Cooking Up Success

Paul Onishi’s alternative program is leading Farrington’s at-risk students into the kitchen and back into the classroom.
Working with kid-friendly dishes such as Spam musubi, a group of Farrington High School students pass on their culinary skills by teaching eighth graders. photo: Jimmy Forrest

“At-risk” describes students who get held back a grade, truants who skip class regularly, kids who get into drugs, kids who are on their way to dropping out of school altogether. But in Paul Onishi’s classroom, 24 “at risk” students in his cooking program are turning it all around. “These kids are very bright, they just don’t have the motivation to sit there and study,” he says of the Farrington High School (FHS) students.

Onishi, with a strong background in catering and food service and a former instructor at Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary program, used his background to create Spirit of Aloha Outreaches, an alternative environment for kids to learn science, math and writing. When the bird flu made the front pages for weeks, Onishi had his class follow the path of the flu to study geography, assigned essays to fulfill their English requirements and threw in a recipe for chicken katsu. “Students having trouble in traditional programs are much more successful in programs that are more hands-on and relevant to their lives,” says FHS principal Catherine Payne. “He’s amazed us with the kids he’s had success with, where teachers in regular classrooms have just thrown up their hands.”

The daily program started at FHS two years ago as a weekly class, funded mainly by New Hope Christian Fellowship and the Department of Education. Initially, teachers and counselors were skeptical of his unconventional methods, Onishi says, “but, little by little, the kids were showing personality changes and academic changes that just blew [the faculty] away.” Today, he runs two classes each school day (students take regular curriculum for the remaining half of the day), bussing the students to and from a rented kitchen at the Pacific Gateway Center.

“They don’t have to act like goofy teenagers,” Payne says, explaining the benefits of the off-campus location. The students are removed from the distractions of their friends at school and placed in a real-world environment. “Everybody else in the building are adults, so they need to act like adults.”

“These are not the kids anyone ever pointed to and said, ‘be like him,’” Payne says. But, on a Wednesday morning at Dole Middle School, the FHS students, clad in crisp, white chef’s coats, lead a class of at-risk eighth graders in Spam musubi and strawberry smoothie 101. The white-coated teens stood over the eighth graders, showing them proper knife handling and how to slice, flip and marinate the Spam. “[My students] really bond with these kids and the kids look up to my students,” Onishi says. Through the once-a-month mentoring program, the students begin to change the way they see themselves.

“These are the kinds of small changes that begin to change behaviors toward the positive,” Payne says, noting how Onishi has been able to help kids see the possibility of change.

“Cooking is just a vehicle,” Onishi says. “If I was the kind of person that didn’t want to get involved with their lives, we’d maybe teach cooking, but we wouldn’t get into the kind of stuff that changes them.”

Onishi’s classes have been producing tangible results. In particular, he assists students in finding jobs and internships in the culinary and food-service industries. Graduates of his classes have gone on to work for Zippy’s, the Halekulani, Sam Choy’s, off-site catering companies and hospitals. “Kids at 17, 18 years old started being offered $11-an-hour jobs with full benefits,” he says, explaining that many kids come from families without working parents or health care.

The results are felt at home, too. Ese Emosi, a sophomore at FHS, is Onishi’s most veteran student, having enrolled in the class for three semesters. “He’s purposely put in as a positive influence, a motivator,” Onishi says. Since enrolling, Emosi’s grades and attendance have improved and he cooks meals for his family.

“A lot of the kids don’t have adults who are good role models, who they can trust to be responsible,” Payne says. For these kids, Onishi has begun to fill that role. “It comes through to the students that this man is truly sincere in his interest in helping them have a better life.”

“You don’t have to be a psychologist or a rocket scientist, it’s just listening to them sometimes, just understanding,” Onishi says.

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