Nestled behind Diamond Head, with views of both Diamond Head and Koko Head craters, sits Kapi‘olani Community College (KCC), on the grounds of what was once Fort Ruger. The campus is part of the overall University of Hawaii system and keeps community at the heart of all its programs.
This community focus is found in all aspects of the school, especially the Culinary Arts Program. The program has many different initiatives that assist with everything from food sustainability to healthy school lunches. But the program itself is a service, as there are more jobs in restaurants in Hawaii from servers and line cooks to top chefs, than there are qualified individuals to fill the positions. That demand has led to a boom in an already popular program.
The Culinary Arts Program at KCC has existed for decades and has a history of turning out incredibly talented chefs, such as Alan Wong and Sam Choy. Who would have known that a humble community college in Honolulu would turn out internationally renowned chefs who have turned their locally inspired cuisine into multimillion dollar businesses? The program has long been robust, but the school is always growing and incorporating new facets into its curriculum.
“We’ve made, in the last 30 years, tremendous improvements to our program,” says department chair Ron Takahashi.
Takahashi is constantly trying to decipher where the food industry is heading and anticipating the needs of students. As a result, the school takes a holistic approach to learning not just the technical skills to excel as chefs, but also how management and serving positions function.
“Every class has particular learning outcomes,” says Takahashi. Students learn from a pool of professors with vast knowledge. “We highly value their experience over academic credentials,” says Takahashi about the faculty. “A lot of what we impart to students is lessons learned.”
It’s a dynamic learning center that emphasizes practicality and artistry as complementary, rather than opposing, forces. One of the many learning tools students have is the KCC campus restaurant, Ka ‘Ikena. Ka ‘Ikena is open for lunch and dinner, and reservations are required. Everyone working at the restaurant is a student focused on one learning objective. That could be food service, restaurant management, pastry making or any of the other regular tasks all kitchens require.
With such a robust program, it’s clear why so many of the top chefs in Waikiki and Hawaii at large hail from KCC. One of their more recent grads is chef Justin Inagaki, head chef at Hy’s Steak House in Waikiki.
While reflecting on the Culinary Arts Program, Inagaki said, “I wish I could go back to school now, the curriculum that these students are learning now is so broad and well versed.” Inagaki graduated seven years ago, and, even in that relatively short span, he’s noticed the ever-improving skill sets graduates retain.
As the head chef at one of the leading steak houses in Waikiki, Inagaki certainly doesn’t need to head back to school anytime soon, but it’s refreshing to hear his admiration for his alma mater.
“I would never be able to be where I am now without having such a great support network at KCC,” Inagaki continued. “It truly changed my perspective and made me motivated to be a chef.”
The newest motivational tool from KCC’s Culinary Arts Program is Le¯‘ahi Concept Kitchen, located in the Parc Hotel in Waikiki. It was serendipitous that the restaurant came to be. NOBU had previously occupied the space, but found a new spot when the Parc was slated to begin a renovation. The renovation hit a snag, causing a delay until next year, leaving an empty restaurant space perfect for a fresh approach to fine dining. The hotel worked with KCC to open a “pop up” restaurant until renovations could begin, and Le¯‘ahi Concept Kitchen was born.
Le¯‘ahi is a breath of fresh air in the heart of Waikiki. The prices are reasonable and surprisingly, especially in Waikiki, diners are asked not to provide gratuity. Staff members are instead paid a living wage. There is a separate 15 percent service fee on all bills, but this is a requirement imposed by the university system, and helps to keep the program running and costs low.
The menu has a mixture of small and large plates that can be eaten individually or shared. Head chef and KCC alum Eddie Mafnas brings flavors from his native Guam with items like Chamorro shrimp fritters.
Mafnas graduated from the culinary school 10 years ago and, like many of his fellow alumni, has kept incredibly busy in the local food industry ever since. He has helped open 21 restaurants in Waikiki, does private catering, owns Aloha Poke Shop, and still manages to find time to volunteer in his community by cooking for the homeless and judging keiki chef competitions. He brings that energy and passion into his creations at Le¯‘ahi.
All of the positions at the restaurant are paid, but are mostly staffed by current KCC students who want to get more hands-on experience.
“This is a step that has always been missing,” says Takahashi. He’s excited by the opportunity to let students learn completely outside the classroom.
Now open for dinner seven nights a week, with live music six of those nights, Le¯‘ahi Concept Kitchen provides a wonderful dining experience that anyone can feel good about. Diners can take advantage of four hours of free validated parking, and a low corkage fee at this BYOB establishment.
The restaurant will only be open until the Parc Hotel begins renovations in 2018, so go now while it’s open. It will also offer special menus from visiting chefs and occasional cooking lessons in the meantime.
Moving forward, Takahashi is looking for more opportunities for his students. The school is working to establish the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, and staying abreast of what’s next in the food industry.
“We try to train our people for the future,” says Takahashi. So far, they’ve done just that.