CJ the chef: From Macau to Maui
KAANAPALI – Everything about Denmark-born Christian Jorgensen, better known as “CJ” in these parts, borders on the extraordinary. He’s slim for a chef, 6’6″ tall. Culinary school in Interlaken, Switzerland; an early job in a Midwestern suburb; stops as executive chef at the Hilton and Palmer House in Chicago and a prestigious hotel in the former Portuguese colony of Macau on Mainland China. Now he’s in Lahaina, Maui,
For the past ten years, CJ has been at work 12 hours a day running his own new concept restaurant, CJ’s Comfort Zone Deli and Diner, what he calls an upscale fast food restaurant serving comfort food – “comfortable for the stomach and the wallet.”
Not at all shy about enthusiastically telling his life story that includes three pivotal moves that shaped his life on three continents, CJ began by noting he was conceived in Iran but brought back to a town outside of Copenhagen, just in time to be born a Danish citizen.
Exposed to good European cooking when small, washing dishes for pay when he was 12, CJ became passionate about food and decided to skip his idea of becoming an engineer.
Pivotal move number one was signing up for a Danish-American exchange program after culinary school in Switzerland that brought him in 1988 to the U.S. and a position at a Chicago area Danish American restaurant called Nielsen’s.
Next, he became at 21 an executive chef at the 2,000-room Hilton Hotels and Towers in Chicago, and he went on a blind date with Marilyn, a hotel management graduate from Penn State who worked at the affiliated historic Palmer House. “I was the crazy chef, and she was the serious intern,” CJ recalled.
They have been married 20 years.
In Macau, on the Chinese Mainland where CJ wound up as an executive chef for Hyatt, the couple made pivotal decision number two. Deciding after a few years that their two small children should grow up in the U.S., they figured the best place for their kids to grow up was neither Macau nor the Mainland U.S. but Maui, with its affinity with Pacific rim culture they both loved.
CJ the chef presided over a fancy dinner for 5,000 dignitaries the day before the couple departed. Flying into Maui from Honolulu over lush pineapple and cane fields, they quickly knew they were in the right place.
CJ noted that he “did not want to be just another haole (Caucasian) chef who stayed two years and left. We wanted a house. We had a newborn and two-year-old. After three days, we hooked up with a realtor and found a house on the lower road on the beach in a gates community.
“We bought a Jeep. You have to have a Jeep on Maui. We put a down payment on a house three weeks after arriving here. Starwood… after three years… made me a corporate complex chef in charge of both The Westin and the old Kapalua Bay Hotel. They sent me to Starwood properties to do assessments… I did a lot of functions in Oahu, Princeville and other places.”
After three years, Starwood wanted the talented chef who was on a fast promotion track to move to the Mainland. The answer was “no.”
“I didn’t want to leave Maui. My kids liked it; my wife liked it,” he said.
Pivotal move number three came when “one night, I couldn’t sleep.”
Maui restaurants were expensive, he felt. “There was no place where I could take my little girls and spill on the floor,” he said.
So, Christian Jorgensen decided to leave and open his own Comfort Zone restaurant.
(To be continued.)