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Interview with Ravi Kapur from San Francisco’s JBF Award–Nominated Liholiho Yacht Club

Elena North-Kelly

April 28, 2016

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With appearances on best-of lists from Bon AppétitFood & Wine, Eater, and the San Francisco Chronicle, Liholiho Yacht Club has taken the Golden Gate City by storm. Lauded for its heritage-driven, Hawaiian-inspired fare, the menu also pulls from Northern Californian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian culinary traditions with inventive dishes like pork belly with pineapple and Thai basil; and beef tongue steam buns with kimchi. We spoke with chef Ravi Kapur about the inspiration behind the restaurant’s concept, where to get the best noodle soup in the Bay Area, and how spam has been woven into Hawaii’s culinary fabric.

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JBF: How would you describe Liholiho Yacht Club’s culinary style? What do you hope to share with your diners?

Ravi Kapur: Our culinary style reflects the two main chapters of my life: first, being born and raised in Hawaii to a native Hawaiian/Chinese Mother and a father from India. My cooking has been greatly influenced by my parents and grandparents on both sides as well as by the many cultures of Hawaii. Second, now having spent half my life in the Bay Area, I have been greatly influenced by the highly seasonal, ingredient-driven philosophy here. Having close relationships with farms, ranches, and purveyors who support and embrace this mentality is crucial. What we hope to share with our diners is soulful and delicious food, exceptional and friendly service, and a fun, vibrant atmosphere.

JBF: Speaking of atmosphere, we read that the inspiration behind the restaurant’s name came from the idea of a neighborhood party. Can you tell us more about this?

RK: Back in Hawaii during the early '80s, the Kealoha [my uncles] would race Hobie Cats and they threw “pop-up” parties to pay for their supplies. They would go to the beach, fire up the grill, ice down the beer, and get a band to play. They would charge a modest price with the intention of making just enough money to allow them to do what they loved. They realized they needed a name for their “organization” and so the brothers, who lived on Liholiho Street, decided to name it the Liholiho Yacht Club. This is how the modern-day LYC was born. We loved the name and the idea: to throw a party in order to keep doing what you love.  

 
JBF: One of the dishes on your menu is fried rice with bay shrimp, spam, and abalone mushrooms. What’s the deal with the importance of spam in Hawaiian cuisine? 

RK: First of all, we need to define "Hawaiian cuisine." Traditional Hawaiian foods are based around canoe foods that were brought over during Polynesian expeditions and the original inhabitants of Hawaii. Hawaiian “cuisine” is more understood in its modern form and is a result of immigrant influences, specifically Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino. These ethnic groups came to Hawaii to work in the early industries of the islands: whaling, railroad, sugarcane, and most recently, hospitality. Foods from multiple heritages were shared and, over time, have come to define what modern Hawaiian cuisine is. Spam, specifically, is a result of the military presence during World War II and has woven itself into the culinary fabric of Hawaii. It’s an important food group! I grew up eating it, and now I make my own.

JBF: Can you tell us about a dish on your current menu that you’re really excited about, and why?

RK: We're doing a whole lobster, head to tail, that's fried and served with a preserved black bean–chile sauce. It reminds me of growing up, and it's meant to be eaten with your hands. It's very nostalgic for me. You don’t often see it eaten this way, so it’s also pretty fun.

JBF: Your website features the hashtag #GetJag. What’s the significance there?

RK: Ultimately, it means to let loose and have a good time. Be uninhibited. Be in the moment. Relax! Although in our hectic, tech-based lifestyle, that's easier said than done most of the time.

JBF: What are some of your favorite places to dine out in San Francisco when you’re not working? 

RK: My wife and I go to Hai Ky Mi Ga for noodle soup every day before work. On our days off we almost always try new places, but our go-to spots are:

Learn more about the 2016 James Beard Awards.

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Elena North-Kelly is managing editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.