It’s never too early — or too late — to follow your dream. At Leeward Community College’s Culinary Arts program, students range in age from 18 to 60. Some future chefs are right out of high school, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and others are starting a second career, or a second job, or simply looking for something awesome to do in retirement.
According to Chef Don Maruyama, Culinary Program Coordinator, the average age of the culinary student has gone up, just in the last 10 years.
“In this field, it’s all about following your passion,” says Maruyama. “It’s a tough business, you’re on your feet all day, the money isn’t always great … You have to really be excited — What are we going to make today?”
Located in Pearl City, the Culinary Arts program at Leeward Community College prepares aspiring chefs for a culinary career by teaching business skills as well as developing kitchen expertise through hands-on training. With job experience, graduates of the program have advanced to chefs, pastry chefs, kitchen managers, restaurant managers, and restaurant owners.
Leeward students also get the chance to work side-by-side with renowned chefs, such as Alan Wong, Russell Siu, Chai Chaowasaree, Roy Yamaguchi, and D.K. Kodama, to name a few.
Alumni of the program include Jason Ichiki, executive chef at Roy’s Waikiki; Jensen Hirota, Underdogs Sports Bar & Grill; Eric Ota and Shaden Sato, sous chefs at Halekulani; Tish Koyangi, kitchen manager at Monkeypod; as well as Isaiah Badua, sous chef, and Randy Bangloy, Eating House 1849 (by Roy Yamaguchi), opening soon in Kapolei.
“The goals and aspirations of our students are to own their own business — a bakery, a food truck or a small restaurant,” says Maruyama. “With the training they get here, they are ready to go out and get an entry level job with a good restaurant or hotel.”
In addition to the hands-on experience students get at Leeward’s kitchens and food outlets, students on track to earn an Associate in Science Degree in Culinary Arts are required to do a culinary externship — sometimes in paid positions. Recently, students have done their externships at Alan Wong’s, Tango Contemporary Café, The Pacific Club, Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar, Top of Waikiki, MW Restaurant, 3660 On the Rise, and The Pig & The Lady.
One of the program’s biggest assets is the demographics of the students, which are not unlike the demographics of the islands. “We have students from Turkey, Guam, Korea, Malaysia, Puerto Rico, Japan … They teach us about their food. We all learn from each other,” Maruyama says.
The students’ “classroom” is a $6 million-plus state-of-the-art culinary facility, which includes several kitchens (or teaching labs), The Pearl restaurant, The Ala ‘Ike Grill and a pop-up restaurant — all on the LCC campus. The three food outlets are 100-percent student run and are open for six to eight weeks during the fall and spring semesters — as these are for-credit classes. During operational periods The Pearl is open to the public for lunch on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The Ala ‘Ike Grill is open during the same 6 to 8 weeks on Mondays through Thursdays.
Although the restaurants close for the summer break, Ala ‘Ike Grill opens again on Wednesday, Aug. 31, and The Pearl’s fall opening will be Thursday, Sept. 1, once classes start up again.
The Pearl is a two-time winner of the Ilima Award Critics’ Choice Best Restaurant. Serving fine dining quality food at plate lunch prices, there is an unexpected elegance about the experience here. The restaurant overlooks Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head, and there is plenty of free parking — you can’t go wrong. Sample menu items include glazed oysters with champagne hollandaise; sesame ahi carpaccio with avocado mousse and wasabi oil; torchon of ox tail and short ribs with star anise and shallots with a mushroom barley pilaf. Or try the slow roasted loin of pork with Hoisin and honey on pineapple fried rice.
Ready to enroll? Registration for fall classes is in progress now. Call Admissions & Records at (808) 455-0642
Story by Lisa Scontras