Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Sandy Kodama organizes a work station at Sansei Seafood
Restaurant & Sushi Bar. Her favored position, though, is
at the fryer during special off-site events. "My fingers
can walk through hot oil, you know," she says.
"I have asbestos hands."

Chef Mom

Veteran cooks pick their sons'
restaurants over retirement

By Betty Shimabukuro

Sandy Kodama had six kids -- five of them big, hungry boys. Every Sunday she turned 10 pounds of ground beef into patties for "hamburger night." One of her boys, she swears, could eat 20 of them.

"I cooked big," she says.

The kids grew up, moved out. Her kitchen, you'd think, would get a rest. Then one of the boys -- not the 20-burger one, but the one who could eat a gigantic slab of prime rib and call it an appetizer -- decided to open a restaurant.

Bottom line, Sandy Kodama is still cooking big. You can find her in the kitchen at Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar, supervising a young cook who has his hands submerged in 2 gallons of chocolate brownie dough.

Stir with your hands, she says, "that's what makes them chewy."

Kay Nishida taught her son, Colin, the basics of
cooking, but says he considers her food too bland.
If he uses one of her recipes in his restaurants,
he always spices it up, she says.

THIS IS NOT a treatise on women chefs or on women chefs who are also mothers. Lots of women nowadays are running restaurant kitchens, launching restaurants and passing restaurants on to their own daughters.

This a Mother's Day story about a few women in their early 70s who could be restfully retired now, but are instead working in their sons' kitchens -- not because cooking is their chosen profession, but because their boys need them.

Hey, that's what mothers do.

KAY NISHIDA learned to make won ton for her husband's 60th birthday party. A neighbor taught her. "When we cooked the first batch, all the ugly-looking ones were made by me."

But she became a won-ton maker of confidence. "When Colin opened his restaurant, he said, 'I need won ton.' So I said, 'I know how to make won ton.' "

D.K. and Sandy Kodama, above, take a break at
Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar.

This is how Kay Nishida began dedicating five hours every Sunday, in an echo of hamburger night at the Kodamas, to making the pork-and-shrimp dumplings, 300 at a time.

They go into the freezer and are fried up at her son's restaurant, Side Street Inn. If his mom didn't make the won ton, Colin Nishida says, "it wouldn't be on the menu. It's too much work."

Kay Nishida also makes pickles for Side Street -- 20 pounds a month -- and keeps her son's books. A retired bookkeeper, she says spending her days this way gets her out of the house and keeps her sharp. "It's a good retirement."

Formula for 300 won ton: 11 pounds ground pork, 2 pounds shrimp, 6 cans water chestnuts, 3 bundles green onion, 5 tablespoons salt, 4 tablespoons pepper (more or less), 9 packages pi. Used to be 11 packages pi, but Kay Nishida likes to pack them tight with meat, so they turn out big, fat and round. None of them are ugly. "All nice kind."

Colin and Kay Nishida with trays of her won tons.

WHAT THEY BRING to a restaurant kitchen, besides homegrown cooking knowledge, is the work ethic of another generation.

Alan Wong's mother, Terry, was a veteran of Japanese restaurants when she started "poking her head in," as her son puts it, at his King Street kitchen.

Wong describes his mother as a tiny Japanese woman who has no fear. Instead, she inspires fear in others. Her self-appointed job, he says, is to teach the staff respect, manners and her good sense of taste and order.

"She'll taste something somebody made and say, 'Too much salt,' or, 'Not enough salt,' or, 'That's sloppy.' "

Cross her, or fail to learn the lessons she teaches the first time, and you catch scoldings. "I love it when she starts scolding them because she's an extension of me," Wong says. "She's always looking out for the restaurant."

One major violation: waste. "They never throw anything away, that generation," he says. "She sees anybody wasting stuff, they get scoldings from Mama. ... She's always looking in the garbage can."

Terry Wong normally works the appetizer station on weekends, but she's been out of the kitchen all this year because cataracts kept her from driving at night. She had surgery in February and is vacationing with friends in Japan. But Wong says she'll be back and he'll be glad to have her.

When she first started bossing his crew, "they didn't know whether to listen to her or to listen to me." In the end -- "they listen to Mama."

THESE MOMS didn't teach these chefs to cook so much as they taught them to eat.

D.K. Kodama, Sandy's son (she's one of the few people who calls him "Dave"), says he and his brothers, all baseball players, would come home starving every day and head for the good smells in the kitchen. "I remember watching her cook when I was small. It was like breathing in."

