POIPU — The head sous chef at The Grand Hyatt’s new Asian eatery, Romel Begonia, brings a pioneering and approachable spirit to the current trend in Asian fusion cuisine.
“Born and raised, right here in Kekaha,” Begonia said of himself, as a spacious dining room full of tourists and island residents enjoyed sumptuous dishes created by the local sensation. “By the time I was in high school, I couldn’t even fry an egg. My mom did all the cooking growing up … I stumbled upon my culinary career.”
Taking the advice of his mother, Begonia began taking classes in the culinary arts soon after high school. Now he creatively steers a group of five assistant chefs in Yum Cha’s award-winning kitchen.
The Hyatt is known worldwide for its high standards of excellence in cuisine and service — from the palatial Grand Hyatt in Muscat, Oman, serving ambassadors and royalty, to the distinguished Grand Hyatt Hong Kong serving the kinetic business activity of the glittering city — The Grand Hyatt in Poipu lives up to this world-class standard and Yum Cha is an exciting addition to the resort’s offerings.
Jesse Schwartz, the eatery’s manager, came from an extensive history working in food and beverage in San Francisco, a transition that wasn’t difficult to make.
“The history of Asian immigration in San Francisco has created a city full of Oriental cuisine — Thai, Chinese, Japanese,” Schwartz said. “I was already very familiar with the flavors of the Pacific Rim and ready to come to Kaua‘i to manage this unique restaurant.”
Schwartz is proud that what most would assume to be an exclusive and expensive menu is actually priced for “family-style dining.”
“We are so happy we can appeal to local residents as much as tourists,” Schwartz said. “We don’t depend solely on guests at the Hyatt; we’ve gained quite a local following.”
Yum Cha translates into “drink tea” — a healthy and habitual aspect of Chinese cuisine.
Schwartz, a tea connoisseur himself, created the well-balanced tea menu. White, green and the digestive-fermented tea called Pu-er (long hailed as China’s most health-giving tonic) are among the loose leaf options set to begin or finish the meal.
For an extra special occasion, order the ‘Flowering Tea,’ a hand-sewn white tea and jasmine flower bundle that “blooms” inside the glass pot.
“Everything is made here,” Schwartz said.
The restaurant is dedicated to sourcing as many local products as possible and will soon be adding Lappert’s Kaua‘i-made ice cream to the already delicious desert menu.
Begonia, being from the island, is especially dedicated to keeping the flavor and the ingredients close to home.
“It’s good for the farmers, it’s good for the customers, why not?” he said.
While many ingredients come from Asia to ensure authenticity, Schwartz explained, “When the chef feels creative, we often include specials that feature a local produce item or fruit. The ‘tempura fried banana’ desert is excellent when we can use local apple bananas — they’re less syrupy-sweet and firm.”
The concept of fusion-Asian cuisine is not a revolution in Hawai‘i, as the style has been a staple of the island’s special melange of culture and tradition.
Yet the Hyatt did not settle on replicating the established standard in fusion cuisine. Instead, Begonia was sent on a whirlwind trip to study with master chefs in Beijing and Bangkok.
“They told me I was going to China and Thailand — without my wife!” Begonia said.
“But it turned out I worked so hard, the time flew by. I would return back to my room after 12 hours of cooking, and then start writing notes and recipes. I learned everything so that I could come back here and teach my crew well.”
During this time, the Kekaha local became well-versed in Northern Chinese cuisine under the tutelage of Master Chef Kent Gin at Beijing’s Made in China restaurant.
His mentors in Bangkok were Chef Phat of the Erawan Tea Room and Chef Gay Wo Lin of You & Mee restaurant.
His time in Asia was well spent as evidenced by the unique menu found at Yum Cha.
“Even learning how to use a wok, oil and maintain it — all this was new to me and new to my crew,” Begonia said. “It’s actually quite simple when you finally know it and the food reflects that simplicity. My motto in the kitchen is ‘KISS’ (keep it super simple).”
When asked if his former teachers would be proud to see what Begonia has created, he thought they might think it was a little too flavorful — typical of American taste buds that like rich flavors.
While authentic Chinese cuisine is pure, fresh and light, Begonia is also in favor of clear tastes not gummed up “with too much tamarind.”
“But our most popular dish, Mandarin Chicken,” reflects how fusion takes the best of both worlds and makes it accessible to American tastes, Begonia said.
With generous starter dishes called “small plates” and family-sized “large plates” sharing the meal is au rigeur.
The “Whole Island Fish” prepared fried or steamed is a dramatic dish and could be shared by a family of four. Noodle and fried rice dishes complement the delicately marinated fish and meat dishes.
The details of each recipe reflect an awareness of taste and innovation.
The peanut sauce is made from scratch, without the typical coconut milk to water it down — “this way it comes out velvety smooth, rich and sweet,” said Begonia.
Orange peel shaved into the tempura dipping-sauce adds a hint of citrus paired perfectly with giant prawns.
It is clear Begonia was given the freedom to create a menu that is dynamic and unique, both on Kaua‘i and beyond.
So what is Yum Cha’s Asian-fusion secret?
“I teach my cooks that we can improve the dishes every single day,” Begonia said.
While so many restaurants serve a static menu, the creators at Yum Cha are comfortable staying in transition, trying new things and improving on what is already successful — which is appropriate for the innovative genre of fusion cooking.
“Cooking makes me feel mellow, relaxed, not stressed out. It’s kinda’ like jiu-jitsu — it’s an outlet and it keeps me humble,” Begonia said.
The restaurant mirrors Begonia’s relaxed attitude, without compromising the cutting-edge fare.
Taste Yum Cha’s fusion cuisine Tuesday through Sunday evenings at the Clubhouse, Grand Hyatt Poipu Bay Golf Course. For reservations call 742-1515. Take-out available. Children welcome. Full bar, wine, Asian beer, sake and fine Chinese tea.