Lē‘ahi Concept Kitchen Gives Students Hands-On Restaurant Training—and Serves Great Food
This isn’t your ordinary culinary arts classroom.
Resident chef Eddie Mafnas, center, with culinary arts students in the kitchen at Lē‘ahi Concept Kitchen in Waikīkī.
Photos: Courtesy of Lē‘ahi Concept Kitchen
Dressed in a black jacket and tie, our server, Nicholas, walks us to the corner table—“the best table in the house,” he quips—and past a pianist playing a classical rendition of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.”
We’re handed the menu, which is full of dishes featuring locally sourced ingredients, from Kaua‘i shrimp to Ho Farms tomatoes to goat cheese from Sweet Land Farm. There are corn cakes using ‘Ewa sweet corn, a Caesar salad with Waipoli Hydroponic baby Romaine and pan-seared scallops paired with Hāmākua mushrooms.
You’d think we were in the latest farm-to-table restaurant to open in Honolulu. And, in a lot of ways, we are. But Lē‘ahi Concept Kitchen, which opened in September in the old Nobu Waikīkī space in the Waikīkī Parc Hotel, is more than just a new restaurant. It’s an incubator of sorts, a partnership between Kapi‘olani Community College and the hotel to give culinary art and hospitality students hands-on training and work alongside professionals in the field. The restaurant is open for dinner every night.
As part of this partnership, the kitchen hosts a rotating lineup of international chefs through the college’s Guslander Distinguished Visiting Global Chefs series. Already, chefs Alex Atala and Michelle Bernstein have participated, spending two days in the classroom with students and serving a special dinner to the public. All the proceeds support the Culinary Institute of the Pacific.
On Nov. 29, the kitchen will host Vivian Lee, the head chef at ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods, which closed in August after 57 years. Lee will be teaching the students recipes for beef stew, lau lau, salt meat watercress soup and haupia, all passed down to her by the founder Cynthia Oh Young. (There’s another pop-up Sunday at Square Barrels in Downtown.)
The idea behind this concept kitchen in Waikīkī is to figure out how to run a restaurant like this and replicate it at the student-based restaurant at CIP when it opens next year.
“We want this to be successful here, then take the concept and move it to campus,” says John Mizokawa, KCC’s culinary arts operations manager.
Mafnas and a student working in the kitchen at Lē‘ahi Concept Kitchen.
At Lē‘ahi, the students and dining room staff are paid the same wage and can’t receive tips. This isn’t part of any specific class, and students had to interview for jobs here. For many of them, this is their first job—period.
“I’m so grateful to have this experience,” says our server, who’s in his first year at KCC and majoring in hospitality with goals of working in a hotel. “Now I’m thinking maybe I can work in a restaurant, too.”
Resident chef—and KCC alum—Eddie Mafnas oversees the daily operation, ordering ingredients and mapping out dishes with the students. He works here while managing a catering company and private chef business with clients including President Obama, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. As a former culinary arts student, he firmly believes in what Lē‘ahi is about.
“The experience has been very humbling and very rewarding,” Mafnas says. “I’ve seen students who have never held a knife before fabricating all the proteins. It’s incredible.”
Every month a student gets to create a menu item. This month it’s the mushroom ravioli ($28), with shiitake, crimini and shimeji mushrooms in house-made ravioli and smothered in a creamy, comforting marsala beurre blanc sauce.
The mushroom ravioli, a dish concocted by a KCC student.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox
The food here is better than you’d expect from a concept kitchen manned by students. The Kona coffee-crusted rib-eye steak ($38) is perfectly grilled and sauced with an oxtail demi-glace and paired with an inventive ‘ulu mash (that uses just coconut milk to make it creamy) and Aloun Farms roasted vegetables. The slightly charred garlic Brussels sprouts with Big Island mac nuts ($10) is addictive, with big pieces of applewood-smoked bacon and topped with a combination of lemon vinaigrette and unagi sauce.
The ‘Ewa Farms sweet corn cakes with a tomato salsa and tomatillo cream.
The garlic Brussels sprouts with Big Island macadamia nuts and applewood-smoked bacon.
As I watch the students shuffle around the dining room, filling up water glasses and awkwardly greeting guests, I keep thinking how lucky these students are, working under the auspicious guidance of Mafnas and the new general manager Dante Camara, who has a wealth of experience at high-end restaurants and hotels. These students, some still teenagers, will enter the workforce armed with experience and a palate that will boost them in their chosen careers.
At the very least, as Nicholas says, they’ll eat Brussels sprouts.
Pop-up dinner with Vivian Lee of ‘Ono Hawaiian Foods, $35 per person, $45 with beer pairing, 6 p.m. Nov. 29, Lē‘ahi Concept Kitchen, Waikīkī Parc Hotel, 2233 Helumoa Road, (808) 971-6302, leahiattheparc.kapiolani.hawaii.edu