Secrets of the Chefs Who Cater in Hawai‘i
The final straw was the shrimp shells.
They had followed Anicea Campanale, chef/owner of The Nook in Honolulu, home. “Ridiculous things happen all the time in the restaurant,” Campanale says. “We’re used to ridiculous. But this was just such a huge other situation.” This being a four-day catering job for a sustainable agriculture conference at UH West O‘ahu. Chefs who cater expect the unexpected, but for this particular job, everything went wrong before the event even began. The Nook got a last-minute call when another vendor fell through. Campanale had a week to plan an 80% to 90% locally sourced menu for 1,700 meals over four days. Though she would normally prep for weeks for a job of this scope, and even though she had no idea what would be available from farms this late, and even though The Nook already had two more catering events at the same time and regular restaurant service, she said yes.
It’s hard for chefs to refuse catering gigs because the money is often good. The rate is set beforehand and the chefs know how many people to prep for, which keeps food and labor costs down. Catering can help smooth out the financial uncertainties of restaurants, where it can be difficult to gauge how many people are going to walk through the door.
If restaurants are artist studios, catering is an assembly line—one that has to be set up, often in unusual places, and disassembled each time. When Jeff Scheer started his company, Maui Executive Catering, in 2006, he bought 200 glasses, and in one of his first events, broke almost all of them on the way home. Shuttling everything, from food to stoves, “is ultimately why catering is the hardest,” he says. “It’s really hard to set up and break down. It takes a lot of manpower, a lot of work, a lot of organization.”
– Anicea Campanale, chef/owner of The Nook
You know how discombobulated you get when you’re trying to find a knife or a glass in someone else’s kitchen? Or when you’re packing for a trip, nervous you’ll forget something? Picture packing poke and braised short ribs—sometimes thousands of portions—to be served cold and hot, respectively, in the span of an hour from a Kapolei camp kitchen or a kitchenless Kaua‘i taro patch.
Campanale did not expect to be doing all this. She should have had a seven-person crew, but a manager was on vacation, an employee came down with pneumonia, and another had to leave because of a death in the family. Others were willing to drive out to Kapolei after restaurant service and the other catering jobs, but part of the time she had to make do with a crew of two.
She had agreed to provide 1,700 meals. Last-minute requests for this last-minute gig ballooned to include daily coffee service for 400 by 7 a.m., providing snacks all day (and still local!), dishwashing and composting. In an effort to be a zero-waste event, the attendees were told to bring their own cups and utensils and wash their own dishes. Except they weren’t washed properly, so Campanale found herself hand-scrubbing hundreds of plates day and night in addition to preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner.
She and her staff were staying with other conference attendees at Camp Palehua in Kapolei and “getting to know each other on a completely different level—now we know who snores.” (Snorers were banished to other cabins.) “We’re all crazy, we’re all sleep deprived, we’re working on four hours of sleep,” she says. By the final lunch, in the middle of service, a cook was so tired he fell asleep standing up—his spoon clattering on the floor woke him.
“It was the most intense catering I’ve ever done,” Campanale says. “I work in a kitchen, so I’m always sweaty, but now, I’ve never been so gross in my life. One day, I had to wake up at 4 in the morning to start breakfast and pack individual sandwiches for lunch. I’m starting to do all that, and I realize that no one [on staff] is waking up. I don’t have time to go to the cabin to wake everyone else up. I’m in the most ridiculous pajamas that I should never be in front of people in. I thought I had time to go back to change, but I didn’t. I look unprofessional, I look horrible, I don’t know what to say, so I’m just laughing, serving breakfast, saying, ‘have some coffee!’
Thankfully, the vibe was more environmentalists on a camping retreat than a BMW promotional party (which The Nook has also catered). But with that came other grievances, including criticisms about serving meat. And then the restrictions: One eater was allergic to blood (meat had to be thoroughly cooked), another was deathly sensitive to the slightest trace of mangoes, which Campanale was told only after receiving thousands of pounds of fruit mixed in with mangoes.
But on the whole, “everyone loved everything,” and by the last night, which featured “a big beautiful dinner on the lawn,” Campanale was ready to serve the Kaua‘i shrimp with a kim chee beurre blanc, then get through one more breakfast and lunch and pack up and go home. But the shrimp shells would not go away.
SEE ALSO: Can We Ever Eat All Local in Hawai‘i?
In his 27 years of catering, Mark Oyama, chef/owner of Mark’s Place and Contemporary Flavors Catering in Līhu‘e, has prepared food for folks on catamarans and private jets. He has assembled makeshift kitchens on Hanalei Beach and in a Kaua‘i taro patch, accessible only by golf carts. But he refuses events in the latter now, because you try shuttling the contents of three flatbed trucks via who-knows-how-many golf cart trips.
