Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photo by Jack Wolford
Grilled eggplant and caramelized onions on arugula with fennel, croutons and roast garlic vinaigrette. A gazpacho of fresh Big Island vegetables. A savory Spanish paella with shrimp, clams, chicken and housemade ham and sausage. A delicate crème caramel and cinnamon-dusted churros capped by a strawberry. Not exactly your average college cafeteria lunch.
Every spring, Hawai‘i Community College in Hilo opens its Bamboo Hale dining room to the public. From 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., those with reservations (call (808) 934-2591) can dine on a gourmet meal prepared by the students in the final semester of the college’s award-winning Culinary Arts Program, which for half a century has prepared young chefs to work in the island’s luxury resort restaurants. “This is the equivalent of a $60 to $70 meal at a restaurant,” notes head chef-instructor Allan Okuda (right). But the most expensive entrée is $17.25 (which includes appetizer and salad).
The program emphasizes fresh, local and sustainable food. Much of the produce is grown by HCC’s agriculture and Hawaiian Lifestyle programs; local ranchers and farmers supply most of the rest. The balls of sweet, creamy ricotta cheese in the appetizers, for instance, come fresh from a goat dairy in Ahualoa.
Four of the Hilo program’s five instructors graduated from HCC themselves and became successful chefs before returning to share what they’ve learned. Sandy Rivera, lead chef-instructor for second-year students, was executive chef at Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea; Brian Hirota was head chef at Alan Wong’s at the Four Seasons. Allan Okuda went from the program into the Army, where he cooked for then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded US forces in Vietnam.
Students cut their culinary teeth in the school cafeteria, which sports a trophy case full of awards the program and its students have garnered over the years. In the winter semester of their second year, the aspiring young chefs work in The Café, cooking bistro-type cuisine for the public before finishing their skills in the spring at the Bamboo Hale. The college’s West Hawai‘i campus in Kealakekua hosts a sister program with its own fine-dining room.