LIHUE – What do you get when you blend the passion of a former competitive bodybuilder, who also spread the flavors of Hawaii throughout the United States, with the meticulous skills of a Kauai born and raised chef?
The answer is a dynamic duo who teaches at Kauai Community College.
In a $3.5 million hands-on kitchen and classroom situation, chef wannabes are guided by instructors in person as well as through oversized flat screen televisions hanging above practice stoves. Students create over and over again in the culinary program, learning the discipline and techniques of the fine art of cooking.
“I encourage the students to make mistakes,” said instructor and executive chef Mark Oyama, “It builds their confidence. They make a mistake one time, it’s OK, but not twice.”
His instruction partner is Martina Hilldorfer, also a longtime executive chef bursting with culinary experience and education from Pennsylvania to Paris to Alaska. Her credentials include executive sous chef, executive chef, and food and beverage director at places like the Hotel Captain Cook, the Westin Maui Hotel and The Sheraton Kauai Hotel.
Since shifting her focus to teaching at KCC nine years ago, she has seen it all. She recalled the faces of those who have made mistakes in the school kitchen.
“They put salt instead of sugar and the food doesn’t taste so good,” Hilldorfer said. “Better they do mistakes here than when they get out in the industry working some place like the Hyatt.”
Recent KCC culinary school graduate Kainoa Kuwabara said the courses were intensive but worthwhile.
“I never thought I would enjoy school as much as I did. They’re really there to push you. Even though it felt like they were really making us work, at the end you realized why. It was hard,” said Kuwabara. “But it all worked out.”
He reflected on early school lab sessions.
“I love hollandaise sauce and I always wanted to learn how to make it. We learned the basic technique,” Kuwabara said. “I think I ate three dozen eggs myself in the first two weeks of classes.”
The 26-year-old switched professions from film stunt work to the culinary arts after he was injured while performing in the film, “Soul Surfer.” Vocational rehabilitation funding provided for the career change. Oyama snatched him up after graduation and put him to work at his 16-year-old business, Mark’s Place, and in the catering side named Contemporary Flavors.
Oyama tells his students, “It’s important to put a lot of soul in the food and a lot of heart.”
Both instructors have a passion for cooking and baking, born out of their family’s inspiration — Hilldorfer from her grandma who cooked for 20 kids every Sunday and Oyama from his uncle.
“When I was in fourth grade I remember watching my uncle bake and cook when we would all get together on weekends. I would just watch everybody enjoy the fruits of his labor. He had a passion for what he did,” Oyama said. “Food is magical. It is at every celebration; the birth of a child, weddings, even when you die.”
Oyama teaches his students that food doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. He believes simple, down-home cooking brings back the old days. He remembered when potlucks were held every weekend with homemade dishes.
“You’d taste all the dishes the old-timers made utilizing all the fresh ingredients from their yard. You don’t see that passion any more. Convenience ruined things in a way. It helps you, but it’s not the same,” Oyama said.
The courses are typically from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. An Associate of Applied Science culinary arts degree takes two years to achieve — about 63 credits — but a shorter, nine credit program can earn participants a certificate. Class sizes are typically about 15 to 20 students who range in age from 17 to 70 years old. The cost per credit of attending KCC is $114.
The fall semester begins Aug. 25 and Hilldorfer will continue to teach the importance of cooking with love.
“You gotta respect the food. Cooking is very zen-like,” said Hilldorfer, who once placed in the Nevada state finals during her competitive bodybuilding days. “You need to be very organized. You don’t slam things; pots and pans and bags of vegetables. If you’re upset when you cook, it doesn’t work.”
And then there is the practical side the students learn as far as career longevity.
“If you can’t make money for a business, why would a business want to hire you?” Oyama said.
With all the tough training and honest criticism from the team of culinary instructors at KCC, Kuwabara is stoked about his future.
“I love it. But it’s not for everybody. If you think you’re going to end up on the Food Network, you probably won’t,” Kuwabara said. “It’s a lot of hard work. But it won’t seem like it if you love it like I do.”