Chef Ed Kenney on Family, Values & Fostering a Great Team

Born and raised on Oahu, Ed Kenney is a restaurateur and chef and has been a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef West every year since 2013. His first restaurant Town opened in 2005 in Kaimuki, a neighborhood in Honolulu. In the last two years he has opened three additional restaurants, Kaimuki Superette, Mud Hen Water in Kaimuki, and Mahina & Sun’s in Waikiki.

A proponent of sustainability and culture in Hawaii, Ed is also hosting an upcoming PBS television show called “Family Ingredients” about farmers, food producers and families. With Father’s Day coming up, we talked to him about balancing family and business, both personally and with his staff in the restaurants.

How and when do you make time for your own family?

Thursday is when my family comes to the restaurant and we sit outside and eat together. Sundays, I don’t answer the phone. I turn it off late Saturday night and don’t turn it back on until Monday morning. We go to the North Shore or West side and sometimes we barbecue on Sunday nights. It’s a time to be immersed in family.

How do you support families at the restaurant?

The first thing that’s an indication of our values is that we’re always closed on Sundays. We have 110 employees or so and we want them to be able to spend time with their families. We pondered doing Sunday brunch, but I pulled the plug on it. We’ve been closed for 11 years on Sundays and we’re not going to do it now. Our philosophy is about reconnecting to family and food and we try to do that every day. Contrary to our business, I’d love it if people would cook and eat at home!

We have family activities with the restaurant—we do a formally organized annual retreat, farm work days, and picnics in the park, but it’s amazing what the staff does on their own. An email went out that the “Town tribe” are going to Monkey Pod Kitchen just for the heck of it. So we kind of nudge, but it’s amazing how the tribe perpetuates itself.

How is your own family involved in your restaurants?

When Town first opened, my mom was there to help us out for a year, but it turned into seven years. She was the face of the restaurant; I’m a cook who likes to stay in the kitchen. She’s finally retired, but we keep the spirit of my mom alive in the restaurants. In Waikiki we have a portrait of her. We have a black and white photo of her in Mud Hen Water too.

My wife is still involved, too — unofficially she’s the director of special projects. She does business cards, coordinates events, getting photos, and handles media requests. My daughter hosts a couple nights a week, and she will be picking up more shifts since she just finished school. My son, who’s 14, gets paid piecemeal to pressure wash or paint. But it’s tough getting him to punch in and out on a regular basis.

Family is the theme of your new TV show, right?

Yeah, that’s how the producers got me to agree to do it. They pestered me for two years. I’ve never had any aspiration to be a TV chef. I don’t like competitive cooking shows—I want people to bring people together. The show is about our multiethnic roots through food so I finally agreed. The first episode is going to be about Alan Wong and traces his favorite family recipes to Japan, and we have reservations at Jiro’s restaurant.

I do love the premise of the show. It was really refreshing to see it within the lineup of Bourdain shows, A Chef’s Life and Follow Your Roots—there seems an interest in learning where you came from.

What is your biggest business challenge today? 

It’s the same thing it’s always been: people. Human resources. It’s a competitive industry. The resources are limited in Hawaii, and the cost of living is so high. Back-of-the-house wages make it difficult. Minimum wage is going up about 75 cents an hour per year. We just raised our prices for the first time in five years.

What are the strategies for retaining back-of-the-house employees?

We’ve pondered all of it. Russ (Moore) and Alison (Hopelain) at Camino in Oakland are friends of ours, and they moved to a no-tipping model. They’ve found it to be very positive and they expressed that the people they lost when they made the transition were not there for the big picture. But I’ve seen places that have done it and gone back to tipping, too.

Some places are adding 4% on the check for back of the house. But then diners might be tipping less because of that. It would be great if we could do away with tipping — if it was no longer permitted it would help the industry. But if we were the only one doing it, we’d have to change our prices.

Our approach is to foster the team feeling where everyone knows they are important. There is a loophole that you can’t mandate tip sharing, but our people understand that they need to be generous with tipping out the back of the house. 

How do you deal with hiring and retaining the right front-of-the-house employees?

Danny Meyer in Setting the Table hires people he calls the “51 percenters.” They are 51% empathetic and compassionate, and the other 49% he says you can train. “Hire for desire” is one of our taglines. You can tell if you have made a mistake in hiring, if they are not a team player—they are doing it just for the paycheck. The people we attract get it. The people we attract share our values, in volunteering, in being outdoors.