Cover Story continued

Ed Kuoaha loves action, but not the spotlight; heʻs happy to be a second-in-command.
Image: Joana Gonzales

The Invisibles

Six o’clock on a Friday go-out-to-dinner evening. You think Alan Wong is in his kichen right now? Roy Yamaguchi? Sam Choy? George Mavrothalassitis? Ed Kenney? Fred DeAngelo? Any other “name” chef? Possibly. Mavro, certainly, unless he’s traveling. The others, maybe, but which of their restaurants are they in?


And, if these chefs are in their restaurants, are they in whites, cooking, or in dressy aloha shirts, circulating?

Even Mavro, who cooks daily on the line, slips away late-service. Having worked since dawn and greeted the VIPs, he’s often gone by 9 p.m.

Who is making your dinner???!!??

The invisibles. The seconds-in-command. The lieutenants who make their captains look good and are, quite often, never seen or heard from by the public.

DeAngelo’s at Ola at Turtle Bay, so who is at The Grove in Kailua? A guy you probably never heard of, sous chef Ed Kuoha. DeAngelo, a family oriented man with a family-owned restaurant-catering operation, talks about Kuoha as one would a “bro” or a “cuz.”

“He’s GOT it,” says DeAngelo, who has all but given The Grove to Kuoha while he, DeAngelo, commutes to Ola.

Kuoha, 35, a Roosevelt and Kapiolani Community College (KCC) Culinary Arts Progam grad, says he loves the “adrenaline rush” of the line, gets bored easily if he’s not constantly challenged, and tries to “fly under the radar.” He’s more than a little uncomfortable with DeAngelo’s clear intention of kicking him out of the second-seat nest someday. But, he admits “If Chef has plans for me, I’m ready.”

The Islands’ top chefs can travel, they can circulate, they can knock off early or do events secure in the knowledge that the invisibles will perform. They have picked these chefs like Chinatown shoppers pawing through the stacked produce, watched them like a cat with a gecko, nurtured them like a loving but stern parent, put them through tests as grueling as a drill sergeant working an Army Ranger or Navy SEAL detail.

“I cannot be every place. There is no need,” Nobu Matsuhisa told me years ago just before the opening of Nobu Waikiki, speaking in telegraphed English. He gestured to the line of silent sushi chefs who were prepping for sampling on press day. “They all know Nobu. They know what is Nobu.”

A new station

The invisibles are clones with the loyalty of a samurai to his shogun. But they also have been picked because they have brains and the potential to move on, if they wish.

The day chef Lance Kosaka, former executive chef at The Pineapple Room By Alan Wong, knew his life had changed was when he came into the kitchen at 6 a.m. and neatly set up his station and arranged his knives just so, as he’s been doing for nearly two decades — and then discovered 12 hours later that he hadn’t touched a tool all day. “I never even picked up a knife!,” he says, and the amazement is evident in his voice and slightly startled expression.

He is not an invisible anymore. He, with his chef-partner Derek Watanabe, is in front of the line, not on the hot line, at Cafe Julia at the Richards Street YWCA. And he cooks, he says, less than ever. He expedites — calls out orders from the servers to the appropriate cooking station, does whatever it takes to assure smooth service.

But mostly, he teaches, puts out fires (in at least one case, literally), watches, chides, chivvies, counsels, tastes, compliments, suggests, deals with front-of-the-house collisions, purveyors, press, every pesky detail.

Behind him in the kitchen as he talks to The Weekly, three hours after Cafe Julia’s breakfast-lunch service is closed, his crew is pulling a stove apart. It needed to be cleaned, they told him; they stayed behind to do it. They are laughing even as they scrape up grease and ash.

He looks behind him, almost wistfully, recalling his early days, but proud of his team already.

He is Chef now.

Chain of command

There is an unspoken but rigid hierarchy in restaurant kitchens.

There is Chef, the chef-owner or, in a hotel setting or large chain owned by someone else, the executive chef.

Below Chef comes the chef de cuisine or sous chef, who prepares the most complex dishes, tastes the sauces, hurries the line on when there’s a bottleneck, carries out Chef’s orders and personifies Chef’s philosophy throughout.

