story by Roland Gilmore
photo courtesy American Culinary Federation
For ten months they trained like elite athletes. Or ninja. Six to twelve hours per day, five to seven days per week: honing, practicing. But instead of the Art of War, these devotees adhere to the Principles of Culinary Competition (I & II), mastering knife moves—concasse, tournée, chicken deconstruction—and skills ranging from cold platter to supreme pastry.
This knowledge is standard fare at Kapiolani Community College’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific, which has a reputation for churning out top-flight chef/alums like Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine stars Alan Wong and Sam Choy. But then six students decided to take their learning to the next level. “At some point during the first Competition class, I wrote ‘O-FLA July 2009’ on the board to represent the vision a few of us had,” recalls San Shoppell, who served as captain for what came to be known as Team Hawaii. And the team—which also included Anna Hirano, Keaka Lee, Tate Nakano-Edwards, Rena Suzuki and Ken Yi—did end up in Orlando, Florida for last summer’s American Culinary Federation Student Championships.
This was their Iron Chef: The final round of a nationwide series of culinary competitions, wherein dozens of contenders were whittled down to four regional champions. Getting to both the Seattle-based western regionals and the Florida finale presented costly logistical challenges, including shipping ingredients and box upon box of appliances and utilities—everything from food processors to an ice cream machine. For the finals, each team was given four and a half hours to prepare twenty-four portions of a four-course meal, while being judged on everything from technique to sanitation (and, of course, taste). Team Hawaii’s menu—praised by one judge for its “aggressive presentation”—included dozens of ingredients and preparations, among them poached Big Island butterfish, smoked opah (moonfish) and grilled Kona kampachi.
When the flour settled, Team Hawaii was national champion, a first for the Islands. “That a relatively small community college could win over the better-funded private culinary institutes really says something about the value of our program,” says Shoppell. You can taste what she means every Tuesday through Friday, when the Culinary Institute’s student-run Ka Ikena restaurant is open to the public.
Ka Ikena: (808) 734-9499