Revolutionizing the restaurant scene in San Francisco by staying true to his roots, Chef Jordan Keao is representing Hawaiian cuisine by the books and fans are traveling near and far to get a taste. The Chef-Owner initially began his entrepreneurial journey on the weekends with a brunch pop-up while continuing to pursue his career in the tech industry, as part of Google’s dining team. As the seats began to fill up and food began to run out, Keao knew it was time to take the leap and become a full-time restaurateur. Born into a family of go-getters, the chef trusted his gut and launched ‘āina, a modern Hawaiian food concept that serves food with a distinct Hawaiian influence with a breath of the classics.
A student of the Culinary International Art Institute of San Diego, Keao began his culinary career at Roy’s Hawaii in La Jolla. Soon after, Chef Jordan launched a private chef business before moving to the Bay Area to help open four sushi restaurants. In order to gain exposure to French and modern cooking techniques, Keao found himself alongside Roland Passot at the Michelin-starred French restaurant La Folie before venturing into the tech industry. The chef knew his path needed to change in order to fulfill the longing for creativity in his culinary soul. With the support of his wife and the drive to bring Hawai’i to his new home in San Francisco, Keao opened his brunch pop-up. Creating dishes inspired by his homeland at a moderate price range that was foreign to the area, the business took off.
Due to the high demand, it was time to expand into a bigger location and open their doors full-time, thus creating ‘āina. As the restaurant is growing, so is the Chef-Owner’s knowledge on how to manage a kitchen staff while steering clear of the standard culinary industry environment. The ‘āina concept strives to be a love letter to the islands, by merging the attraction of Hawaiian-inspired cuisine, the warmth, and hospitality of the island spirit with a refined sensibility and great service in a casual and welcoming atmosphere. Recently, the restaurant introduced a six-course tasting menu. The Mo’olelo tasting menu honors the rich traditions while showcasing the farmers, specialty ingredients, flavors, and experiences only found in Hawai’i. For those looking to represent their culture’s cuisine in the most authentic way, the chef advises that your story must be engrained in your menu as well as your staff.
We were able to catch Chef Jordan Keao wrapping up the brunch service at ‘āina to hear his entrepreneurial journey, what it means to him to share the story of Hawai’i through his menu on the mainland and his take on the restaurant industry. Through his dishes, Keao is able to tell the story of his homeland and those who created the cuisine through hardship over a century ago.
What made you want to take the leap into entrepreneurship?
I’ve always lived by the saying, “If you’re not living your dream, you’re helping someone else live theirs.” Its nothing bad to help someone live their dream, but I always felt like there was something bigger in store for me. I come from a family of very driven people. My grandmother was the first woman in Hawai’i to get her fireplace contracting building license back in the 50’s. And my mom had her own catering business doing Hawaiian luaus on the east coast. It’s kind of engrained into our family. For me, I just realized that I wanted to change the way restaurants were run. The known norm is kitchens being fueled by angry chefs as well as a sense of hostility and intensity. Yes, there’s a hierarchy, but I’ve always felt that there should be a lateral managerial style meaning you should be allowing all ranges of employees to go above and beyond and feel empowered. That can be achieved with a lot of coaching and a lot of risk, but longterm, it pays off.
What made you want to make the entrepreneurial leap in the Mainland rather than Hawai’i?
Primarily because I just started my family in San Fransisco. I was working a 9-5 job for a tech company where I wasn’t satisfied creatively or culinarily. My wife helped find a space that was opening on the weekends just for a pop-up in the neighborhood in a great part of the city. I wanted the city to have a place to have rice and eggs for brunch without having to be really expensive or really cheap and low quality. We have amazing brunch places here, but they’re all American. And I thought, why isn’t there more of a style that caters to where I’m from? That really appealed to me, and it was manageable while working a 9-5 job. Then we slowly started adding on that were more of a closer connection to me like, Kalua, which we serve in the form of pork belly and Loco Moco, which is a short rib. I was doing that for about six months, and then we became so popular that we couldn’t seat everybody. People were driving over an hour to the pop-up, but we were running out of food before they could be seated because we couldn’t physically store enough food at the location. The support from the community was kind of surreal – pinch me I can’t believe its happening. While we were looking for another pop-up location, we fell into the location where we were at right now, and they were looking change over the lease – it was serendipitous. When things happen naturally, that’s a very good sign for me, and I’ll kick myself later on if I didn’t take a chance and at least try.