These are the seconds-in-command, the lieutenants such as Kosaka has been, rising to executive chef at The Pineapple Room in 17 years with the “Wong Way” gang. A sociology major-turned-construction worker-turned-dishwasher, Kosaka became trusted enough to be on the opening team for Wong’s new restaurants. In 2002, he was among the top ten in the Bertolli Sous Chef Awards.

Kuoha, now chef de cuisine at The Grove, had worked more than half a dozen different places before landing at Morimoto’s. It was a plum job, secure, structured, corporate. But he let DeAngelo pluck him away because he felt he hadn’t yet learned enough; he’d seen young chefs fail when they got too comfortable and thought they knew it all.

Below people like Kuoha, there are the line cooks who work the hot stoves and fryers and other cookery machines.

In a formal kitchen, there are chefs garde manger, who handle only cold foods — salads, certain appetizers, sandwiches or decorative elements. There might be a saucier, who does only sauces. A pastry chef may do anything from breads to desserts.

Then there are prep cooks, who do everything from turning on the lights and the gas, to starting stocks or spending an entire day chopping vegetables or cleaning fish or filling endless mis-en-place containers with minced parsley or picked-over cilantro leaves.

Behind prep, there comes pantry and dishwashing. Many, many of today’s Chefs started there, before slowly moving up–the equivalent of Puna to Honolulu.

Yes, Chef

Everyone with a culinary degree (or the working equivalent) and the right to wear a white jacket may be addressed as “chef” and routinely is so — by expediters calling out orders, by each other (as in, “Behind you with hot, chef.”) or by minions (as in, “Yes, chef. No, chef,” which is about all minions get to say).

But in most kitchens, there is only one Chef. Capital C. The name is always spoken in a detectable, nuanced tone, slightly hushed, with never an article before: not “the chef,” but Chef.

Like God. Only, in the kitchen, God is right next to you saying, “C’mon, c’mon, let’s roll, get it done.” Or maybe he is standing to one side, watching you, evaluating your progress, planning to have what Alan Wong calls “a very long conversation” with you — a conversation that might be acutely uncomfortable but, it is to be hoped, vitally instructive.

Chefs’ are the names on restaurant signs, in newspaper articles and Yelp reviews. Chefs are on “Top Chef” and all its offshoots, give cooking demos in stores and guest lectures at culinary schools.

But any chef whose ego hasn’t outgrown his toque will tell you that, without the invisibles, there would be no Chef.

Though they may have had many mentors, for many who choose cooking as a career there is one Chef for all time. For Kosaka, it’s Wong. For Wong, it’s the legendary Andre Soltner, though he’s careful to credit everyone from his mother to his fourth grade teacher, his KCC and Culinary Institute of America instructors to his staff today.

Kenson and Ha’aha’a

The credit Wong gives others brings us to the surprising answer you get when you ask a Chef what an aspiring culinarian needs to attain lieutenancy, much less Chefhood.

They never mention cooking skill first. Or even second. Or third.

Instead, you hear the same three things over and over. Humility (kenson in Japanese, haahaa in Hawaiian).

Or, as Kuoha says, loyalty. He values it above kitchen skills, which can be learned.

Or, as Kosaka says, character. “I like to work around pleasant people, people who like to be on a team. We all fall down; it’s how you get up. ” He and Watanabe named their business Shinyou (“trust”).

Second, all mention an almost infinite capacity for hard work in a team setting without much credit and for modest pay.

Third. and then they always say they should have said this first: Passion.

The Four Seasons Wailea Executive Chef Roger Stettler, Maui No Ka Oi magazine’s Chef of the Year 2012, defined it thusly: “They have to be hungry to learn. If you don’t have that passion, you will not be able to keep going. It’s hard work.”

In sum, “passion” means seeing beyond the work and the paycheck. It means not letting yourself dwell on any potential fame (because if you’re that kind, the fame will probably never come — except maybe when you’re the first to get cut from “Top Chef.”)