Breathing in, as in absorbing the concept of good cooking, if not the specifics.

Wong says he never cooked at home -- "One time, I wen boil one hot dog and the buggah wen blow up" -- but learned from his mother to value food done right, especially Japanese classics such as gyoza, nishime, kinpira gobo, chawan mushi ...

"I would say from an early age I was blessed with good-tasting food on the table. Not elaborate, but always good-tasting."

A bit of Sandy Kodama's influence shows on the Sansei menu -- her brownies and her black-bean crab. A version of Kay Nishida's cornflake chicken is on the menu at Fort Street Bar & Grill, her son's second restaurant.

The Nishida boys (three of them, "my bozus," their mother calls them) did learn the cooking basics, beginning with making rice after school. "All my kids can fend for themselves.

OF THESE WOMEN, only Terry Wong is on the payroll, earning a minimum amount to safeguard her Social Security. Kay Nishida says she takes her compensation "in fringe benefits" -- dinners out, for example. "And he bought me a new van." What does she need with a van? "To take his (six) dogs around."

Hey, that's what mothers do.

Sandy Kodama works every night at Sansei, mostly greeting customers, pouring water and tea, occasionally serving food. She also helps in the kitchen and serves as sounding board/counselor to the staff (they all call her Mom, by the way, just as Wong's staff calls his mother Mama).

"She works so hard and she doesn't even get paid," son D.K. says. "She hasn't asked. Of course, the best thing about her not getting paid is she can't get fired."

Yeah, like he'd fire his own mother.

She says she doesn't need money and she's having so much fun and meeting so many exciting people that a salary is unnecessary, anyway. "I just turned 70 and I feel 31."

Two weeks ago, action hero Steven Seagal came to Sansei, D.K. says. "She goes up to him and says, 'Hi, I'm Mom.' "

His mother grins broadly. "He's so cute, you know."

Mom's Day demo

Featuring: D.K. and Sandy Kodama preparing Asian Bouillabaisse
When: Noon Saturday
Place: Liberty House Ala Moana, fourth-floor kitchen
Tickets: $10 to guarantee a seat and sample, otherwise free
Call: 941-2345

Just like
Mom makes


Smoked Chicken

Kay Nishida

1 4-5 pound frying chicken
Handful Hawaiian salt
1 bunch green onions, roots removed
1 small bunch cilantro, roots removed
Vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
>> Marinade:
2-1/2 cups soy sauce
1 pound (1 box) brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup whiskey
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1-inch piece ginger, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Rub chicken inside and out with salt. Fold onions and cilantro and stuff into cavity of chicken.

Combine marinade ingredients in a blender and blend to make a sauce. Place chicken in a large plastic bag and pour in marinade. Secure bag and refrigerate overnight. Occasionally, shake bag so chicken marinates evenly.

Remove chicken, reserving marinade. Rub chicken with oil. Place in smoker for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, or bake in a 350-degree oven until done. May also be roasted in a rotisserie.

To make gravy: Bring reserved marinade to a boil, remove scum and thicken with a teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in water.

Nutritional information unavailable.

Pickled Cucumbers

Sandy Kodama (thanks to Bessie Tokunaga)

2 Japanese cucumbers, sliced in 1/4-inch rounds.
2 tablespoons sugar
>> Sauce:
1/4 cup vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ko-choo jung sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

Combine cucumbers with sugar and let sit while preparing sauce.

Combine sauce ingredients.

Squeeze excess water out of cucumbers. Mix well with sauce. Refrigerate.

Pickles can be eaten immediately or after several days. Makes about 4 cups.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per 1/4 cup serving: 25 calories, 0.5 g total fat, no saturated fat or cholesterol, 300 mg sodium, 1 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate.*

Oatmeal Cake

Sandy Kodama (thanks to Aunty Marge)

1-1/2 cups boiling water
1 cup oatmeal (not quick-cooking)
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, well-beaten
1/2 cup butter
1-1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
>> Topping:
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour boiling water over oatmeal and let stand 20 minutes.

Add sugars, eggs and butter to oatmeal. Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Add to oatmeal mixture and stir well.

Pour into a greased 13-by-9-inch pan. Bake 30 minutes.

To make topping: Combine ingredients and spread over baked cake. Place under a broiler until bubbly and golden brown.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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