“I can create a kitchen anywhere on the island,” Oyama says, not that he always wants to. He has portable stoves, portable ovens, a portable hot water heater, even a portable dishwasher. “But I try not to use that because it’s a pain to set up.” Unlike on O‘ahu, where chefs can rent plates, cups and silverware from companies that also clean them afterward, Kaua‘i is DIY. So Oyama owns thousands of glasses and china, which have to be carefully packed and unpacked for each event.
And he knows to check the weather. “Several times in the Hanalei area, there’s been flooding and we couldn’t bring the food across. A lot of times we just have to wait it out. On this island, there’s only one way in and one way out” at a lot of locations.
Still, he couldn’t anticipate a stove going up in a ball of fire. “How embarrassing to have that happen at a wedding,” Oyama says. “But no one was hurt, everyone ate already, and the party went on. It was the talk of the town for a while.” He never used that type of stove again.
Over his career, he’s helped a cancer researcher, dying of cancer, plan his own funeral. At Andy Irons’ funeral, Oyama served “a never-ending line” of 2,500 people lū‘au fare. Often busiest in the summer, during Hawai‘i’s destination wedding season, he might cater 30 events a month. Once, he almost tripped over a couple (not the bride and groom) having sex on the lawn in the dark; another time, he witnessed 70 wedding guests from New Zealand, from children to grandmas, strip naked for a beachside photo. He’s had to sign nondisclosure agreements when catering for celebrities, though he says most of the time he doesn’t recognize people like Jennifer Garner (on Kaua‘i for a photo shoot) and Matt LeBlanc (for his wedding). Still, “that’s what I like about this job,” Oyama says. “I get to interact with the rich and famous for a little while, go through some beautiful homes. The type of homes and money on this island—I never would have known it if I wasn’t in this industry.”
But it’s not just the rich and famous Oyama caters to. “It’s a small island, so we do everything,” Oyama says. “And we never take for granted any celebration, from birth to death.”
On Maui, Jeff Scheer’s career includes cooking for a hundred weddings a year at Ha‘ikū Mill and supplying five Maui boat companies food for their sunset sails. Recently, though, he put that style of catering life behind him and became the executive chef at Travaasa Hāna. Some of the reasons he left:
In Hawai‘i, many events are held outdoors, and “nothing is on your side when you’re catering outside,” he says. “You’re fighting so many elements. I used to spend so much time on garnishes, crispy shallots, crispy textures. That stuff would just blow away in the wind.” He got smarter about menus, about planning. But “it never gets easy,” Scheer says.
There was the time a thousand people went left instead of straight. Scheer had choreographed food service for a corporate event so that the first few stations, of charcuterie and cold pūpū, would slow the crowd. The cooks, communicating by walkie-talkies, would then fire up the hot stations as people made their way down the line. But the diners didn’t take the bait—instead of following the path straight, they made an abrupt turn. “The last station they were supposed to hit was the first station they hit,” Scheer says. “Every station was in the weeds. It was completely unexpected. We were so organized, we were so planned. That’s when I realized: No matter how planned and organized you are, mistakes happen all the time.”
– Jeff Scheer, executive chef of Travaasa Hāna
For every story Scheer has of dim sum and robata action stations running smoothly, and quiet dinners for 30 in a private home, he has stories of cooking in mud pits, and the time he killed the power when he plugged in two waffle irons for a fried chicken and waffle station (and got it back up just in time). Then there’s the time a groom and his friends stormed the kitchen, looking to fight Scheer because the staff had cut the cake too early. “He got up in my face, ‘Who’s going to pay for the wedding cake?’ Really? A $100,000 wedding and you’re going to fight me because the cake was cut? I said, ‘Call me tomorrow, and if you’re still upset, I’ll pay for the wedding cake.’ I never heard from him again.”
He continues: “Most of the times you cater, you are the byproduct of something that’s going on there, like a fundraiser or wedding. I always put a lot of effort into the food and where it came from, and sometimes it isn’t appreciated—it’s not the reason why people are there. There’s a party going on, there’s plates left at the table, and the bride and groom don’t even eat half the time. I did the same thing at my own wedding. I get it. But it’s why I don’t like catering.”
There will still be events at Travaasa, “but it’s different when it’s on your own property,” he says, where the transport distance is shorter and you know the venue more intimately.
Back in Kapolei on Sunday morning, the last day of the conference, the bucket of shrimp shells and food scraps sat waiting. “One of the coordinators realized that nobody dealt with those, so they took it to their office and made one of their staff deal with it on Monday because it was stinking up the office,” Campanale says. That staffer happened to be Campanale’s housemate’s girlfriend. She brought the bucket back to the house, sorted through the three-day-old rotting scraps to compost what she could in her own compost pile and threw the shells into the rubbish bin. To make matters worse, garbage collection missed their house that Thursday. For almost two weeks, “the permeating stench of shrimp shells reminded me of this insane week I had,” Campanale says. “Every time I would pass the trash, I was like, you gotta be kidding me.”
Some events require her to supply all her own water. Some jobs require creativity. This job required perseverance. “By the end, we were all just happy to be alive. And go to bed. And for it to be over.” Still, “I’d love to do it again.”