle.
Green Onion and Brown Butter Spaetzle
This is a German substitute for an otherwise Moroccan-style side dish.
2 cups flour
1/4 cup of green onions, chopped
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. fennel powder
1/2 tsp. cayenne
zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup buttermilk
6 Tbl. butter, at room temperature
Combine flour, salt, pepper, fennel and cayenne in a large bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs, lemon zest and buttermilk. Make a well in the dry bowl and stream the wet mix into the dry while whisking and gradually drawing in the flour from the sides of the bowl until smooth and thick. Let rest for 15 minutes.
If you have a pot with a perforated steamer attachment, use it; otherwise, you’ll need a colander to hold above your large pot. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil, then reduce heat slightly.
To form spaetzle, hold perforated colander over hot water and pour a cup or two of batter at a time into the colander to push through with a pastry scraper or spatula. Do this in batches to not overcrowd the water. Cook for a few minutes until the spaetzle floats to the surface, then remove to an oiled baking sheet with a strainer scoop or slotted spoon. Let cool and spritz and mix with olive oil to keep from sticking. You can reserve extra batter or poach all of it to hold in your fridge for later use.
In a saute pan, heat a tablespoon or more of butter until it begins to brown. Saute spaetzle until the edges brown, and stir in a few tablespoons of chopped green onions to finish.
Triple-Cooked Potato Fries
Cut 2 to 4 potatoes into knobby chunks and boil in salted water until fully cooked and starting to break apart at the edges.
Drain potatoes and put onto an oiled baking sheet and spritz with more oil. Bake in a 300-degree oven to dry out a bit, until potatoes start to brown.
If you like richness, then shallow fry the potatoes in a significant amount of olive oil until brown and crispy. Otherwise, shallow or deep fry in vegetable oil; remove and toss with salt and onion powder.