What fears did you have to overcome when making the leap, if any, and what helped you get through those?
Taking the leap was absolutely terrifying. I was at the tech company making good money, more than I ever would as a chef at any restaurants in the city. I had stock options and health benefits, but after two years it just didn’t satisfy my soul anymore, and my wife could tell I wasn’t happy. She was the one that really encouraged me to open the pop-up to satisfy me creatively. My wife was also the push to transition into the restaurant because she could tell there was so much potential there. Most people were like, “Are you kidding me? Everybody is trying to get into the tech industry so they can make good money and have a comfortable life and be home for dinner.” Although I do want those things, I want to be really happy with what I’m doing with my life and have my kids be proud of what I’ve done in my career. But the same thing was said to me when I moved from a Michelin Star restaurant to going to Google, all of my peers were telling me I was crazy to move. People have a certain perception of success or comfortability, and they’re almost not willing to ask a question of what drives me to make this life change. After a while, I started realizing that you can’t allow other people to sway your decisions. I try to go with my gut instincts.
How did you initially market your cuisine? How has it changed over the years?
We didn’t market our pop-up, we only got PR when we first opened our restaurant – and then we went without it for six months. It was interesting because when we first opened the pop-up – and even the restaurant, we focused more on talking about how we are crafting cuisine that is inspired by Hawai’i. Now we’re doing our tasting menu and comfortably saying we’re serving Hawaiian cuisine. The long-term goal of the restaurant is to be able to say this is a cuisine that represents Hawai’i and I’m proud that we’ve reached that goal. I’m very skeptical and wary of using the phrase, “Hawaiian cuisine,” because we usually say we’re influenced by Hawai’i, or we’re telling the story of Hawai’i. I think now it’s we’re trying to step a little deeper and say, we’re telling the story about local food and culture in Hawai’i and all that it has to offer traditionally.
How have you had to change the way you run your business when you made the transition from a pop-up location to a brick-and-mortar?
I’ve had to scale back my ambitions because of the cost it takes to run a full-scale restaurant. Previously it wasn’t hard to find labor and good help, but because I’m a chef that hasn’t made a name for myself just yet at a small restaurant its been tough to find people that can really help us deliver what we want to. The restaurant industry in San Francisco has changed a lot over the last decade. Back then, the biggest issue was your fixed cost; an expensive rent would kill a business owner. Now, it’s not so much the rent; it’s the labor – especially skilled labor that it takes to cook the food. Another obstacle is the expense to pay our servers, in California servers also make tips on top of minimum wage – which has been putting a lot of restaurants out of business. That’s why so many establishments in the area have transitioned to self-service counters rather than being a sit-down. So we’ve had to simplify.
What drove you to offer a 6-course tasting menu for guests?
Response to the tasting menu has been overwhelmingly great. Everyone is always like, “its too cheap you should charge more with the attention to detail and the plating.” We don’t price anybody out; we’re able to cover our bottom line as a business while putting our foot in the door with these other high-caliber restaurants who are charging twice what we are serving for seven or eight courses. We end up giving our guest about seven to eight courses even though it only says six on the menu, and those little additions help me tell a deeper story about Hawai’i. My goal is to touch as many people with our story as possible. When our guests hear me talk about each dish and the story behind it where I got the inspiration from, and make the distinction between Hawaiian cuisine or the cuisine of Hawai’i which is what we break it down into. People are highlighting all kinds of different things which is really blowing my mind. Especially in a city where all of these amazing restaurateurs and chefs – it’s hard to make your own impact being a no-name chef and just making a start to your career.
