After a four-month search, the museum found someone with the chops to fill former chef Mike Nevin’s shoes. In October, Jacob Silver took the helm of the museum’s food and beverage operations, which comprises the Honolulu Museum of Art Café and Coffee Bar, Spalding House Café, Doris Duke Theatre concession, and special event catering. Silver is working closely with Honolulu Museum of Art Café co-managers Kyle Little and Jackie Walden, and Spalding House Café chef-manager Susan Lai-Hipp.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Silver’s impressive resume includes stints at the opulent Alain Ducasse New York and Le Louis XV in Monaco, as well as landmark Manhattan eateries The ‘21’ Club and Peacock Alley in the fabled Waldorf Astoria. He has also done stages in France at Michelin-starred restaurants Les Prés d’Eugénie and Hostellerie de Levernois.
Most recently he was executive chef and banquet chef at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, where he learned to cook for thousands and honed his management skills.
Silver cooked an “audition” lunch for deputy director, operations and administration, Allison Wong (pictured above with Silver) and tasters she handpicked (including museum trustee Alan Tomonari, who as the former head of Neiman Marcus Honolulu knows a thing or two about restaurants). The chef showed a knack for using (mostly) ingredients already in the café kitchen in fresh, yet simple ways. Dishes included a broccoli soup with parsley cream and doll-size garlic croutons, and a wonderfully crisp on the outside, moist on the inside pan-seared salmon with tomato confit and lemon-dill beurre blanc.
Now in the process of learning and evaluating the museum’s food operations, Silver plans to unveil a new Honolulu Museum of Art Café menu this spring. Silver sees a direct correlation between what he does and what his new place of employment does. “The power of food is its ability to make people feel happy, satisfied, and entertained,” says Silver. “It’s an artistic craft in that it touches people—that’s what art is for me. I’m hoping to enhance the museum visit by bringing a level of dining experience that matches what people spend the day doing here—opening their eyes to things.”
What brought Silver to Hawai‘i? The connection started a long time ago, when in 1997 he got a call from Michel’s at the Colony Surf asking if he would be interested in working as executive sous chef. “I don’t like the beach, sun, or salt water,” laughs Silver, “it was the position that appealed to me—I thought the classic French menu and tableside cooking were really interesting.” He worked at the beachside Gold Coast favorite from January 1998 to May 1999, then returned to New York to work at the Brooklyn Italian joint Cucina then Alain Ducasse. Then the attack on the World Trade Center happened. And O‘ahu seemed like a pretty good place to be.
“My first instinct was to work at a place based on reputation,” says Silver. “I just wanted a simple cooking job.” And he also needed to be able to pay his rent—he was offered a spot at one of Honolulu’s best restaurants, but for an unfeasible $25,000 a year. That’s how he wound up at the Convention Center.
“I saw a classified ad—not my interest at all. But I told myself, ‘Well, you need a job.'” Then Convention Center chef Wayne Komamura hired Silver, who thought it would be useful to learn how to cook for volume for 1 year, and wound up staying for 10. “Wayne taught me the job. I’ve never met such a well-rounded and versatile chef.” The first function Silver worked on was for 2,500 people. The food was a big departure from what he had been cooking, “but when you take into account the price, and the fact that they’re serving three plated courses in an hour and 25 minutes—I want to learn how to do that. It’s fascinating! I was going from four cooks working on one plate to 25 cooks doing 3,000. There is a lot of value to being able to serve something decent to that large audience.”
Now Silver is meeting with purveyors and finding out what’s available to him (the bigger the operation, the more attentive the food wholesaler—it’s a tricky, political world). “I want to buy the best we can and serve the freshest we can,” says Silver. “Food shouldn’t be that manipulated. I’m looking to find my way again and cook the way I like to eat—simply. I take some inspiration from my time working with Alain Ducasse. Chef Ducasse taught me to find the best ingredients possible, cook them perfectly, and present them so it is still clear what they are. One of his dishes might have 27 different ingredients, but you still get a sense of what each thing is. His cooking can seem extremely complex, but at its core it is deceptively simple. This is what I have always cherished about his cooking philosophy, and it is what I strive to achieve in mine.”
With his wide-ranging palate and skill sets from the opposite ends of the food preparation spectrum, our new chef is poised to up the ante at the Honolulu Museum of Art Café (and he believes a restaurant should update its menu at least twice a year). We can’t wait to see what he does.