Chef Hiroyuki Sakai went for a jet-ski ride in Maunalua Bay yesterday morning. The former iron chef is visiting Hawaii for the week.

Iron is forever

At work or at play, Hiroyuki
Sakai shows all the stamina
you'd expect of an iron chef

Being an iron chef is a lot like being James Bond: It doesn't matter what you do afterward, how many restaurants you open, how many movies you make, your identity is firmly fixed to that past persona.


Just ask Sean Connery. Or Hiroyuki Sakai.

For five years, Sakai served as the French culinary master on the Japanese cult cooking hit, "Iron Chef." Before that he had a secure reputation as chef/owner of La Rochelle, an exclusive Tokyo restaurant. By the time "Iron Chef" tapings ended in 1999, Sakai was running four restaurants and had launched a line of packaged baked goods sold in department stores throughout Japan.

But there is success, and there is stardom. "Iron Chef" is the source of Sakai's celebrity in Japan and in the United States -- ever since dubbed versions of the shows became a Food Network cult hit.

He knows that, but he also knows he is his own man.

"The TV figure and myself are different things. As far as I'm concerned, I am exceeding iron-chef level. To me this is not the peak."

But Sakai does not begrudge his iron cheffery.

"I really miss that. I would want to do it again."

The show was the ultimate challenge to his skill, he said.

"It was really, really a battle ... but at the same time you have a chance to express yourself and your expertise fully. It is very satisfying. No matter how old I am, I would like to do it again."

But that was then. Sakai is moving on, with plans to launch a U.S. restaurant chain, including an outlet in Hawaii. He'll be in the islands through the week, doing business and vacationing, which for Sakai is a packed schedule of golf and jet-skiing.

"He has much power," says Chiharu Katsuyama, director of sales and marketing for La Rochelle, referring to his 62-year-old boss' stamina. He accompanied Sakai to Hawaii, hoping to get in a bit of relaxation.

"He calls me on the phone in the hotel -- 'Let's play golf!'"

And it's pretty much non-stop. Yesterday, Katsuyama joined Sakai for an hour of jet-skiing. This was followed by a round of golf.

Sakai was all smiles and required no warm-up once he reached the Sea Breeze Parasailing dock in Maunalua Bay off Hawaii Kai. Soon he was running laps around more cautious jet-skiers in the bay -- and he had to be warned that he was venturing too far from the dock and too close to a sand bar.

Ask Sakai what he's been doing in Hawaii, and although he is trying to publicize his new business venture, his answer is: "Playing golf."

KEN IGE / KIGE@STARBULLETIN.COM Within a few hours of his jet-ski workout, Sakai was teeing off at the Mid-Pacific Country Club golf course.

Since Saturday, he's golfed at Ko Olina, the Honolulu Country Club and the Mid-Pacific Country Club. Today, he heads for Lanai, which offers more golf courses and lots of ocean.

There is a reason for all of this aggressive recreation. Once he returns to Japan at the end of the week, Sakai is booked solid with business commitments. Sohbi Reynolds, Sakai's representative in the United States, said Sakai's schedule is jammed for six months.

So on this vacation, "every moment is precious for him."

Sakai says he loves Hawaii -- "I wanted to come here every month," he said, with Reynolds interpreting -- a prime reason for opening a restaurant in the islands. But his ambitions are far-reaching.

Along with a national chain of restaurants, Sakai wants to launch a line of prepared foods, similar to the pastry line he offers in Japan. The line would include baked items and frozen foods, sold through convenience stores.

His La Rochelle restaurants in Japan are extremely upscale, the type of place where just one set menu is offered nightly. Sakai's U.S. approach is much more casual: a café that would extend service from lunch through the early morning hours.

No name has been chosen for either the restaurants or the food line, but it will clearly reflect Sakai's identity.

KEN IGE / KIGE@STARBULLETIN.COM Hiroyuki Sakai showed his dismay after just missing his putt.

James Fleck, the lawyer handling Sakai's U.S. affairs, said the words "iron chef" can't be part of any official name, since that title is owned by Fuji TV, the show's creator. But Sakai's Kitchen Stadium history will certainly be part of any marketing plan. The U.S. objective will be to popularize the Sakai name in itself, thus the name of the new business, Chef Sakai Inc.

The task at hand is to assemble the right mix of investors, as well as settle licensing agreements regarding Sakai's name and image. Fleck said the first restaurant could open in six months to a year.

Sakai will design the new restaurants and their menus, Fleck said, but will turn the kitchen over to other chefs. He already has 130 apprentices in Japan, so he has a solid labor pool already.

The chef also plans to train U.S. chefs in his culinary techniques and his restaurant philosophy, which Sakai sums up: "I always think the restaurant business is not necessarily a matter of making money. Rather it is a matter of enjoying working in the restaurant and to give that enjoyment to the customer."

In other words, he says: "It's not just a matter of eating and filling your stomach."

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