Lance Kosaka’s story of an early kitchen experience is all about that passion. He had completed one fundamentals of cooking class at KCC and got a chance to do an eight-week externship at the Five Diamond Lodge at Ko’ele under Chef Edwin Goto. (This is one strong sign of a potential invisible: They do ill-paid or unpaid work whenever they can, because they want to learn, yearn for more, and hope to make a contact that will open doors.)

“I was so green,” Kosaka remembers. “I had no idea how to hold a knife. Chef would be talking and I wouldn’t even know what he was saying: Mache? Crepinette? Polenta? What is that?” Kosaka remembers.

The first day, his task was to brunoise (cut into 1/16th inch squares) two full restaurant trays of different-colored peppers. It took him the entire day. Then he watched Chef Goto dump them into a turkey stuffing. Talk about invisible. He got the painful message: Perfection is the goal even when it doesn’t seem to matter.

He stirred polenta an hour running, his hands blistered, his shoulders burning. And he’d clock out and stay to help the night-time cooks so he could learn more.

When Kosaka went back to school, he says, he had a whole new perspective: The controlled but frantic pace of the kitchen slowed to classes that seemed like slogging through porridge. But he slogged.

And then, one day, he saw Alan Wong at Mo’ili’ili Market. (Wong jokes now that Kosaka stalked him.) It was 1984, Wong was leaving Maunalani Bay’s Canoe House to open Alan Wong’s Restaurant. Kosaka asked him for a job. “I get dishwashah,” Wong said. Kosaka took ‘em. “I think he really hired me because I had a truck,” Kosaka jokes now. “He needed stuff moved.”

Whatever the reason, it was serendipitous. “To this day, I think starting as a dishwasher is invaluable,” Kosaka says “You learn consideration for others. You don’t make more dishes than you need to. You don’t throw down the pans without saying ‘Hot!’”

Of Wong he says, “He’s not easy. He’s always pushing you to learn.” Now Kosaka tells his team when they ask a question, “Why should I tell you? Look it up.” Then he shows them what Wikipedia or Google can’t tell them–how life really works.

In a similar vein, Kuoha says of Fred DeAngelo, “I don’t ask him questions. I give him options. Then he knows I’m thinking. You have to teach people to think.”

Channeling his mentor, Kosaka says, “This is not a job. This is your craft. The ones who will excel are the ones who really embrace that. It’s definitely not the paycheck.”

Today, Kosaka’s biggest worries aren’t about money or service details or even the food. It’s that he’s got people depending on him now for their livelihoods, and that maybe he’s not teaching them enough.

Watchful eyes

Kuoha, at The Grove, says his chefs hate it when he perches on a barstool at the counter overlooking the hot line, watching. They know he’s not taking a load off his feet.

He’s summing them up. It’s what DeAngelo did to him. It’s what all good seconds-in-command must do, especially when Chef isn’t in the house.

“You have to be open to criticism,” says Roger Stettler, ticking off his top-of-the-list attributes desirable in the kitchen, “‘cause you’re gonna get it.” It starts with Chef and down to Yelp rants from people you don’t even know.

That’s because you don’t really learn from what you’re first taught or told to do in a kitchen, according to Kuoha. You learn by doing, by making mistakes, getting your green branches trimmed and trained, finding your rhythm, becoming both watched and a watcher.

“I step in if I see them struggling. But I teach and then I step out. I empower them to do the right thing,” Kuoha says.

Restaurant work may seem like the same thing every day, but it isn’t. Something always happens.

“My resume might look like I don’t stick with things, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as value (to a new employer). When something happens, that’s when I fall back on my years of training in a lot of different places. I always have an idea,” Kuoha says.

In those moments when he looks over the line as service starts and the mis-en-place is ready and the cooks are lined up and sauces taste great–“when everything is solid,” he says–“it’s fulfillment. You put out great food and the people go away happy and it’s all worth it.”

All this is a good reason not to obsess about whether Chef’s in the kitchen. Whoever’s there may be the next Chef. So if you like what you get, ask who was second in command. And remember the name.