And the desserts, oh, the desserts. Save room for dessert," raves one Hawaii food blog. "I would come back to Senia just for this," a reporter for Honolulu magazine proclaims about a single slice of Meyer lemon chiffon cake. "On the menu, it’s described laconically as ‘cake slice.’ It is, but it’s so much more. It’s perfect," states Honolulu magazine's full review. This is the power of Mimi Mendoza.
Mendoza is the pastry chef of Senia, easily the most high-profile Hawaii restaurant opening in recent memory. The two chef-owners, Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, are Per Se alums committed to bringing fine-dining rigor to Hawaii's natural bounty, all while delivering a neighborhood restaurant feel. (The third co-owner, general manager Katherina Nomura, is also a Per Se alum.)
For Mendoza, the Senia mission made sense: She grew up in California but her family is from Hawaii, and like Kajioka and Rush, she has a fine-dining background, having previously worked as the pastry chef of Michelin-starred Chez TJ in Mountain View, CA. But Mendoza’s not especially fussy. Neither are her desserts.
Aside from her much-lauded chiffon cake, Mendoza is particularly proud of her sticky toffee banana cake. The sticky toffee nods to Rush's British heritage, while the cake is a play on a beloved Honolulu treat: banana bread. "People love banana here. Banana bread is like the go-to pastry in Hawaii," she says. "That was really popular. And people literally had never had sticky toffee pudding here before because it's not commonly found here. I just want people to feel like it's accessible, but that it's something new, something different."
She loves the local fruit — "Right now we're knee-deep in mango season and I cry a little bit every time I eat a mango here because they're so good" — and is used to pulling from Hawaii's favorite flavors since they remind her of childhood. "Out here, that's what people are eating every day. So my goal here is to use what's around, definitely, but I want to introduce people to new flavor combinations and new textures." Her desserts are also beautiful, absolutely photo-worthy, and utterly of the moment.
"I have a very simple, clean, and direct style," she says. "I like things simple and perfect." Mendoza's desserts all have a look, too. She clearly loves color, likes pairing different textures, and plays with proportion. Mendoza says she goes for flavors that help her "appeal to all senses." It comes as no surprise that Mendoza studied visual arts in college — before she changed course and went to culinary school.
Mendoza has also embraced — or rather, tried to embrace — the lifestyle of Hawaii. "People want 9-to-5 jobs here, to have the weekends off with their families." This, unfortunately, is "not really realistic" for restaurant life.
Still, Mendoza prioritizes her team's free time, not wanting them to experience the same burnout she did in her mid-twenties, when she decided to take a year off from restaurant work. Currently, her team includes one other cook; she's hoping a second cook will join the team.
"Everyone that I worked with, I’ve always made sure that they go and have a life outside of work," she says. That means accommodating requests for days off, rearranging schedules, and even "pushing" her cooks out of the kitchen. "I definitely believe in a work-life balance. Because work is literally not anything when you think about it; we're here for such a short time on Earth."
In classic new restaurant fashion, Mendoza has been putting in six-day work weeks since opening, and a new restaurant means an always-changing set of responsibilities as the team shifts and settles into the routine. "I knew things would change. You're just figuring out what's going to work and what isn't going to work."
There are some drawbacks to being a part of a massively hyped new restaurant. Mendoza says that much of the national coverage frames Senia as bringing serious fine dining to Hawaii. That's not accurate. "I know so many people in the industry [in Honolulu], and they're all super talented." If anything, she says, since Senia has "turned the heads of all the mainlanders," she hopes the restaurant shows cooks in Hawaii that there's a reason to stay.
"A lot of really awesome, dedicated cooks that you’d want to work for you in a restaurant like Senia have moved to the mainland," says Mendoza. "They grew up thinking that nothing's going to be good enough here." It's not about Senia being first to do sophisticated cooking — hard to make that claim when Kajioka himself was a chef at Honolulu's ultra-expensive, ultra-exclusive tasting menu destination Vintage Cave — it's about "bringing attention to what's already here and what could be here."