Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Sean Michael Hower
Jojo says, “When I was a baby, I grew up in a three-flat in Chicago. My yaya — my surrogate grandmother — was Greek and she lived in the flat below us. The landlords were Indian and they had the top floor. I remember looking up at the windows from the street in the wintertime. All the windows were fogged up and I would imagine Yaya baking some Greek pastry, or cooking a lamb dish. I could smell the oregano and all the Mediterranean herbs from Yaya’s; and spices from the landlords’ curries.” Then he laughs and says, “Yaya was our babysitter and I also remember her cursing the filo dough when it didn’t come out like she wanted.” Adding to all these aromas, Jojo’s father catered small parties, preparing Chinese and American dishes and cooking homestyle foods from his childhood in Pangasinan in the Philippines.
Although Jojo grew up around food, eventually helping his father cater, he attended college to become a physical therapist, specializing in sport injuries. “In my second year of study, I was a teacher’s assistant in anatomy and physiology,” he says, “but my heart wasn’t in it. At the end of the study session, I’d cook the undergraduates a family-style meal.”
His career path took a 180-degree turn when he followed his heart and enrolled in Kendall College’s Culinary Institute in Evanston, Illinois. “I knew I made the right decision. It just felt right,” he says. After graduation, Jojo worked at Fuse Box, famed chef Troy Thompson’s Japanese-inspired restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia (one of Esquire Magazine’s top restaurants in 1999), then followed the executive chef to California, and Jer-ne Restaurant + Bar in The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey. Jojo also appeared in the first two seasons of the Food Network’s Iron Chef, assisting Masaharu Morimoto as sous chef, and sharing the stage with notable chefs Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali.
In California, Jojo met his best friend and future wife, Eliza, an events and music promoter who was spinning records in the chic lounge next door. Jojo’s Chicago cousins were DJs, and during Eliza’s dinner break, he took over the music beat, keeping the evening’s energy revved while Eliza dined on the gastronomic delights he had prepared for her. A romp for the love of music and food turned into Jer-ne’s Beats and Eats, where young, upcoming actors, musicians and artists performed.
In 2004, Jojo and Eliza married on Maui, and soon after, he landed a position as chef de cuisine at The Banyan Tree at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. There, Jojo created an exciting new menu with a touch of molecular gastronomy. In 2013, George Makin purchased the property, and recognizing great talent, hired Jojo as The Plantation House’s executive chef, giving him free rein. “I feel so thankful to George for giving me this opportunity . . . for trusting me,” Jojo says.
The Cohn Restaurant Group now owns The Plantation House, and Jojo continues to inspire Maui’s dining scene with music and food. The last Friday of each month, the restaurant hosts its own version of Beats and Eats, where Jojo collaborates with such top Maui chefs as Sheldon Simeon, Jeff Scheer and Isaac Bancaco. As I sip my cocktail in the lounge, Eliza is still spinning records, the restaurant is full, the energy is high, and Chef Jojo Vasquez is bebopping to the music.
What His Peers Say . . .
“I love Chef Jojo’s approach to food: simple, with a refined palette. His plating skills come second nature to him. Not only is Chef Jojo a great chef, he’s also a great family man — not to mention, he’s a cool braddah!” — Lyndon Honda, chef/owner, Laulima Catering
“Chef Jojo has been on the cutting edge of modern culinary artistry while maintaining a flavor profile that is very relatable to many local people. Chef has had a hand at elevating many of the island’s top restaurants and continues to set the standard here on Maui.” — Kyle Kawakami, chef/owner, Maui Fresh Streatery
“I would have to go with Jojo [for my vote]. He has been doing so much work with the kids [in the community] this year, and that’s just really cool!” — Mike Lofaro, chef de cuisine, Humuhumu at the Grand Wailea Resort
An esteemed chef who also appreciates a Lou Malnati pizza (one of which we had last night!) That tells me I hope to try his offerings when we get back to Naui!