November 2019 Featured Chef: James Aptakin

If there had been a Junior Master Chef Competition when James Aptakin was ten-years old, there is no question that he would have won the big prize. Baking shortbread and jam cookies at the age of eight and making complete dinners for family and friends by 5th grade, James was on his way to winning enough awards to last a lifetime, garnering his first Executive Chef position at 25 years of age. A small glimpse of his honors range from 1st Place as a local Iron Chef for the California tomato festival, 1st Place in the Food Network’s 2008 Big Bash Caterers competition, and 1st Place in the People’s Choice Mangos Award at the Moana Hotel’s (Waikiki) 7th Annual Hawaii Top Chef Competition to two-time 1st Place winner of the Seafood Competition and 1st Runner-up Reserve Champion in the 2016 World Food Championships—soon to be seen on the FYI TV Network.

Chef James’ formal cooking education began on the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) where he learned to cook for 6,000 aircraft carrier crewmembers. The man who believes that ‘food is life and cooking is soul’ then received his degree from the California Culinary Academy, continuing his education at the world’s premier culinary college, Culinary Institute of America.  A business degree in sales/marketing and advertising from Heald College combined with his experience made it possible for James to be a successful businessman in addition to a talented chef with his catering company, Layers of Flavor; a high-end theatrical catering company that wowed movers and shakers from all walks of life; and a line of sauces he created with Wine Country Kitchens in Napa Valley.

Born and raised in Miami, Florida, Chef James was influenced first by his mother, and by living 20 years with and dining on the city’s South American food flavors. Moving to California and living in San Francisco’s Bay area for 22 years gave James the opportunity to develop a large volume background, cooking for thousands at a time at hotels, casinos and convention centers.  It was here that he refined his award-winning Pan-Asian-Hawaiian cuisine with French techniques; and where his spectacular wine dinners celebrated the rich and famous. Continuing westward, James moved to Hawaii in 2011 where he incorporated his South American exotic flavors and California flair with local farm-to-table and Pan-Asian-Hawaiian fusion into even more award-winning menus. Recognized for his commitment to local products, James won the Hawaii Food Manufacturer’s Association Battle of the Chefs two out of three times (HMFA Taste Awards) and won the most write-in votes for Hale Aina Awards Best Gourmet Comfort Food in Hawaii (Mac 24/7 – 2014 - 2017). 

No stranger to TV cameras, Chef James’ first TV appearances were on the Travel Channel, on Taste of America, 1st place Food Network Challenge 1st place catering 2008(Big Bash Caterer’s) then on to the Home Shopping Network (HSN) promoting his sauces. Since then, he has been on a Zagat-produced show about high-end Spam dishes; featured on Cooking Hawaiian Style and Living Local; the go-to chef for news regarding sustainability farm-to-table Hawaiian fusion cuisine, even traveling to appear on Australia TV to promote Hawaiian fusion cuisine; and featured on the FYI Network’s Food Porn with Michael Chernow, and Guy’s Grocery Games Food Network World Food Champions 2018.

At home in Honolulu with his wife, Ruth, an ICU RN, James Aptakin enjoys ocean sports, exploring new restaurants and traveling. However, his true passion is philanthropy, bettering the lives of others as his adoptive family did for him when he was four and had already lived in 12 foster homes. Giving others a second chance through food charity events funding Child Haven, the American Cancer Society, et al, and fulfilling a Make A Wish 16-year-old boy’s wish to cook Italian food and pasta from scratch with Chef James and then enjoy the dinner with him and his family. This is what makes James Aptakin come alive in the moment of cooking. “Cooking for others,” says Aptakin, “Makes everything around me better!” And, as Chef James is known to say, “Keep the Passion Alive!”

Q&A

Q1: You have a huge list of culinary accomplishments and you are now Culinary Director for Crenn Dining Group overseeing Atelier Crenn, Bar Crenn, Petit Crenn, and Farm Bleu Belle Farms. What's your average work week look like there and how has this new role challenged you compared to your prior jobs? What led you to the Crenn Dining Group?

A: I work with teams full of amazing energy and drive to crush the most intense days no matter how busy it is. Being a part of Crenn's values is one of the most special parts of the job because we get to treat everyone with dignity, respect and help one another achieve greatness daily. Motivate and inspire passion daily through every operation to maintain the highest standards with attention to detail. 

I've always admired Chef Dominique Crenn's vision and values with regards to her Philosophy and Philanthropy of food and caring for the world. Her passion for Humanity is inspiring as well as the emotional art that is invoked while in the dining moment. Your transcended through an experience of storytelling that awakens your senses bringing out your inner child.

Q2: You’ve competed in and won first place in many prestigious competitions. When preparing for an event or competition what’s usually your go-to process? Do you ever have to adjust or change how you would typically prepare for competitions and how has this process developed over time?

A: My go to process is to see what the rules and what the core of the dish or event is to take place. Then I study the chefs, judges and guests to make sure I am giving the food everyone wants while pushing boundaries of curiosity.

I'll then make sure that one bite will move you to the core and make your eyes roll back with excitement. Constantly depending on what type of event such as in a field or in a building with the pressures of the health department constantly changing we adapt to success always. You always have a plan B if one of your burners or equipment does not work, you find a way always. 

Q3: You are a successful businessman and chef with your high-end catering company, Layers of Flavor; are you still involved in the catering business or has that taken a back seat to your newest job? You described it as a “theatrical catering company,” could you explain what that means for our readers?

A: Absolutely taken a back seat as my 100% focus is the restaurants. I get to now continue my Passion for catering with our Culinary teams of CDG doing our high end events. Theatrical means you bring all the senses into the moment with the guests feeling, tatsing, smelling, seeing, touching and hearing all while feeling the magic.

Food is an emotional experience that should move you. We always want everyone to not only remember the event, but how it made them feel and remember the food!

Q4: Who were some of the mentors that had the greatest impact on your career? What’s your biggest goal as you continue to develop and grow in your field(s)?

A: Dominique Crenn , Daniel Boulud, Norman Van Aken, Curtis Duffy, Joan Roca, and Massimo Bottura.
My biggest goal is always about my team and their success and professional development. I want to always be a coach and a mentor to our teams helping to support them for greatness, treating them with the same energy as our guests. 

Q5: What are things you’ve seen in your career that make great restaurants great? When building a culinary team what do you try to focus on the most? What’s your advice to young chefs that are just getting into the business?

A: It's always the team that makes a restaurant great, morale is the number one. Building a Culinary team the main focus is hiring someone who has an amazing attitude and is passionate about food and people.

For young chefs: focus on self improvement doing the best you can, keep challenging yourself to continuously learn and improve pushing for greatness. Never give up and do everything with passion focusing on being part of a team that encourages, supports one another, and has each others back. At the end of the day, it's all about family and team and being part of something bigger than ourselves. When you do reach a higher level in your career, use your platform for to make a difference in the world.

If you're interested in learning more about chef James Aptakin check him out on Instagram @james_aptakin to get a glimpse of his life and see what he has going on with the Atelier Crenn Group. 

We hope you enjoyed this Q&A with Featured Chef James Aptakin. You can find him hard at work now as Culinary Director for Crenn Dining Group. 

If you have any questions for the chef be sure to leave them in the comments and we will hopefully have them answered by chef Aptakin himself.

For more featured chefs, exclusive savings, and other news be sure to sign up for our monthly newsletter; We promise we won't spam you. If you're interested in viewing another Q&A check out last month's Featured Chef Chong Ko Wai and find inspiration from talented chocolate and sugar artists who sculpts some of the most beautiful edible art you can find!