By Manny Crisostomo
Restaurateurs Shawn Naputi and Shawn Camacho were in their late 20s in 2014 when they had the audacity to open Prubechu’, a CHamoru restaurant in San Francisco, one of the top five culinary cities in the world with an estimated 4,500 restaurants.
“We did it with a dream, with a passion for hospitality, a passion for our culture and with a vision to say that we are going to put CHamoru food on this pedestal in San Francisco,” said general manager and co-owner Shawn Camacho, formerly of Toto.
“This makes us so proud, showing our heritage and how we do things,” said chef and co-owner Shawn Naputi, formerly of Talo’fo’fo. ”This is what the CHamoru culture is all about — the hospitality, making people feel at home and that inafa’maolek.”
“Two Guam boys in the middle of a big city. We put the word CHamoru in all the papers here and the ‘Michelin Guide,’ the Holy Grail of restaurants, published the word CHamoru,” Camacho added.
SF’s fiercest critic
The Shawns, as they are also known, value the recommendation in the “Michelin Guide” but were more proud of a positive review from San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, the city’s most feared critic who had the power to make or break a new restaurant before he retired in 2018.
“At every restaurant I worked at, in the locker room or in the office, (there was) a picture of him,” Naputi said. “You see him, you tell a manager — that's how serious it was.”
“That guy scared me, just working in the industry. So when he came in, I just told myself, just be you,” Naputi said. “I told Shawn (Camacho), just imagine he's at our house like in Guam, you know, in our back kitchen. Let's just relax, and let's just show him who we really are.”
“We made him feel warm, him and his partner, and told him everything about CHamoru food and what inspired us to make them,” Naputi added. “I told him, ‘I believe in our food. And having tried so many restaurants here in the city that our food, our cuisine will hold up to anybody's food.’ I was being really straight up and wasn't scared and being true to who we were and who we are.”
“You know, we just did our own thing, he got that legendary CHamoru hospitality through and through,” Camacho added. “You come into Prubechu’, you're going to be welcomed in with open arms, you're going to be fed till you pop”.
“The passionate cooking is complemented by an equally informed monologue about the food and its origin; the staff is quick to explain each ingredient and its place in the culture,” Bauer wrote in his 2014 review “‘Prubechu: Flavors of Guam with a loving touch.”’
His article ended with, “Sometimes Naputi will deliver what he's cooked, and by his presence, one can sense the love of his homeland and what he's trying to accomplish.”
“That freaking article made me so proud and put a fire under our butts to be like, ‘Dude, we gotta keep going. If this guy says we're OK,. then the future's bright, you know,” Naputi said.
Naputi, 37, is the oldest of three boys born to Raymond Naputi, familian Doyu, and Clarinda Reyes Naputi, familian Gayagt’du, both of Talo’fo’fo.
His youngest brother, Carlo, who is 25 years old, is chef de cuisine at the restaurant.
Growing up, Shawn Naputi and his brothers lived and breathed baseball, following in the footsteps of their father, who played for Guam Major League baseball teams. He started in T-ball at age 5 and played organized ball up to his high school graduation from Southern High School, making all-star teams and traveling through Asia and the U.S. But his baseball dreams were dashed his senior year when college scouts didn’t offer him a scholarship.
He was disappointed but quickly found his true calling after hanging out with his classmate and his classmate’s older brother, Thaddeus Cruz, who just graduated from Western Culinary Institute in Oregon.
“He just started cooking and I was kind of right beside him, just kind of watching, and I just geeked out at that point,” Shawn Naputi said.
“Growing up I was surrounded with food all the time and cooking, I just thought it was just a chore,” he said. “There’s a party tomorrow and we already know who’s gonna barbecue. To me it wasn’t fun cooking, it was cooking because my parents or my family told me that this is what you’re doing.”
After graduating from Southern High in 2002, he spent the whole summer hanging out with friends who were working at Old Hagatna Grill.
“I just sat at the bar and watched them,” he said. “I remember being super intrigued. I remember the smell of the restaurant. Remember how they talk. It was all fascinating to me. That right there helped me put a stamp on wow, man, I think this is what I’m gonna do. For sure.”
Shawn Naputi moved to the Bay Area a few months later and got into California Culinary Academy.
After graduating in 2004, he spent the next decade working in the kitchens of respected San Francisco restaurants La Folie, Foreign Cinema, Incanto and Central Kitchen.
Camacho, 39, is the oldest of two born to Dan Charles Camacho, familian Kueto and Mafongfong, of Hagåtña, and Doris Fujikawa Pangelinan Camacho, familian Ella of the Liberatu clan, of Toto.
Shawn Camacho’s younger sister, Nicole Camacho, is operations manager at the restaurant. His wife, Tracy Sablan Camacho, works front of house three days a week.
“I’ve been in the restaurant industry since Lone Star Restaurant in Tamuning, when I was 16,” he said.
He graduated from Father Dueñas Memorial School in 2001 and went to the Bay Area for college with his high school sweetheart, Sablan.
