What Does It Take to Succeed as a Woman in the Male-Dominated World of Hawai‘i Cuisine?
Thoughts from four women who have spent up to 24 years in professional kitchens.
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Executive chef, St. Regis Princeville Resort, Kaua‘i
Photo: Kicka Witte
➸ Years in the kitchen: 24
➸ Male to female ratio in her kitchens: 4:1
➸ Children: “I don’t have children. It’s tough being a chef and being a great mother or a great father. You really have to prioritize.”
“I was raised with two older brothers,” Leanne Kamekona, who is 43, says. “You get slapped around and bullied at times; in the kitchens, I felt like I was at home.”
Back in high school, when Kamekona was bagging groceries at KTA Super Stores supermarket in Hilo, she initially turned down a move to the meat department. “It smells back there,” she told managers. “I want to work where I’m gonna stay as clean as possible.”
So much for that.
She’s now spent more than two decades in professional kitchens, where a night on the hot line leaves you sweaty and smelling of fish and meat and grease.
And she did end up taking that job in the meat department. “That was my first introduction to working with food,” Kamekona says. “I learned the cuts of meat and learned to break down these big tunas, big ono and mahi mahi and stuff like that. I took a liking to how food is being prepared, how it’s being cut, how it arrives.”
The head butcher at the Hilton Waikoloa Resort discovered her at KTA and hired her for his team of five at the 1,400-room hotel. She saw it as just a side gig, though, to save money while she went to college. She was planning on becoming a ceramics teacher.
She didn’t. “I ended up mastering butchering and wanted to learn a different area,” she says. “Part of me was thinking, because I was a female, I should go into pastry—generally speaking, most females went into the bakeshop, back in the day. But learning the different things in butchering really pushed me into wanting to cook.”
She worked in various hotels from Maui to California to Kaua‘i, rising up the ranks to executive chef. “I don’t think about [being a female chef] at all. I don’t come into work everyday thinking, ‘Oh no, I need to execute this menu with all these males.’ I’m comfortable in the kitchen. It’s my comfort zone, after being in the kitchen for 24 years.”