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Hanging up his cook's hat


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POSTED: Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Long before trendy restaurants gave customers a glimpse into their kitchens, Mel Cachola performed in full view as a short order cook and entertainer for diners at the Liliha Bakery counter.

Even when a dozen people are waiting for breakfast eggs and meat to be done in a dozen subtly different variations and watching his every move, Cachola is unflappable. He orchestrates the action on grill and griddle, with the backup of veteran waitresses. The salivating customer is tantalized, watching food sizzle and steam and arrive under his chin with no pause under a heat lamp.

"It's like watching a ballet," regular customer Marley Carter told Cachola on a recent stop for lunch. "You don't miss a step. You don't waste a motion."

Cachola, 62, will hang up his crisp white cook's cap and jacket on June 14 after working six days a week for 35 years at the Kuakini Street business, which, in addition to its popular bakery side, has the only old-fashioned diner counter still in business on Oahu.

Cachola hired on as a dishwasher in 1974, his first job after arriving from the Philippines. He was promoted to baker and was tapped in 1980 to be a cook by the former owner, the late Roy Takakuwa.

"My dad saw his qualities. It takes a high level of skill," said Fred Takakuwa. "It was our good fortune to have his skill; part of the success of the business has been having hard-working and talented workers who stay for a long time."

Honolulu entrepreneur Peter Kim, who bought the Liliha business a year ago, agrees with that assessment; he's hosting the farewell party but told Cachola he can return any time.

Nobody remains strangers when eating elbow to elbow, and yesterday was typical. Cachola said the most difficult thing to cook is a "country style" omelet—eggs stir-fried with each eater's choice of meat and veggies, served on rice and topped with thick beef gravy.

Longtime customer Tom Sugita chimed in, taking credit for inspiring the dish.

"Our nickname for it is slop suey," said Sugita. "I was eating vegetarian, but they pointed out if it's gravy, it's meat."

Hearing the conversation, salesman Jordan Wong ordered the dish. Cachola passed the request on to Glenn Cadiz, who is about to take his place on the day shift.

"It's not on the menu," Cachola said. "By'm by, we'd lose money."

"Mel will always do what you ask for," said retiree Leonora Curammeng-Albayalde, who eats lunch at the counter six days a week. "I tell him not too much breading on the fish, or my eggs not too done."

Cachola sported a Louis Vuitton belt, one from his extensive collection, as a style note on the white work uniform. After eight hours on his feet, "I keep my legs strong by walking and jogging."

When wife Zenaida suggests that he cook at home, "I tell her, 'Will you pay me $200 an hour?'" He tends to eat lighter at home than the diner fare, with the accent on vegetables.

Retirement means a new job as grandparent baby sitters for their 7-month-old grandson. Both of their daughters—a physician and a biochemist—live in New York City.

But he's already assuming that won't be a lifetime position.

Said Cachola, "I shall return."