Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, October 20, 1999

By Anthony Sommer, Star-Bulletin
Patricia Rule-Wong, left, spent 18 years as a professional
cook, but is back in school to get her degree. At 52, Marlo
Merano is the oldest class member. Retired from the Air
Force, he's training for a second career.

Kauai culinary
students serve up
the meal deal du jour

They learn by doing, and
diners-in-the-know reap the benefits

By Anthony Sommer
Kauai correspondent


PUHI, Kauai -- This is a pretty well-kept secret even on Kauai, so try to keep it under your hat: Four days a week you can chow down on a gourmet lunch for not much more than you would pay at a fast-food restaurant. Not a little sampler meal, but a full-blown, multicourse, to-die-for pig-out feed with appetizer and dessert.

This isn't a private club. It's open to the public and it's all right there in the dining hall at Kauai Community College. The chefs and servers are students in the college's Culinary Arts Program.

Lunch is their laboratory and, yes, the customers are the guinea pigs. If it's any measure of their satisfaction, there is a daily ritual at which the student chefs come into the dining room and tell which foods they prepared. The applause is always enthusiastic.

The only catch is they can only serve 32 meals a day and they have lots of repeat customers -- many of whom don't share this knowledge with even their best friends -- so you have to make reservations pretty early.

The lunches are not advertised because when the school tries, "the commercial restaurants start raising hell about unfair competition," says instructor Biruta Eilers, who usually serves as hostess and takes reservations.

Complaints come from the guys with the two all-beef patties, special sauce and sesame-seed buns, she notes. Upscale places such as A Pacific Cafe and Roy's Poipu Bar and Grill are supportive and regularly come to the college to recruit students.

Wednesdays and Fridays are reserved for first-year students, and they put on something called "Coffee Shop," which is misleading because no coffee shop anywhere serves meals like this.

On a recent week the Coffee Shop celebrated Oktoberfest with navy bean soup or German potato salad followed by a choice of wurst in beer sauce with potato pancakes and sauerkraut; chicken cutlet ala Holstein, Savoyarde potatoes and braised red cabbage; or shrimps in beer batter with rice pilaf and buttered peas. Dessert was Black Forest cake, chocolate genoise or raisin rice pudding. Cost: $8. And no tax because it's a state school.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays second year students, offer "Fine Dining."

A recent week's menu: For an appetizer, a choice of crisp brie baby greens with a lilikoi vinaigrette and toasted macadamia nuts, or steamed New Zealand green mussels with a red coconut curry sauce. Entree choices were Chinese-style osso bucco with black-bean gremolata and ginger mashed potatoes, or sauteed salmon over straw and hay pasta with shrimp and pancetta sauce. Dessert was macadamia-nut praline cheesecake with Kahlua Kona coffee creme anglaise, or cherries jubilee over vanilla ice cream, flambeed tableside. Cost: $12.50. Really.

"The price pays for the food. The labor, of course, is free," said Eilers.

There are 56 students enrolled in the program, and 40 on a waiting list.

Is there a demand in Hawaii for chefs?

"Any of these kids can go to Honolulu today and be working by sundown," Eilers said.

The students not only prepare and serve the meals (being a server is the best job because you get to eat the food beforehand so you can describe it to customers), they also run the adjoining cafeteria used by the college students.

Assignments rotate daily.

All of this goes on under the tutelage of Assistant Professor (and former executive chef) Clarence Nishi, who 10 years ago took a bare-bones one-year course and turned it into a two-year, degree-producing program that's a must-see stop on every campus tour.

Nishi himself didn't start out to be a chef. A Honolulu native, he spent three years studying engineering at Colorado University, when he figured out he was having a lot more fun working as a cook in Estes Park, Colo., during summer breaks.

Later, when he was a professional chef, he realized he liked the teaching part of the job as much as the cooking. And he likes people as much as he likes food.

"The chefs at all of the island's good restaurants call us first when they need someone," he said. "But we're also training cooks who will be more comfortable working in a mom-and-pop restaurant. These are country kids."

That thing about getting up in front of the customers and announcing what you prepared is very much Nishi's doing and it's rehearsed every day before the customers come. "You can't be shy in this business. You have to be able to speak to people."

Nishi meets regularly with the executive chefs on the island and much of the course reflects their input. "The most important thing to them is to have employees who show up on time in uniform and ready to cook. We spend a lot of time on self-discipline."

Which is not to say this is a dreary group. The kitchen at the community college is one of the happiest, friendliest places on the island.

"The English teachers keep complaining our students are out of control but English teachers are pretty stodgy," Eilers said. "Cooks traditionally are party people and that's part of our program, too."

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