Making a Difference: How to Make a Chef

Culinary nonprofit broadens student’s horizons.

Chef Peter Merriman with Hilo culinary students.

Photos: Courtesy of Hale Aina Ohana

San Shoppell has always wanted to become a chef. “I struggled with [choosing] to go to art school or culinary school. It was a hard decision to make.” Although she chose to study art as an undergraduate, her desire to cook professionally remained strong. So, at 47, Shoppell is starting all over as a culinary student at Kapiolani Community College.

Ba-Le bakery chef, Rodney Weddle teaches an HAO Master class on bread.

In addition to being a full-time student, Shoppell also participates in the Hale Aina Ohana, a nonprofit formed in 1998 by John Alves, then HONOLULU’s publisher (now president of our parent company, Pacific Basin Communications), and Tom Mullen, an executive with American Express. (Editor’s note: Though the Ohana is now an independent nonprofit, HONOLULU continues to support it through proceeds from the Hale Aina Awards.)

“It started out with a bunch of people in the culinary world,” says Joan Namkoong, an HAO board member and food writer. “The whole thought was to bring in guest chefs from the Mainland to broaden the horizons and raise the bar for culinary students.”

For students like Shoppell, it means a chance to learn new skills and meet world-class chefs—such as Jonathan Benno of New York’s Per Se—in a more intimate, talk-story cooking session. Once or twice a year, Mainland chefs come to Hawaii and run a cooking program for culinary students at the UH community colleges—including programs on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island—as well as high school students in food service programs. Local big-name chefs such as Alan Wong, Peter Merriman and Roy Yamaguchi also conduct programs for students. Within a school semester the Hale Aina Ohana runs an average of six to eight programs.

Although the programs and workshops, which are free for culinary students, are held in a classroom, they are not ordinary textbook-style cooking demonstrations and lectures. “We want to introduce students to a chef’s particular style of cooking, perhaps an ethnic kind of cooking,” says Namkoong. “But we always try to get the chefs to talk about what it’s like out there in the culinary world.”

Cal Oshiro of Y. Hata explains the intricacies of beef costing.

In addition to talking about their personal experiences and daily duties as chefs and restaurant owners, some of the chefs focus the students on a specific topic in “Center of the Plate” workshops. For example, Namkoong says, Jackie Lau from Roy’s did a workshop on lamb. “She took a whole lamb carcass and cut it up.” Later, Hiroshi Fukui from Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas did a workshop on Kona kampachi, detailing how to cut a whole fish, sashimi style, as well as cooking fish.  

Executive Chef Hiroshi Fukui shows how to prepare Kona kampachi, the first sushi-grade fish to be farmed in Hawaii.

“The [programs] are very encouraging for me,” says Shoppell, who is expected to graduate this December. “I always feel like I come out with more than I came in with.”

Fern Tomisato, a culinary professor at KCC and a Hale Aina Ohana board member, says that the nonprofit offers outside expertise and perspective. “For our students to be able to compete nationally and internationally, they really need different kinds of experiences. Experiences in terms of going to the Mainland for work, or having an understanding of what’s happening internationally,” she says.

Tomisato—who’s been teaching close to 30 years and ensures classroom work space for the programs—has been with HAO since its inception and adds that all the chefs involved raise the bar in terms of upgrading the educational experiences of culinary students as well as improving culinary education in Hawaii.

But Hale Aina Ohana doesn’t just help aspiring culinary students; workshops are also conducted for those already in the field. “We also offer what we call master classes for working professionals,” says Namkoong. “There are a lot of people in the food world, [such as] restaurants and hotels, that basically have fallen into that profession and maybe haven’t gone to school.”

Chef George Mavrothalassitis and Chef Kevin Chong simmer local ingredients to make stocks.

Classes are offered on specific topics, such as sauces, salad dressings or the fundamentals of buying meat in restaurant quantities and are also taught by local chefs. Cooking professionals can participate for a nominal fee.

Hale Aina Ohana has given many students a solid beginning and helped professionals become better at their jobs. “Through Hale Aina Ohana my horizons are broadened and I can work with chefs that I personally can aspire to, and see them give back,” says Shoppell.

How to Help:
To donate to Hale Aina Ohana, visit