HAWAIIAN FARE WITH AN ALASKAN TWIST

MEET THE MODERN HONOLULU’S EXECUTIVE CHEF KEITH PAJINAG

What happens when you take a chef raised in Hawaii and Alaska, factor in a mother who owned several restaurants in both destinations (all of which served up their own unique genre of food) and add that chef’s insatiable desire to build on the momentum of Hawaii’s regional cuisine?

Enter THE MODERN HONOLULU Executive Chef Keith Pajinag, who oversees the hotel's popular food scene.

Chef Keith is new to the executive chef role, but certainly no stranger to the hotel. He was part of the original team that opened Honolulu’s now hot spot as the first Waikiki lifestyle luxury hotel in 2010. After that, he ventured to other kitchens, but his focus on farm-to-table cuisine brought him back to THE MODERN HONOLULU.

In essence, he’s well-traveled and understands precisely where Oahu sits in the “foodie renaissance” sweeping across the islands and receiving loads of national attention. Plus, his culinary creations, not only tasty, offer a presentation so delightful banquet attendees are snapping photos of their salads and posting them all over social media. If we were to give the snapshots a caption, it might be: “Too pretty to eat.”

The hotel, according to Chef Keith, is in the midst of a culinary revolution right now. In fact, he says it’s menu transformation time. “We’re using some great mainland product, as well as some European influence, like salmon from the Pacific Northwest.” Chef Keith will rein in those other influences with his own Hawaiian twist, a local beet cure with a papaya relish. The result — a unique spin on one of his favorite dishes, salmon and a bagel.

LET’S MEET CHEF KEITH

Keith Pajinag was born on Oahu, but he later grew up in kitchens around Juneau, Alaska. Peeling potatoes and chopping vegetables while standing on egg crates in the back of the kitchen, Chef Keith worked his way through his mom’s eateries, learning everything he could about each station. At 22 years old, he was presented with a decision — go to culinary school or own a restaurant. He decided on the latter.

After nine months, the eatery was in debt, but patrons loved his food. He knew he had more to learn about the art of running a restaurant business, so he sold his interest and moved to Portland just as the culinary scene was exploding there. He learned what he could then moved on to Seattle, where he began cooking at the city's Four Seasons, while working in no less than three other kitchens at the same time.

“I was like a sponge, trying to learn as much as I could, absorbing knowledge from the best chefs I could find,” Pajinag says. Although his work ethic allowed him to move up the food chain at Four Seasons quickly, it was chefs like Jared Wentworth at Ama Ama Oyster Bar and Grill (now at Michelin-rated Longman & Eagle in Chicago) who helped shape his own style.

“Wentworth brought this flare I’d never seen before. His food spoke volumes, even the simple dishes,” Pajinag says. “It had a lot to do with his interpretation of what small, rustic, elevated pub food could be, but everything had meaning and experience behind it. He’s still an inspiration in my cooking today.”

Chef Keith brings this wealth of experience in the Pacific Northwest, along with his upbringing in Hawaii and Alaska kitchens, to THE MODERN HONOLULU through his devotion to great product.

Chef Keith recalls the hotel’s opening days. “In the beginning, we were really finding out who we were yet playing it strategically simple. Get good ingredients. Don’t manipulate them too much. The perfect tomato doesn’t need a lot of dressing up. Season it. Leave it alone.”

Now his team is pushing the banquet menu to the edge, doing thorough consultations with groups clientele and running with it. Chef Keith believes putting things, like edible flowers, into a salad can really brighten a lunch. Of course, it also offers plenty of fodder for Instagram pages.

"We express our Aloha differently here. ..."

“We’re actually looking at Instagram accounts in Europe and across the mainland, seeing what is out there,” he says. “But we’re not filling plates with oils and gels and things. We express our Aloha differently here. You don’t see lei flowers everywhere at THE MODERN HONOLULU, yet somehow we get the Aloha across. We take the same approach with cooking.”

Meanwhile, he’s experimenting with adding to the current offerings. Every room service menu needs to have a regular burger, he explains, but at THE MODERN HONOLULU, he also wants to feature a bolstered burger plate at The Grove for lunch, particularly for all of its pool goers. The bolstering? Frisee lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, onion marmelade and bacon jam. He’s still playing with the recipe, but it’s all starting to come together. And the fun is in trying, right?

He also says putting things like abalone or sashimi on a banquet plate is really garnering some positive feedback.

Chef Keith also has a keen desire to make the menu more seasonal, similar to the approach he took when he crafted the menu at Livestock Tavern, a Honolulu Chinatown bistro, which he opened during a short break from THE MODERN HONOLULU.

“I want to add things that deliver a sense of the seasons, even though it’s always 80 and sunny here,” he says. “Stone fruits, like apricots or cherries, in our salads during the summer. Swiss chard, beets, turnips in the fall.” … You get the picture. Fresh menu? Order up!