The Hawaiian-fusion comfort food of Monique Yamaguchi’s Wellfed is a tribute to Mom and Dad
Story By Jessica Koslow
Photos by Courtnay Robbins Bragagnolo
Ask Monique Yamaguchi — little sister to celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi — why she picked Playa Vista as the home for her first restaurant and her eyes light up, her mouth twists and turns, as she tells you that this is the last place she lived with her parents.
“My parents had me later in life,” she shares. “When I was in high school, I told them, ‘You guys will never have to live alone. I’ll take care of you guys.’
I didn’t know how much time I had with them.”
In 2008, the family moved to the area after her father was diagnosed with cancer, and for eight years she lived just a few blocks away from the boxy lawn and play area bordering Pacific Promenade, which her new Asian fusion restaurant Wellfed looks directly out on.
When her father died six years ago, Yamaguchi felt she had to do something to honor his memory.
Taking a cue from her much older middle brother Roy, who owns more than 30 restaurants in the U.S., hosted a TV series, published cookbooks and actually gave Monique her name (“I was one of the first examples of his love for fusing cultures: Japanese and French”), she decided to pour her blood, sweat and tears — into opening a restaurant.
She teamed up with a general contractor and together, with the help of investors (but surprisingly not her brother), they’ve put everything they have into Wellfed.
“I feel an attachment to this community,” says Yamaguchi. “This is a way to give back. And we’ve received so much support.”
The Hawaiian word for family is ohana, and Wellfed is very ohana. Cooking has always been very special to the Yamaguchi family. Yamaguchi’s mom was from Okinawa, Japan, and her dad was born and raised in Maui. Her grandfather owned a restaurant in Maui. Her parents were amazing cooks. And even though Monique only claims to cook a handful of items, like tacos and grilled cheese, she’s been around it all of her life. Wellfed allows her to hold on to the things she grew up with. Her memories live on in the food. Plus, she loves the environment and energy
Other Yamaguchi family touches at Wellfed are 65-year-old paintings on the wall done by her grandfather (of Diamond Head and Haleakalā Crater in Maui) which she grew up with in her house,
and palm trees, bamboo and orchids that belonged to her mom, who passed away last year, just five days after Yamaguchi received the official OK to start construction on Wellfed.
“The last thing my mom asked me was, ‘Is the restaurant finished?’” says Yamaguchi, a flash of pain crossing her brow. “She knew I needed to do it for my dad.”
Though not a financial investor, Roy — whom Monique credits with “starting the Hawaiian fusion Pacific Rim thing” — has played a big part in creating Wellfed’s menu, albeit indirectly.
“I’m blessed because my chefs have all come out of my brother’s kitchen,” says Yamaguchi. “Our chef is Nate Payo, who worked for my brother for 10 to 11 years. He whipped a menu out of nowhere. His son is our head chef now.”
The menu is an updated version of Hawaiian food. It’s accessible and family-friendly, the type of menu customers can enjoy several times a week.
Yamaguchi calls it comfort food, with kid-friendly dishes like chicken katsu (breaded chicken), chicken teriyaki and mac and cheese. The kids’ items have been so popular that adult versions were added.
When Yamaguchi is not planted on Pacific Promenade (which is rare these days), she tries to stay connected to her career as an independent filmmaker. Her YouTube channel with a partner has 93,000 subscribers and 25 million views.
In the future, Yamaguchi hopes to add a Sunday brunch and special dishes honoring her parents.
But for now, she’s happy to welcome, chat with and feed well everyone who walks through her door, one neighbor at a time.
Wellfed is at 13020 Pacific Promenade. Call (424) 835-4232 or visit wellfedla.co.