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Behind the Scenes: How Hawai‘i’s Fine Dining Hotel Restaurants Feed the Masses

How hotels manage to balance quality with quantity.


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Royal Hawaiian Restaurant Plating

At an event at The Royal Hawaiian, hundreds of guests are served three courses in just 90 minutes.
Photos: David Croxford and Leah Friel

 

It’s just after 4 a.m. on Sunday and the kitchen at the Sheraton Waikīkī is already humming with activity. 

 

John Supebedia and Allen Lum, two cooks who couldn’t be more different, work the hot line. Supebedia, a father of two older teens who drives from Waialua to Waikīkī every morning, is heating up gallons of heavy cream in an industrial-size tilted skillet to which he will add eight bags of liquid eggs. Lum, 25, who plans to go back to college and become a mechanical engineer, is mixing buttermilk pancake batter. They quietly work in tandem, moving comfortably around each other. Sometimes Supebedia hums and jokes with the other workers. Lum mostly keeps his head down and works.

 

Kai Market Breakfast Buffet

The breakfast buffet at the Kai Market

 

The cooks, along with executive sous chef Blake Kajiwara and a handful of others, are prepping for breakfast at both Kai Market and the Lē‘ahi Club Lounge on the 30th floor, which serve hundreds of hotel guests every morning. For breakfast alone, the kitchen cooks more than 1,000 eggs, about 70 gallons of rice, and up to 180 pounds of bacon and 120 pounds of pork sausage a day for both buffets. On a busy morning, the kitchen prepares enough food for more than 1,000 diners. And that’s just breakfast.

 

“It’s a lot,” says Kajiwara, who shows up to work at 2:30 a.m. “There’s definitely always something to do.”

 

Providing the spread for the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Waikīkī is just one aspect of what hotel kitchen staffs, from the luxe Halekūlani to the Disney-themed Aulani, are doing. They’re cooking for banquets and weddings. They’re hosting special events and handling room service. They’re creating plated dishes for the hotels’ high-end restaurants, which can confidently compete alongside Hawai‘i’s best chef-driven ones.

 

Feeding thousands of people every day takes incredible organization, meticulous planning and straightforward communication. Budgets and schedules are carefully scrutinized and managed. Proper preparation for meals is critical. And chefs have to really think about each dish: how it will be served, how long it will take to cook, what can be done ahead of time, what needs to happen just before service. It’s a lot of math, food science, work ethic and luck.

 

Add to that the evolving consumer.

 

No one wants staid buffets or mediocre spreads. Today, expectations are higher than ever, with couples requesting special menus for their weddings, and clients wanting unique experiences for their events—and guests are savvier than ever about food and where it comes from.

 

“My impression growing up was that Waikīkī was just a tourist trap, that the food was just mass produced,” says executive chef Colin Hazama, who oversees the culinary operations at The Royal Hawaiian, which includes two restaurants, an oceanfront bar, a bakery and a lū‘au that runs four nights a week. “But that’s not the case anymore.”

 

Quality and Quantity

Royal Hawaiian Restaurant Chef Hazama

Hazama.

 

Hazama walks around the kitchen at The Royal Hawaiian, right behind the recently renovated Monarch Ballroom, and points to dozens of trays filled with local onaga fillets soaking in olive oil. This is the main course for a plated dinner for 345 guests later tonight in the ballroom.

 

“These were only cooked half way,” he explains, adding that, earlier that day, he steamed the fillets on high heat to blister the skin. Then he topped the fish with olive oil that was heated to about 185 degrees. “The oil is slow-cooking the fish,” he says, “so all we have to do is pull the fish from the oil, salt it and dish it out.”

 

A big part of Hazama’s job is to figure out how to serve high-quality dishes in large quantities—and quickly. He has about 90 minutes to get three courses finished, plated and served to the guests, with just seven cooks. And each of the dishes—from the colorful salad of locally grown baby Romaine with garlic-and-herb Kaua‘i shrimp, Hāmākua tomatoes and shaved Parmesan to the complex dessert of Meyer lemon crème fraîche panna cotta with mixed berries and macadamia nut pavlova—looks painstakingly plated. (Hazama does use kitchen tweezers to carefully place edible flowers on the panna cotta.) Still, it takes mere seconds to finish each plate.

 

Royal Hawaiian Restaurant Meal Prep

MOST THE THE ROYAL’S MEAL PREP IS DONE IN ADVANCE BY SEVEN COOKS.

 

How is that possible?

 

Planning and prep, Hazama says. Most of the dishes are nearly done by the time the kitchen staff starts assembling them at 7 p.m., 45 minutes before dinner is served.

 

“You have to be really, really good with math, execution and timing,” Hazama says. “Without that, you’ll set yourself up to fail—or you won’t have the quality you want.”

