Bringing seasonal, kaiseki fare to the table | Hawaii Jobs

Bringing seasonal, kaiseki fare to the table

Kevin Lee

By Kelli Shiroma

Uplift, inspire, excite — that’s the meaning of the Hawaiian word, ho‘opai, and the mission behind PAI Honolulu, the innovative food venture by executive chef and owner Kevin Lee. The restaurant, located on the first floor of downtown’s Harbor Court, opened in June and is known for its seasonal course menus.

“Kevin creates playful dishes highlighting different flavors and techniques from different cultures, while being seasonally aware,” explained PAI’s general manager Justine Kadokawa.

Ho‘opai perfectly reflects Lee’s vision for the restaurant, according to Kadokawa. She added that diners can look forward to an amazing internationally influenced kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) meal that features locally sourced ingredients and is unlike any other dining experience, thanks to Lee’s culinary expertise.

PAI Honolulu’s executive chef and owner, Kevin Lee (front), prepares a dish alongside Isaiah Miller. When it comes to the success of the eatery, Lee and his close-knit staff make it a priority to work together and support each other creatively.

The chef’s passion for cooking began while he was growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown area. His drive and talent eventually pushed him to graduate from New York’s Culinary Institute of America. From there, Lee worked at various New York restaurants — even operating as Dovetail’s sous chef when the restaurant received its first Michelin Star — and spent time in Europe and Hong Kong to learn more about the culinary scene. Lee moved to Oahu to work as chef de cuisine at Kailua’s Prima, and, after a few years, he felt it was time to launch his own concept.

“He wanted to inspire creativity and excitement by making quality food accessible to as many people as possible,” Kadokawa said.

That creative spirit pervades PAI’s staff, too. And because the restaurant’s course menus change regularly, there’s lots of room for constant creativity.

“We’re always striving to improve,” Kadokawa explained. “If our chefs have a dish they want to experiment with, Kevin takes the time to explain how to make the concept they’re dreaming up a reality. He will give them that chance and freedom.”

“What I love most about my job is I get to be creative on a daily basis,” Lee expanded. “If something’s not working, we’re able to turn on a dime and adjust accordingly.”

Matthew Kohatsu presents a dish to guests at PAI, where open interactions with customers is the foundation of the restaurant’s unique dining experience.

Whether they’re front of the house or behind the scenes, the employees operate as a tight-knit team. Kadokawa even said that the staff at PAI is like her second family.

“We have a strong team — we go through the fire together and come out together,” Kadokawa explained. “We take care of our employees as much as possible. We even provide a family meal every day, and everyone usually eats together after a hard day of work.”

This way of thinking also is evident between staff members and customers, as Lee explained that the restaurant was built to have an open feel to promote interaction between diners and chefs.

“We embrace having a fully open restaurant,” he said. “It’s similar to sitting at an open bar and interacting with your bartender. At PAI, you interact with the people preparing your food.”

Something to look forward to: In the upcoming months, PAI is planning to launch a special “Pau Hana” bar menu, which will primarily feature drink specials in the restaurant’s bar and lounge.

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THE 411


LOCATION: Harbor Court, 55 Merchant St., Ste. 110, Honolulu

PHONE: 744-2531


OWNER: Kevin Lee


BENEFITS: The restaurant offers medical and dental for full-time employees; employee discounts; educational classes; and partnerships in the food and beverage industry.

NOTEWORTHY:PAI Honolulu is known for its seasonal course menus. Prix fixe and chef’s tasting menus — which feature international flavors with locally sourced ingredients — change every six weeks, so diners can expect a fresh and exciting experience each time.