He started out in Menlo College and transferred to San Francisco State University in 2006 and got his bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing in 2008.
He graduated during the Great Recession and had a hard time finding a marketing job, competing with seasoned professionals who were being laid off.
“I decided the marketing industry is in the tank right now. And there’s no sense in trying to jump in on that boat,” he said. “What I know is hospitality and restaurants, and I wanted to see if I can turn it into my livelihood.”
He said he and Naputi shared a bunch of friends in high school on Guam but didn’t know it till later.
“It was because of the Guam connection here that we met each other,” Shawn Camacho said, “He knew everybody I know and we were all at the same parties during high school in Guam. Once we connected that way, we became pretty close. Our family and friends out here have been together for 15-plus years.”
“You know, if you’re from Guam, we all just gather and just hang out with each other,” Shawn Naputi said. “I was cooking and he (Shawn Camacho) was a server. So we always had this pipe dream like one day, let’s do a food truck, or barbecue. We were always talking, talking, talking.”
Got a space
“One day Shawn calls me up and he says, ‘Hey man we got a space, we’re doing it. We’re gonna do CHamoru food,’” Shawn Camacho recalled. “I quit my job that day and met up with him at a coffee shop with the owner of the building.
“The normal path for opening a restaurant is a dream, a business plan, pitch to investors, then you go through this whole thing,” he said.
“We were able to slip into a space for relatively no money. We built our kitchen with less than $10,000, with money we were given from our families, and we staffed it with friends and family who were working for pennies. So it was audacious, but at the time, it was like we had nothing to lose.”
Prubechu’ opened in February 2014 with a tasting menu, which was the culinary rage back then.
“Our tasting menu had five items, chicken kelaguen, chalakiles, pickles, tinaktak and apigigi, “ Shawn Naputi said, adding that they were working in a tiny space and limited facility. “Then we started adding more things as we got more comfortable. And we were being recognized, but I think for us it was just putting our food out and explaining our CHamoru culture.”
“So for me, it was really brand new,” Shawn Camacho said. “I was going to the farmers markets with chef, I was meeting farmers, I was learning techniques, I was actually cooking, not on the line, but I was a prep cook in the daytime, I was a server in the nighttime, and then we, you know, we would do all the paperwork on our days off. And so everything was brand new.”
In September 2018, though, their landlord wanted more money and doubled their rent. “Like, we can’t afford that, so we just say, adios,” Shawn Naputi said. “Then we just started doing our pop-ups, just trying to stay relevant, you know, in this crazy industry.”
Over a year later they found a new location and charmed the new landlord, who had eaten at one of their pop-up locations.
“The building owner loved our food and loved our story,” Shawn Naputi said. “We are in this new-ish beautiful space here in the Mission. We opened in December and then we had three solid months of service and a really beautiful write-up in the Chronicle. And then COVID came.”
The Shawns and their employees, like most of the country, were greatly impacted.
“When the shutdown happened, we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how to get revenue. We didn’t know how to ask for rent or whatnot,” Shawn Naputi said. “So we started a GoFundMe and, lo and behold, we reached our goal in two days and a lot of it were our CHamoru supporters, you know, in Guam, and out here in California and all over the nation. The support reminded us to keep doing what we’re doing, you know, spreading the hafa adai spirit.”
Not long after, chef and humanitarian José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen picked Prubechu’ as one of five restaurants in San Francisco to help feed vulnerable members of the community.
They were also contracted by small business support organization SF New Deal to feed the lower-income and at-risk communities.
“They were paying us anywhere from $10 to $20 a meal depending on who we’re feeding,” Shawn Camacho said. “It was just like wholesome, nutritious and filling comfort food for $10 a plate, and we would cook it, pack it and deliver it to Black churches, senior citizen centers and homeless shelters.”
“World Central Kitchen would pay up to $20 to make a nice meal for first responders, the ER and COVID unit nurses and doctors, and fire houses as well,” Shawn Camacho added. “It was a way for us to get our food, keep our identity as a restaurant. We were able to cook Prubechu’ food for them.”
“That kept Prubechu’ afloat,” he said. “World Central Kitchen and SF New Deal really kept us alive long enough to open up again.”
The shutdown and COVID protocols had a silver lining in that it allowed Prubechu’ to convert their adjunct parking lot to an open-air patio. It became a huge selling point.
“COVID really pushed our hand to move outdoors and turned out to be one of the best moves for us,” Shawn Camacho said.
As Bay Area cities and counties roll back COVID mandates and protocols, and fine dining returns to a semblance of normal, Prubechu’ has racked up high profile, national recognition.
The were recently featured on American celebrity chef Chris Cosentino’s Food Network show, “Saveur Magazine,” and on Esquire magazine’s 2021 best new restaurants list.
Through all the ups and downs and challenges and accolades, Shawn Naputi keeps it all in perspective.
“I’m just keeping that inafa’maolek mentality in our head,” he said. “My partner Shawn and I are beyond ecstatic and we can do this, I think to the day we die. But yeah, it just feels really good. You know, they say, like, doing God’s work.”