Where Are the Hawaiian Chefs? Part 1: Kealoha Domingo
Why is it rare to find Hawaiian chefs cooking Hawaiian food professionally? In Part 1, Kealoha Domingo of Nui Kealoha catering tells his story.
Six years ago, a visiting food writer marveled that Hawai‘i showcased an Indigenous culinary tradition more widely than anywhere else in the U.S. I agreed. After all, lau lau and squid lū‘au are part of our everyday food vocabulary. But one thing is missing: Hawaiian chefs.
Of the “traditional” Hawaiian restaurants on O‘ahu, only two—Haili’s Hawaiian Food and Waiāhole Poi Factory—are owned by Hawaiians. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, given that what we know as the Hawaiian plate lunch was codified in the plantation era, resulting in lau lau alongside chicken long rice and other products of post-contact local culture.
Many of the most lauded local chefs who have brought Hawaiian food and culture to the forefront are not Hawaiian. And very few Native Hawaiian chefs overtly incorporate that part of their ethnicity onto the plate. So while Indigenous-owned companies are now bringing Hawaiian culture into everything from fashion to tourism, why is it a rarity to find Hawaiians cooking Hawaiian food professionally?
I spoke to two for whom Hawaiian food defines their work. Up first: Kealoha Domingo went full-time with his catering business, Nui Kealoha, rather reluctantly only a few years ago. Here is his story.
Because he came from a restaurant family, Kealoha Domingo knew how demanding the industry was and didn’t want to enter it. But he always loved cooking for his friends. At times, he’d moonlight from his full-time job as an elevator mechanic and consult at Highway Inn or present his dishes at the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival—he used to joke that he was the only chef who cooked at the Hawai‘i Convention Center and worked on its escalators. But for the most part, “I avoided the cooking for a living thing,” Domingo says. Until he couldn’t.
A few years ago, Domingo decided to cook through a Native Hawaiian lens full-time. Since then, he’s been invited to the James Beard House, where he pounded pa‘i‘ai and served it with cured ‘ahi and ‘inamona. At the Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, he cooked with the famed Indigenous American chef Sean Sherman, presenting a tomato poke with hazelnut ‘inamona, based on what he found in Turin’s markets, and ‘awa he brought from Hawai‘i. In 2021, he received a James Beard Foundation grant for Indigenous-owned businesses, and he plans to open a food truck called Hawaiian Soul. All from the person who once said, “I don’t want to be that Hawaiian guy that makes lau lau.” Here’s how the reluctant Hawaiian chef came to embrace cooking Hawaiian. The following has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Kealoha Domingo: I’ve been on a path for the past 30 years to get myself back into my culture.
“There aren’t enough Native Hawaiians out there representing the food scene and especially through the lens of the traditional Hawaiian beliefs.”
In the mid-’90s, I was introduced to a Hawaiian cultural group called Na Papa Kānaka O Pu‘ukoholā Heiau, which cares for Pu‘ukoholā Heiau, a 230-year-old heiau built by Kamehameha I in Kawaihae. Being at the heiau, seeing ceremonies, and hearing the Hawaiian language spoken fluently for the first time, it hit me like a brick wall—I’m Hawaiian, proud to be Hawaiian, went to “the” Hawaiian high school, but I realized that I really didn’t know anything about Hawaiian culture. Then later on, I meet this local Japanese girl that speaks Hawaiian and becomes a Hawaiian immersion school teacher, I end up marrying her, we raise four sons who grow up learning the language fluently.
My moment of awakening at Pu‘ukoholā set me on a trajectory, a 30-year journey to know my culture. I tried a lot of things—lua, the Hawaiian martial art; oli, or chant; a little hula. None of it really suited me.
Getting involved with Na Papa Kānaka O Pu‘ukoholā; Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau, the immersion school my wife Kalaunuola teaches at and where my sons learned ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i; and later with the nonprofit Papahana Kuaola, really helped to shape my current life. I gradually gained some understanding of our culture, but also of the tragic and hurtful history that ultimately led Hawaiians like myself, as well as my father and many in his generation, to a point of cultural disconnect.
One of the ceremonies I was introduced to is called ‘ai kapu. It’s the consumption of traditional foods with the belief that they are kino lau, or physical manifestations of our traditional Hawaiian gods. It was this crazy intersection of a kanaka on a path of cultural rediscovery, who had a little bit of experience doing imu, who loves to cook and feed people—a collision of culture meets culinary arts. I thought, maybe I’m supposed to be feeding people and connecting them to Hawaiian culture through food.
I don’t have anything against people who are not Hawaiian and cooking Hawaiian food, much like my Japanese wife who has dedicated her life to reviving the Hawaiian language. I do feel it’s critically important though for us as Hawaiians to take the torch and reconnect to our culture and identity. There aren’t enough Native Hawaiians out there representing the food scene and especially through the lens of the traditional Hawaiian beliefs. We as Hawaiians should do our best to stand up, revive, honor and practice the nearly lost traditions of our kūpuna and to build and instill within our future generations a sense of Hawaiian identity and pride.
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I love saimin, I love all the local foods, I love Pacific Rim cuisine. But it’s important for people to understand what traditional Hawaiian food is and how the Hawaiian perspective on food is really, really such a complex thing. If you start getting into it, you’re forced to understand conservation, environment, resource management. I’ve been using this phrase I heard from a friend, Pelika Andrade: “Eating ‘opihi doesn’t make you Hawaiian. Making sure that your grandchildren and grandchildren’s grandchildren can eat ‘opihi makes you Hawaiian.”
[With increasing catering jobs,] it all got to a point where really, my mind was thinking more about my menu for the catering coming up than my work. But I didn’t know how to make a living with it—I was well-paid as a mechanic, and I felt like we’re just barely making it. And then in 2019, I got laid off. Although I could’ve easily moved to the next company, I decided I was gonna take a little time.
I joined the Hawai‘i Investment Ready program, a pretty intensive crash course in business. And at the end, we had this big pitch at Ka Waiwai. And that was the day Hawai‘i shut down because of COVID. All my catering bookings started falling off the table. I worked with Chef Hui and Kamehameha Schools putting together community meals. When the world opened the doors again, I got hit hard with catering jobs.
When I talk to people about Hāloanakalaukapalili, the taro, I tell them, I didn’t grow up with this story in my life, and neither did my father. But maybe my grandmother or my great-grandmother did. But we were told by the colonizers that all of this was something of the past, and you know, all of a sudden we’re eating poi out of a plastic bag. And we lost a connection with our food.
It is a process of healing the injuries of the past. I feel like the Hawaiians have lost so much that it’s important for us to hold onto it.
At one time, I told people, I don’t want to be the Hawaiian food guy. I don’t want to be known for that. I wanted to do “cool stuff.” I wanted to do fancy stuff. Hawaiian food is not fancy. It’s not pretty. It’s not glamorous. But at the same time, when I have the opportunity to educate through reintroducing our traditional foods, it’s such a meaningful and impactful kūleana. E ola mau nā ‘ōiwi, e ola mau ka lāhui Hawai‘i.
Nui Kealoha, nuikealoha.com, @nuikealohahawaii
SEE ALSO: Where Are the Hawaiian Chefs? Part 2: Lorraine Haili Alo