Chef had long career in isles' top restaurants
Dec 06, 2012 (The Honolulu Star-Advertiser - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
After battling pancreatic cancer for the past year, Il Lupino Trattoria & Wine Bar's executive chef, Nicola Sayada, died Tuesday in Honolulu. He was 68.
"We are all so very sad," Il Lupino managing partner Peter Zwiener said in a news release. "Today, we have lost a great chef, but also a true friend. He will be missed dearly."
Sayada was Assyrian, from Iran, and Rodney Uyehara, who worked with the chef at Cascada in the early 1990s, said, "One thing I'll never forget is that he said when he was a child, he grew up on caviar sandwiches, because the Caspian Sea is where they produce it. He said he'd stick his hands into a barrel and sandwich the caviar between two slices of white bread."
Sayada's family moved to San Francisco in 1964, where he trained at the San Francisco Culinary School, eventually owning or co-owning and operating five restaurants before moving to Honolulu to work at Nick's Fishmarket and The Black Orchid. The latter restaurant, opened in 1988, was known for its glitzy "Dynasty" style and its famous co-owners, Tom Selleck and Larry Manetti of the TV series "Magnum, P.I." There, "Uncle Nic" or "Chef Nic," as he was called by fellow workers over the years, was known for putting his signature seared "black and blue ahi" on the table, a dish that resonated with diners just beginning to experience the rise of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement emphasizing fresh local ingredients.
That dish, as well as his spinach gnocchi and eggplant and zucchini souffle, stayed with him on moves to other restaurants over the years, including working as executive chef at Touch of the East in Restaurant Row, Maharaja Nightclub, Cascada in the Royal Garden at Waikiki hotel, and at Duc's Bistro in Chinatown.
Uyehara, now executive chef at HASR Bistro, said Sayada hired him at Cascada when he returned home from New York in 1993. He said working with Uncle Nic marked a big change from the fray of New York and "getting your butt kicked a little bit."
"Nic was more laid back, so when he came to Hawaii, I think this place grew on him because that was his nature. He was really open-hearted and kind. He had a big way of greeting people, with a big hug, and I never saw anyone talk back to him.
"Just the few years I spent with him were very pleasant, and I think in that kind of environment, you just learn a lot more. He was very influential as far as what I apply to my cooking today," said Uyehara, who, in honor of his mentor, continues to serve up his own versions of Sayada's gnocchi, eggplant and zucchini souffle and seafood risotto at HASR Bistro.
Duc's Bistro owner Duc Nguyen said he hired Sayada to open his restaurant in 1992.
"I wanted to bring something to Chinatown that was more upscale, and Nic was the one to do it," Nguyen said. Nguyen added that Sayada was very good with people and had a way of making everyone feel welcome, which turned the restaurant into an instant hot spot. Nguyen recalls Sayada's most popular dish at the time was a dessert, Peach Melba.
David Nagaishi, manager of Ocean House at the Outrigger Reef Hotel, said he was once short of hands during the holidays, and called on Sayada, whom he had known from his time at Nick's Fishmarket. Nagaishi said Sayada didn't hesitate to help out, giving up his own Christmas and New Year's holidays to help an old friend.
"He was always willing to help anybody," Nagaishi said. "It was just one of the things that made him a great man in the industry."
Uyehara said tennis was Sayada's other passion, but he was always loath to leave the kitchen.
"We had to lock the door to get him to go play tennis. It was the only way to let him enjoy himself a little bit."
More recently, Sayada spent 10 years as a personal chef, including once cooking on Air Force One for Adm. Dennis Blair, former commander of U.S. Pacific Forces and director of national intelligence.
Sayada returned to the public eye when Chip Jewitt opened Aria Restaurant and Lounge in Century Center in 2008, and in January 2011 Sayada helped open Il Lupino at Royal Hawaiian Center, where he introduced an Italian menu augmented with charcuterie offerings.
Services are pending.
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