Born To Cook
Jean-Marie Josselin, one of Kauai’s most celebrated chefs, has a unique way of capturing the essence of the Islands in his food. The dishes at his restaurants — Josselin’s Tapas Bar and Grill at The Shops at Kukuiula, and JO2 Natural Cuisine in Kapaa — reflect the Islands’ tropical melting pot. Josselin is, in fact, one of the pioneers of Pacific Rim cuisine. He’s been fusing Hawaii’s many cultures, including Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian and Japanese, into his fare since 1985, when he was the chef at Hotel Hana-Maui (now known as Travaasa).
“The first thing I looked at was the bounty here,” he says.
After visiting with families of different ethnicities on Maui, as well as farmers and fishermen, he realized how much he could do with the local food.
“My head was really starting to tick,” he says.
That’s how his food-fusion magic began.
“At that time, it was really interesting because it was like going to the moon,” he says. “It’s taking all this fantastic original cuisine, putting it in your mind, and just shaking it and coming up with dishes — a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
He even grew his own produce on the property 30 years before the farm-to-table concept gained its recent traction.
Of course, his ingenuity also likely came from his European culinary background.
“Where I come from, it’s part of your up-bringing,” he says.
Josselin grew up on a farm in the French Alps and had many chores, from peeling beans to milking cows.
“My grandmother was the queen of cooking. She could do anything — it was incredible. She really had a touch for cooking,” he recalls.
He also attended culinary school at Lychee Hotelier de Paris, and his first job was working as a line cook at a three-star restaurant in France.
“It took a lot of hard work,” says Josselin, who remembers putting in long hours from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m.: “Days after days after days.”
But it was during this time he picked up the classic techniques he still uses today and learned many tricks of the trade, including how to create divine pastries and sauces. In 1982, he moved to the U.S. after being offered a job at a restaurant in St. Louis.
“It was really hard because I didn’t speak any English, and the guys who hired us didn’t pay us very much,” he recalls.
He landed a position as executive chef shortly thereafter, though, at a restaurant in New Jersey. And it was while living there that he finally found his way to the Islands: He was working for a Rosewood property and received an offer to transfer to another in Hana. A few years later, he accepted a position as chef at Coco Palms Resort’s Seashell Restaurant, which he plans to do again when it reopens in 2017 (the projected date). It was here that he started to put himself on the Garden Isle foodie map. He helped found the first Taste of Hawaii at Coco Palms Resort, in an effort to raise funds to support Kapaa High School and get computers into the classrooms, as well as give the community a chance to sample the island’s many different flavors. During the first year, 450 people attended. Although he isn’t involved anymore, it continues to be a fundraising success.
Most kamaaina, however, likely remember him most after he branched out on his own for the first time and opened the well-known and -loved A Pacific CafÃ© in Kapaa.
“That’s the dream of every chef,” he says. It took awhile, however, for the concept to catch on. He went from serving around 350 a night at Seashell Restaurant to hosting barely a trickle of patrons at his cafe.
“The first year is by far the hardest one,” he says.
But, with perseverance, his career soon took off. He ran the business for 15 years while also opening restaurants on Maui and Oahu, in San Diego, and restaurant 808 at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He even had his own cooking show on Channel 9, and penned a book titled Taste of Hawaii.
After selling all of his restaurants and taking a brief hiatus to travel the world, he returned to his beloved Kauai and opened Josselin’s about five years ago.
“It’s a place where I feel comfortable — it’s my home,” he says of the Garden Isle. “And I think there’s a lot of potential in Hawaii. I think this is a great state for food.”
More recently, he opened JO2, which was influenced partly by a trip to Asia, where he sought the aid of a Chinese doctor.
“It was the first time I realized that food can heal,” he says.
Josselin brings that same concept into his dishes at JO2.
“It is my duty to make food that restores people and makes them feel good at the same time,” he says.
Aside from resuming the reins at Seashell Restaurant and opening an all-vegetarian dining establishment, Josselin plans to continue bringing pleasure to people’s palates. And nothing makes him quite as happy as watching one of his bustling restaurants from the kitchen and hearing the happy chatter of patrons.
“When people come to your place, it’s a celebration,” he says. “You understand how important food is to everyone.”