Tastes Like Home

Lei Jon Yagin Chef

From the North Shore to Silicon Valley, chef Jon Yagin serves up his version of Hawai‘i favorites to thousands of people who live and work in San Francisco’s tech sector.

Text by Kylie Yamauchi
Images by Chris Behroozian

Hovered over a grill at the Dropbox headquarters in San Francisco, the smoky scent of kalbi permeating his chef’s coat, Jon Yagin sings along to Justin Young’s “Never Forget Where I’m From,” one of his favorite Hawai‘i songs. “You can take the boy from the island, but not the island from the boy,” he sings, the tune blaring throughout his work kitchen. For a moment, his mind is back home, where a much smaller hibachi grill rests in a backyard. Then he sends out a platter of the Korean short ribs for hungry employees.

In his childhood, Jon gathered and sliced mangos and papayas to share with his siblings in the backyard of their Hale‘iwa home. Now, the 37-year-old kitchen manager prepares an array of Hawai‘i cuisine for more than 1,500 employees at Tuck Shop, the cafeteria at Dropbox. This industrial, modern space serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner for its employees and accommodates meetings.

Tuck Shop’s food selection is organized into stations based on the region or genre of the dish. Although he is most known for his dishes at the Pacific Rim food station, Jon also manages the Asian noodle and Mexican food stations, creating their weekly menus. The two other kitchen managers make menus for their respective stations, such as Mediterranean and vegan foods. Chicken hekka, laulau, loco moco, and even li hing mui pineapple have graced the plates of Jon’s Bay Area regulars. He even taught a class on how to make Spam musubi at the company lū‘au that was held in honor of Asian Pacific Heritage month. “Anything that has to do with Hawaiian or local food, I’m the one that they go to,” he says proudly.

“Anything that has to do with Hawaiian or local food, I’m the one that they go to.”

Lei Jon Yagin Chef

Before pursuing a degree in culinary arts at Kapi‘olani Community College, Jon excelled in his unofficial role as sous chef for his mother at weekend family barbecues. (Apparently, his three older siblings couldn’t meet her standards of cooking.) A spread of homegrown eggplant and okra, kalbi, and rice often comprised these dinners. Emigrating from the Philippines to Hawai‘i when Jon was three years old, his family brought over methods of self-sufficient farming. On a one-acre plot that had been his grandparents’ plantation home, they raised chickens and pigs, grew produce, and built four additional houses. They fished at plentiful spots along the North Shore. Food came from having a relationship with the ‘āina, or land, rather than from a visit to the supermarket.

Now living in a city with a Trader Joe’s in every district, Jon does his best to retain this sensibility, purchasing ingredients like Okinawan sweet potato and pineapple from producers on Hawai‘i Island and O‘ahu through VegiWorks, a Bay Area food supplier. For the majority of his diners who have never tasted cuisine specific to Hawai‘i, Jon’s dishes spark conversations about his background that he is eager to discuss. “I want to share what I grew up eating so [my diners] know what it feels like to live in Hawai‘i,” Jon says. “I want them to understand how hard it is to raise a pig, go fishing and catch a tuna, rather than going and just buying it from the store.”

From just having lived in the islands, the Filipino cook is frequently mistaken for Hawaiian. He’s quick to correct his co-workers about his ethnicity, but embraces being an ambassador of aloha in the workplace. “I’m very open with who I am,” Jon says. “They know me as the happy-go-lucky guy from Hawai‘i.”

“They know me as the happy-go-lucky guy from Hawai‘i.”

In celebration of LGBT Pride Month, Jon created a rainbow poke bar featuring ahi tuna, salmon, fruit, and vegetable toppings, all arranged on a surfboard. A rainbow tobiko (flying fish roe) bar accompanied it. Yagin showed me pictures of the popular event, which he posted on his Instagram. When asked if this was the company’s first rainbow poke and tobiko bar, he responded with a triumphant, “Hell yeah.” He also pitched integrating a rainbow sauce arrangement into Tuck Shop’s weekly “Wing Wednesday” throughout LGBT Pride Month.

Jon’s five tight-knit cooking staff are fond of his food ideas, as well as his work playlist. Whenever they hear Hawaiian, reggae, and Jawaiian tunes playing in the kitchen, they know the boss is in. For now, Jon’s playlist is enough to satisfy his homesickness. “Hawai‘i is always going to be there,” he says. He’s right, but it seems—and tastes—like Jon never left home.


Recipe: ‘Ahi Tuna Poke

Lei Jon Yagin Chef

Ingredients

5 lbs. ‘ahi tuna
1 red onion
1 bunch of green onion
½ cup roasted and chopped macadamia nuts
1 cup of soy sauce
½ cup of sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted white sesame seeds
½ teaspoon chili flakes

To prepare

Dice the ‘ahi into medium-size cubes, ½ inch by ½ inch. Julienne the red onion. Slice green onions into thin rounds. Set aside. Mix soy sauce, sesame oil, white sesame seeds, and chili flakes in separate bowl. When ready to plate, add this sauce to poke 10 minutes before serving.

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