Being that few have brought Hawaiian cuisine to such a fine level, what sets your establishment apart from the rest?
Everybody tells the story. My job as the chef-owner is to not just teach about the food, but the culture and language. Mainland people know more about Hawai’i when they work here. We have a Hawaiian word of the week; we keep our menu as traditional as possible as far as the language goes whether it be Hawaiian or a different ethnicity we’re highlighting. I do a lot of passing and drop food all the time. I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant where the same story is being told even when the chef-owner isn’t there.
Where do you think some chefs who serve Hawaiian cuisine go wrong?
The biggest thing is that it’s usually somebody who has lived in Hawai’i for a couple of years and usually not born and raised. Those who are born and raised might be cooking an American version of local food. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a town on the Big Island of Hawai’i where its super country and I grew up in the mountains. I was just very connected to the people and the cultures around me, and I didn’t have a lot of unhealthy, processed food. We would live off of the land and the ocean. So my roots run a little deeper, and I think that’s what comes through in the food – so I’m told. I think other people try to focus more on the kitsch parts of Hawai’i; we don’t even use of serve pineapple in our restaurant. As a distinct line to draw in the sand to say like this is the way we need to start with making our decisions. Pineapple, in many ways, is the symbol of slavery in Hawai’i and a symbol of so much hardships for many different cultures. We would never want to use a product like that, whereas others market it as beachy and Hawaiian. That’s the biggest thing that I see is people trying to sell the cheesy version of Hawai’i, and there’s no soul with it – that’s a big issue. Hawai’i is a melting pot of 8-12 different cultures coming together and creating the best food. Its not fusion, it organically happened through the plantation-base, many cultures sitting around a plantation and they all started sharing food. Each dish has a story, and that’s what we try to tell the guests as we’re serving them.
Is there anything you wish you knew at the beginning of your career from a business or entrepreneurship standpoint?
If I would’ve known the cost of labor in the restaurant industry, we may have opened as a counter-service rather than a high-end restaurant just given that the entire market here in San Francisco has changed in the last five years.
What is the best piece of advice you got, or the best lesson that helped shape your career?
I started going to therapy six months ago, which primarily caters to entrepreneurs and CEOs. These mentors and life coaches offer to help you deal with all of the pressures and anxieties from basically working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My mentor seems to make things a little less daunting for me, empowering me to reach for the stars without the thought of failing. Someone that can help you get over those hurdles of being an entrepreneur and laying that pavement. So much weight on the shoulders of an entrepreneur – it is important to understand that its okay to ask for help.
What do you see happening for your brand in the future?
To gain recognition and exposure, our focus is on the experience of the restaurant. Branding itself, we do have a lot of ambitions to open up an ‘aina bento box location which is something that is more fast-casual with little snacks that remind me of home. Hopefully in the future opening up a Chinese-Hawaiian style restaurant as well as a Filipino- Hawaiian restaurant – creating a restaurant group that is exactly like Hawai’i where we have all of these different types of nationalities and ethnicities cooking their food with different restaurant and starting to expand on that.
For the aspiring food entrepreneurs looking to represent their culture‘s cuisine, what is your advice to them?
Stay true to your original heritage no matter how hard it gets. People are going to tell you that you’re wrong or that it’s not possible. Because you’re working so hard, you get mentally exhausted which could ultimately make you believe those people. Don’t forget about the fire you had when you first started. Every entrepreneur has days where they regret making the leap, but what happens to successful entrepreneurs that have those thoughts is that they are quickly reminding themselves why they got into it and all of the fire and passion they had when they first started.
About the Author
Jenna Rimensnyder is a staff writer and content specialist for Entrepreneurial Chef, having studied Journalism, Media, Food Writing & Photography from the University of South Florida. She combines her love of writing and passion for food to capture stories of inspirational food entrepreneurs and spread across the web. Follow along at JennaRimensnyder.Com.
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