Keith Mallini’s fascination with the alluring persona of a restaurateur began as a teenager working at his aunt’s restaurant on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Behind the scenes, he says, the reality was much less glamorous, but when it came time to open, his Aunt Annie would be dressed to the nines and commanding the room as an icon in the community.
Drawn to the culture and energy of the restaurant industry, Mallini sidelined his original career plans in biomedical engineering and international business to help take over L’Economie, a little bistro tucked into the Arts District in his native New Orleans. “That was pretty much the end of all my other aspirations,” he laughs.
When one of his business partners—a CIA-trained chef—decided to abandon the endeavor six months in, Mallini picked up the slack in the kitchen and found he had a knack for running back-of-house operations, too. Learning on the job came easily to Mallini—his aunt had him bussing tables at 12 and mixing drinks at 14—and he’s won numerous awards and culinary competitions utilizing the skills he’s picked up over the years. (His favorite? The American Culinary Federation competition he won for a dish featuring Louisiana’s invasive swamp rat.)
After closing down L’Economie due to structural issues in the building, Mallini went on to take over a restaurant in Baton Rouge, one with a much higher volume, that he renamed Mallini’s, The Place. “I was running the kitchen and also the front of the house, so I developed a sixth sense about what was happening out on the floor just by looking at the servers’ faces,” Mallini says. “And having past experience in the kitchen, I could understand what the back of the house was going through at all times and could help ease the tension.”
After about five years in Baton Rouge and a stint as general manager at Victor’s in the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, Mallini was offered a job in Hawai‘i, where his mother was from and where he’d spent some of his childhood. Mallini spent the next several years overhauling the food and beverage programs at the Hanohano Room and a few other properties in Hawai‘i before finding himself in Chicago, where he eventually opened the restaurant Prasino and was given free rein to build the beverage program and refine the place’s sustainable, organic concept.
It was there he made the contact that would eventually lead him to his most recent venture at the newly revamped International Market Place. Mallini was living on the Big Island and managing Rays on the Bay at the Sheraton Kona when his old contact from Prasino asked him to head up the Waikiki eatery he was opening with mainland investors. “I figured they needed somebody to help them navigate the waters of doing business in Hawai‘i,” Mallini says. “I really stressed the fact that we needed to embrace the culture. Those were my conditions to come on board.”
At Baku, nearly everything plays off the restaurant’s robatayaki (“fireside cooking”) concept. “There were some specific menu items that the owners wanted to bring over from the other location, but I was given free rein as far as service style, training and beverage program,” Mallini says. “We took a core concept and built everything else around it. One of my passions is tying everything together.”
Given his experience managing restaurants in soulful New Orleans, sleepy Hana and cutthroat Chicago, Mallini found himself in a unique position to forge a good balance of embracing progress and honoring tradition. “I remember I was interviewing for a job here, and the director, who was from New York, was telling me about how many managers he had been through,” Mallini says. “I asked him if any of them knew the difference between ‘Ewa and Diamond Head. He was like, ‘What do you mean?’ It’s things like that—you have to be able to relate to your staff.”
Since opening the restaurant in September, Mallini’s days have been a whirlwind of admin, phone calls, meetings with wine purveyors, POS programming and menu edits. But there’s nothing more rewarding, he says, than sitting down with a glass of wine after a full day of putting out fires around the restaurant.
What does it take to make it in this industry? According to Mallini, a generous helping of expertise, patience and humor. “I’ve found that a sense of humor goes a long way in any situation,” he laughs.