It’s been more than 20 years since Jon Matsubara ’91 abandoned law school for the professional kitchen, 10 since he started thinking about opening a restaurant of his own. It seems now the quirkiest of fates that Matsubara – who trained at New York’s (then) three-Michelin-star Jean-Georges and came home to helm the high-end kitchens of Stage, Azure, Bloomingdale’s Forty Carrots and Merriman’s Honolulu – recently opened his first solo restaurant deep in Manoa Valley, across the street from where he played Pop Warner football. Not only that, Feast by Jon Matsubara is fast-casual, meaning you’ll order at the counter, pick up your food and eat it out of takeout containers with disposable forks or chopsticks. Fried rice with roasted bone marrow and garlic. Smoked salmon bone chazuke. Pork hash stuffed with crab and topped with ginger, scallions and housemade sambal. Fate made him wait, but the waiting made his Feast all the more delicious.
For a time, Matsubara was one of the unluckiest chefs in Honolulu. The early part of his story was magical: Plaza Club in San Diego to Alan Wong’s to New York’s Tabla and Jean-Georges. Aim high, work hard, experience everything and bring it all home: That was the plan. Just when the foodie craze began sweeping the Islands, as eating local became a trend and a new generation of young chefs began striking out on their own, fate put the brakes on his ambitions. Matsubara was one of the city’s most talked-about chefs, putting haute cuisine techniques and local ingredients on plates for upmarket diners. But he spent the next decade watching other talented local chefs leave their mentors’ kitchens to open their own restaurants one after another, while every vacancy and opportunity he pursued fell through. For 10 years.
The extra time tamed the loftiest part of his ambition and replaced it with a sense of fun. A father of three, Matsubara realized at some point that he no longer aspired to or even enjoyed much white-tablecloth dining. He wanted to eat what was fun and delicious. “Ten, 15 years ago, my (dream) restaurant looked very different from what I’m going to do now. All my experiences, all my relationships, it’s coming to fruition,” he says. “Cooking the food that you want to eat. Keeping it real. That’s the focus now. Having the creative ideas to put behind a quality ingredient and making it fun and delicious is the direction I’m heading.”
Feast opened in September, just a few miles from Punahou, across Lowrey Avenue from where Matsubara grew up catching crayfish in Manoa Stream after football practice. It feels familiar. He knows the rhythms of the valley, the people who live there and the ones who drive in, as his parents did, to drop off their kids at sports practice and pick up dinner to take home to the family table.
In a long vacant space that previously housed a flower shop, a candy store and a plate lunch counter, Matsubara is carving out a new kind of dining. He’s creating local-style comfort food elevated with impeccable technique – in a no-frills setting with a bare-bones staff. It’s the exact same formula he experimented with at Anasia, a relative’s sports bar in Mo‘ili‘ili where Feast debuted as a lunchtime popup last year. Amid dart boards and vinyl booths he cooked butter-poached crab sandwiches, Hilo-style hamburger steaks slathered in oyster sauce with onion gravy all over, and a daily changing dish called I Am Vegan.
“At Anasia, we had all kinds of people come in. Bank presidents, CEOs, union workers down the street, hanging out and eating stuff out of takeout containers,” he says. “It really demonstrated that if you take care of them and you make the food consistent and tasty, people will come. Even if you don’t have parking, they’ll come. We want to create that sort of vibe and feel good about it. Really tasty food at the right price point. A take on classics with really good ingredients and great drinks, a place where you can hang out and eat. Doesn’t have to be fancy. Doesn’t have to be trendy. But it will be there for the long run.”