 

That takes careful consideration of every component. The onaga, for example, is served with a vanilla-infused hearts-of-palm purée that can be prepped and plated ahead of time, and Chinese long beans and local radish, both of which can be cooked earlier and reheated without compromising flavor and texture. Only the fish will need to be strategically cooked—slow-poaching in hot olive oil is one solution—and fired moments before service.

 

In addition, Hazama has to prepare separate vegetarian and vegan dishes. Special dietary accommodations make up nearly 15 percent of orders nowadays.

 

All this thought put into a single dinner—and Hazama has to do this about 90 times a month. That’s how many banquets the hotel hosts, and each menu is customized for each event.

 

Speed is important, too. It takes less than 10 minutes from the time the first plate is placed in front of a guest in the ballroom to when the last plate is dropped for that course. (I timed it.) That means all 345 guests will have plates of food in front of them in less than 10 minutes. That’s fast.

 

Equipment helps. For example, The Royal has a $10,000 conveyor belt to help with prepping dishes. It creates an assembly line, with one cook placing a fillet of onaga on the plate, another saucing it, another adding garnish, until it reaches the end, where a hotel steward grabs it, slams a stainless-steel plate cover on it and stashes it in a warmer. This process is fast, methodical and surprisingly composed. No one is yelling or panicking. Everyone is moving rhythmically, a kitchen dance of sorts. I’m more stressed than they are, and I’m not the one serving three courses to 345 guests in 90 minutes. But they do it and, before 9 p.m., most of the kitchen staff is packing up and heading home.

 

Local Matters 

Hawaii Restaurants Local Food MAtters

 

It’s worth noting that most of the ingredients on the plates Hazama served that night were sourced locally. That’s been a focus of The Royal Hawaiian, as well as other hotels across the island. You’ll find Kahuku sea asparagus and Hāmākua mushrooms on the menu at Hōkū’s at The Kāhala Hotel & Resort, local pork and Big Island hearts of palm at Kula Grille at Turtle Bay Resort, and Keāhole lobster and Kahuku prawns at Orchids at the Halekūlani. The Hyatt Regency Waikīkī grows a variety of lettuces in an aquaponics unit and the Hyatt Centric Waikīkī is farming taro near its eighth-floor pool deck.

 

At The Royal, Hazama works with more than 30 local farms to provide everything from asparagus (Twin Bridge Farms in Waialua) to Mānoa lettuce (Mari’s Gardens in Mililani) to oysters (Kualoa Ranch). About 60 percent of what’s served at the hotel is grown in the Islands. At Azure, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, it’s not uncommon to see entire dishes composed of Hawai‘i-grown ingredients. Chef de cuisine Shaymus Alwin prefers using local beef, pork and eggs, and nearly all the fish used is from the local auction.

 

Hawaii Restaurants Royal Hawaiian Local Food Matters

More than 30 local farms supply fresh ingredients to the hotel.

 

Hazama takes me into one of the walk-in refrigerators at The Royal, where the shelves are lined with boxes from local farms, including Ho Farms in Kahuku and Kawamata Farm in Kamuela. “See,” he says, smiling. “We really do buy from local farms.”

 

Because hotels purchase in large quantities, they are becoming important customers for local farms, which need large accounts and consistent orders to survive. Hazama has even gone so far as creating farm-focused dinners, where guests feast on a meal sourced from a single local farm one night, then visit that very farm the next day for lunch.

 

“We want people to enjoy eating dinner first, then see what they ate the next day,” Hazama told me three years ago when I attended one of his table-to-farm events featuring Twin Bridge Farms. “You don’t really get a full understanding of what you’re eating until after you’ve eaten it.”

 

Diners have different expectations, too. They’re not looking for the classic European cuisine long served in hotel restaurants. Instead, they want to experience local flavors and ingredients. They want something to brag about on social media. They want to be excited and inspired.

 

Hawaii Restaurant Steak Plating Hawaii Restaurant Cake Plating Hawaii Restaurant Complete Steak Plating

 

An astounding 95 percent of American travelers say they’re interested in some kind of unique food experience when they travel, according to the 2016 Food Travel Monitor, a global study conducted by the World Food Travel Association. That’s up from 47 percent in 2013.

 

“When I travel, I like to learn about the different cultures and cuisines. That’s important to me,” said James Beard Award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi at a panel discussion about culinary tourism at the 2016 Hawai‘i Tourism Conference. “With my food, I try to create a cultural experience. … I try to get people to understand that it’s not just about the food, but it’s about where that food comes from.”

 

So buying local for hotels is important on different levels: It satisfies the guests who are interested in experiencing local foods while supporting Hawai‘i farms and the state’s economy. And, chefs will quickly point out, most ingredients are just better—fresher, tastier, healthier—when sourced locally.

