From humble beginnings and a seriously troubled adolescence, David Paul Johnson elevated himself to one of Hawai'i's brightest culinary stars. He has turned a teenage passion for cooking into a brilliant career.
Johnson's culinary stomping ground for the last two decades is a far cry from the first chapter of his extraordinary story. "I was in a juvenile detention center. We were allowed to watch only Public Television and I became enthralled with Julia Child. That was it for me," he recalls. He was 14 when he got a job washing dishes at a pizza parlor in his hometown of Salt Lake City. Stints at places like the Roadway Inn and IHOP followed. Two years later - in 1974 - he met his mentor. "Max Mercier took me in as an apprentice, taught me the basics of French cooking and encouraged me to learn more on my own. Eventually I spent time in Paris, Mexico and Japan. Without his help, I hate to think of where I might have ended up."
With a few dollars in his pocket, Johnson landed in Honolulu In 1978. "The only job I could get was as an assistant cook, one step up from dishwasher. But in three years, I worked my way up to the Chef Tourneau position after having worked in every outlet at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki."
In 1982 he started his own eponymous gourmet catering company. He met Hawai'i entrepreneur Rick Ralston - best known as the founder of Crazy Shirts - who was in the midst of restoring the historic Lahaina Inn in 1988 and looking for someone to open a restaurant in the boutique hotel. "I asked around and when I couldn't find anyone interested, I decided to take a look myself. At first, I wasn't interested either. But then, after a closer look, I liked it," recalls Johnson. "I co-designed the Maui restaurant and even had the joy of pouring the cement. It was a huge thrill to open David Paul's Lahaina Grill on February 14, 1990."
During his tenure at the restaurant, Johnson skyrocketed to culinary fame. He collected more than a DOZEN consecutive Hale 'Aina awards from HONOLULU magazine for Best Maui Restaurant. His restaurant was included in Gourmet magazine's "America's Top Tables" issue in 1997 and 1998 and was Bon Appétit magazine's "Restaurant of the Month" in February 1997. In 1993, he received three stars in Conde Nast Traveler magazine from the grand dame of American restaurant critics, Mimi Sheraton. He is, to this day, the only Hawai'i chef to appear in the long-running and brilliant Illy Caffe - Food Arts magazine ad campaign. He's appeared on NBC's TODAY show, on the Great Chefs series on the Discovery Channel, cooked at the James Beard House in New York City and in some of the world's most prestigious kitchens including Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, Aujourd 'Hui in Boston, Oceana in New York, and Bistro de l' Etoille in Paris. He has welcomed renowned chefs into his kitchens including Charlie Trotter, Charles Dale, John Ash and Bob Waggoner.
Two of the most important honors bestowed on him were being named in 1995 Johnson & Wales (Providence, Rhode Island) Culinary College's 98th Distinguished Visiting Chef, joining the ranks of such esteemed names as Roger Verge, Jacques Pepin, Madeleine Kamman, Paul Bocuse, Martin Yan, and Andre Soltner. In March 1999, Johnson was inducted into the Circle of the Friends of the Widow in Reims, France by a descendant of Madame Clicquot (Veuve Clicquot Champagne). An exclusive group of food and wine enthusiasts, there are less than 500 invited members worldwide.
In 2000, with the original Lahaina restaurant sold and a Honolulu restaurant experiment ended, Johnson was able to do the two things he loves - spend time with his wife and children and hone to even sharper edges his considerable skills at an exclusive community on Hawai'i Island.
And in Spring 2009, the culinary circle completed itself once again. This time looking out to sea at David Paul's Island Grill. Destined for great things again, "it's all about the food."