This is the second in The Atomic Grog’s series of short interviews with noted personalities involved in events, music, art, cocktails and Tiki/retro culture.
Kern Mattei was destined to be general manager of The Mai-Kai. His father, Kern Sr., held the same position at the legendary Polynesian palace from 1964 to 1991. His mother was a Mai-Kai dancer, and he literally grew up in the restaurant. He was born in 1966, 10 years after it opened, and now works in the same office that his father did.
He worked a variety of jobs at The Mai-Kai while in school, then began as a manager in 1993 after earning a bachelor’s degree in hospitality from Florida International University. Kern lives in Fort Lauderdale with his wife, Elke, and two children: Cheyne and Nicholas. I conducted this interview with the always dapper Kern on July 30.
What’s the best part of being general manager of The Mai-Kai?
Is there a worst part? There’s no best part. It’s all good. It get to meet great people, I get to work with beautiful girls, awesome workers, the whole thing. Everything’s awesome. It’s hard to complain about anything. It’s hard to pick one. Great people, great food, great customers.
Who’s the most famous patron you’ve had since you’ve been the manager?
Don King is the first one to pop into my mind. He was here in 2011, earlier this year. And I also met him about 10 years ago. No. 2 would probably be (film star) The Rock, who comes here quite often. A couple times a year. The Rock lives in Plantation (west of Fort Lauderdale). We gave his daughter hula lessons a couple years ago. A couple dancers went to his house for a few weeks.
What do you think makes the restaurant so endearing to people?
I think it’s the people. They come in here and first they see the atmosphere. That’s the first “wow!” Then they get some good food, some good drinks. But without the people to take care of them, it’s nothing.
What do you think the Thornton brothers (The Mai-Kai’s late founders) would think of The Hukilau and the recent Tiki revival?
It would be just like when I first got to know The Hukilau crowd. It’s a different crowd, and you kind of wonder: “What’s going on here?” But once you get to know the people – who they are, what they’re all about – then you just can’t help but accept them all. They’re all great people. It would probably be similar to my reaction. A little shock at first, but then all love after that.
You always seem to be the best-dressed guy in The Mai-Kai. How many suits do you have and where do you get them?
I’ll have to tell you my secret. I’ve probably got a dozen suits, because they wear out. I wear them every night. At least once a year I’ll pick a new one out, and then one’s gotta go. If I’m lucky, I’ll get two a year and throw two out. They wear out pretty quick working every day. There’s no secret source of my suits. I get them right down the street at Macy’s. They have the best sales. When I get them on sale, it makes me feel a little bit better when I get them dirty in the kitchen. If you’re looking for a good suit, come with me and I’ll take you shopping at Macy’s.