“... It’s not just about the food, but it’s about where that food comes from.”
— Chef Roy Yamaguchi

 

“You want guests to understand and appreciate what we have here,” says Matthew Naula, executive chef for the Sheraton Waikīkī. “It takes a lot of work to grow food. … Why not show off what Hawai‘i grows and what we’re proud of? We have more than the beach and sand. We also have these great products.”

 

Workers’ Favorite Perk 

Naula meets me at Mokihana, the cafeteria for the workers of the Sheraton Waikīkī. There’s a dedicated team of cooks, led by Kervin Leval, to feed about 900 employees a day, comparable to the number of diners served at the hotel’s Kai Market. On the menu today is teriyaki chicken, pig feet knuckles cooked adobo style and mung bean soup with spinach. There’s also a salad bar, fresh fruits, made-to-order burgers, hot dogs, S&S saimin and soft-serve ice cream. Employees don’t pay—it’s considered a perk of the job, one Kyo-ya Hotel & Resorts, which owns the hotel, refuses to give up or skimp on. (It costs about $2 million a year to supply the food alone.)

 

Mokihana Royal Hawaiian Workers Free Food

 

“You know how Starbucks is that third place? It’s not home, it’s not work. The cafeteria is like that,” says Jeff Gionet, director of technology for the Marriott Waikīkī complex, who has eaten at least one meal here per day for the past 29 years. He’s practically memorized the menu of dishes served that week.

 

“This is the biggest benefit to working at this hotel.”
— Jeff Gionet, director of technology for Marriott Waikīkī

Like most hotel employees, Gionet has his favorite meals: pinacbet, crab-stuffed salmon, a Filipino chicken noodle soup with quail eggs, and the legendary ramen bar once a month with lines out the door and down the hall.

 

You’ll see just about everyone dining in the cafeteria, from housekeepers to engineers to Cheryl Williams, the general manager for The Royal Hawaiian. There are TVs and computers hooked up to the internet in the back, free to use by employees. Sometimes there’s live music or massages for Aloha United Way fundraisers.

 

The Sheraton Waikīkī isn’t the only hotel that feeds its workers. The Halekūlani, Hilton Hawaiian Village and The Kāhala Hotel & Resort do the same. But no other hotel does the volume—and likely the variety—this cafeteria does.

 

Mokihana Royal Hawaiian Workers Perk

AT MOKIHANA, THE SHERATON WAIKĪKĪ’S 900 EMPLOYEES EAT FREE.

 

Han Lam, one of Mokihana’s cooks, starts work at 5 a.m. in the second-floor kitchen at the Sheraton Waikīkī, which is mostly devoted to preparing food for the cafeteria. He sautées onions and garlic and combines that with beef chunks, beef stock and tomatoes in a 70-gallon steam kettle, the start of beef tomato stew, one of the entrées that will be served for lunch. In another, smaller kettle, he’s cooking lentil bean soup from scratch.

 

He walks me through the kitchen and into the walk-in refrigerator, where plastic bins are filled with chicken thighs marinating in a house huli-style sauce and whole garlic cloves. Stacked on a nearby rack are trays of pork loin that will later be crusted in macadamia nuts and panko, cooked in the oven and served with a peppercorn sauce.

 

Lam is the originator of Pho Day, which is scheduled for later in the month. It’s one of the most popular lunches, with long lines for a dish he says he came up with on his own and makes from scratch. The broth, which is flavored with garlic, lemongrass, cloves, star anise and cinnamon sticks, takes three hours to create.

 

Hawaii Restaurant Brunch Omelet Station

 

Mokihana’s daily lunch menu reads like the specials at a fancy restaurant: dijonnaise baked ham with a pineapple-raisin sauce, peel-and-eat Moloka‘i prawns, Cajun-style snapper in a beurre blanc sauce. The oxtail soup, another popular entrée, uses 600 pounds of oxtail and takes three large kettles to cook. It almost always runs out.

 

“I don’t know what other company does something like this.”
— Matthew Naula, executive chef, Sheraton Waikīkī

 

I marvel at the amount of food consumed by the employees alone, meals from which the hotel doesn’t profit. I leave this kitchen and head downstairs to Kai Market, where hotel guests—some sunburned, some dressed in matching aloha attire, some snapping photos of the lavish spread with their smartphones—meander through the buffet. They grab taro rolls, bowls of miso soup, broiled saba garnished with local cherry tomatoes, mini pancakes, crispy bacon, made-to-order omelets and the scrambled eggs I watched Supebedia whip up with heavy cream in the tilted skillet hours before. Still fluffy, I think to myself.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX

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