O-FLA JULY 2009—San Shoppell wrote the cryptic missive on a Kapiʻolani Community College classroom board nearly a year before.
Translation: Orlando, Fla., site of the 2009 American Culinary Federation National Convention where four student teams representing four regions of the country would vie for the national championship.
Part assignment (hard work, determination, long hours and endless practice sessions required) and part inspiration (supported by a college, university and state that believed), it also turned out to be an omen.
Six Kapiʻolani culinary students comprised the last team standing among 400 competing for the 2009 student team championship title—and the first to bring the gold home to Hawaiʻi.
“We went in wanting to be winners, and we came out winners,” marvels Shoppell, the team’s captain and, at 47, its surrogate mother (nicknamed Mama San). “We are our own worst critics. We know that everything wasn’t perfect, but we worked really hard and did our best.”
Shoppell was joined by Anna Hirano, Keaka Lee, Tate Nakano-Edwards, Rena Suzuki and Ken Yi in the Fundamentals of Culinary Competition course last fall. The course was designed by Kapiʻolani Professor Frank Leake and taught by Associate Professor Alan Tsuchiyama.
“Friendly culinary competition is a great way to take learning to a whole new level,” says Yi, who was responsible for logistics. “It’s a huge experience for us. The opportunity to compete, improve our skills, network with other chefs and make connections that can help us gain jobs is just awesome.”
Two semesters of intense training under its belt, the team competed in the ACF Western Regional Championship in Seattle in April 2009—a necessary win on the road to Orlando. The three-day competition involved a cold platter preparation, skills competition and four-course meal. By one point, the Hawaiʻi team beat seven other teams from Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Washington.
“The stress of the competition provides students with an amazing experience of what it’s like to work in the industry,” observes Leake. “Their ability to pull together as a team made a huge difference.”
In national competition, the team faced regional winners from Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, who all had previous experience at the national level. They had to prepare a four-course signature menu for 24, with 3 hours 20 minutes to prep and cook, 40 minutes to plate and serve and 30-minutes on either end for setup and cleanup.
Teams are judged on everything from taste and presentation to skills in the kitchen, including how they cleaned up their workstation and even how they discarded their food waste.
“Some judges have been known to dump out the trash cans right there on the counter and inspect what was thrown in the trash,” laughs Leake.
“It was really intense,” says Nakano-Edwards, who was responsible for the competition entrée. “The judges are watching your every move. They’re watching your sauce to make sure it’s simmering and not boiling. The littlest things make a big difference.”
The smallest of margins made the difference in Team Hawaiʻi’s win’nine-hundredths of a point.
Team Hawaiʻi Menu
Appetizer: Big Island Trio, prepared by San Shoppell
- Poached farm-raised Big Island butterfish on a bed of sautéed spinach, fennel and red onion, daikon, chutney and a passion-orange guava sauce
- Kiawe-apple smoked wild-caught Hawaiian opah sprinkled with Kīlauea black sea salt, garnished with a pea sprout, accompanied by creamed corn and peas with chili oil
- Grilled Kona kampachi served with a cucumber-avocado relish, tomato tapenade and citrus beurre blanc
Salad: Nalo Medley, prepared by Rena Suzuki
- Baby Nalo greens and asparagus salad with a lemon-anchovy vinaigrette
- Blue cheese mousse served on tomato aspic with an herbed parmesan crisp
- Golden and red beets, marinated daikon, candied walnuts, fried goat cheese sphere and Granny Smith apple pesto
Entrée: Pan-Pacific Duckling Mélange, prepared by Tate Nakano-Edwards
- Marinated, sautéed duck breast served with a Hawaiian pohā berry sauce and a garnish of fried leeks
- Duck sausage
- Braised hoisin duck wrapped in cabbage and garnished with cracklings
- Seared foie gras and aliʻi mushroom, potatoes au gratin, sautéed baby zucchini and patty pan squash and mango salsa
Dessert: Tastes of the Aloha State, prepared by Keaka Lee
- Raspberry and chocolate chiboust terrine with a Kona coffee tuile, served with lilikoʻi and berry sauces
- Braised Maui pineapple on a macadamia nut cookie
- Coconut sorbet served in an orange tuile cup
- Macerated fruits and a dusted raspberry
“It was really close, but we knew we had a shot when all the judges agreed that they would love to have our meal served to them in a restaurant,” says Leake. “They deemed our appetizer and dessert courses the best of the competition, so we opened the show and closed the show with the best.”
Coincidentally, those were courses heavy on Hawaiian flavors and ingredients—Big Island butterfish, opah, Kona Kampachi, Kīlauea black sea salt, Kona coffee, lilikoʻi sauce and coconut sorbet.
The students were overwhelmed not only by their win, but by the outpouring of community support that made it possible for them to compete despite a sagging economy.
Taking into account food for practice sessions and the competition, travel expenses and seed money for next year’s team, they calculated they would need to raise at least $40,000 in just two months…while perfecting their performance.
Adopting coach Tsuchiyama’s philosophy—it’s not “practice makes perfect,” but “perfect practice makes perfect”—they used practice sessions both to hone their skills and menu and to fundraise.
Weekly practice sessions in June were opened to diners willing to pay for a preview luncheon. Seats sold out quickly. Guests offered critiques and advice on how to improve the dishes.
“We could not have achieved our dream of bringing home the national championship if not for the generosity and phenomenal support of the community,” says Shoppell.
That includes contributions from Hawaiʻi’s culinary industry, from a fundraising dinner supported by famed Hawaiʻi Chef Roy Yamaguchi to networking opportunities offered by local chefs to food product donations received from local companies like Big Island Goat Cheese, Ho Farms, Kona Blue Water Farms and Nalo Farms. Whole Foods Market provided a portion of net sales during community support day at the Kāhala store.
The team also received cash donations from Carole Kai Charities/Great Aloha Run and the Honolulu Confrérie de Chaîne des Rôtisseurs gastronomic society, among many others, bringing the tally to more than $60,000 to date.
“I’m grateful to the donors for giving our students this chance,” says Carol Hoshiko, Kapiʻolani Community College dean of culinary, hospitality and college advancement. “Their accomplishment is a testament to the quality of all of our UH community college culinary programs. It illustrates to the rest of the country that Hawaiʻi is a destination of choice for world-class culinary training.”
“They’ve arrived, and they’ve put themselves and Hawaiʻi on the map,” seconds Leake. “The doors are open for them now, and they’ve definitely earned it.”
Team members go their separate ways, hoping their accomplishment inspires more interest in competition among Culinary Institute of the Pacific students across the UH System to defend Hawaiʻi’s regional and national champion titles in 2010.
“We really appreciate everyone’s kindness throughout our journey,” says Shoppell. “Most importantly, we thank everyone for believing in Team Hawaiʻi.”
Kapiʻolani culinary program spotlighted at White House Luau
Just a couple of weeks before he coached Kapiʻolani Community College’s Team Hawaiʻi to a national championship at the American Culinary Federation’s 2009 Student Team National Competition in Orlando, Fla., Associate Professor Alan Tsuchiyama was cooking for President Barack Obama at the White House.
Invited by famed Hawaiʻi chef and Kapi’olani alumnus Alan Wong, Tsuchiyama and Conrad Nonaka, director of the University of Hawaiʻ Culinary Institute of the Pacific, were part of Wong’s team that prepared the food for the annual Congressional Picnic held local style by President Obama.
“I was blown away when I was asked to assist at the White House,” said Tsuchiyama. “While prepping the food, we got a surprise visit from President Obama. He shook everyone’s hand and asked our names. He has so much aloha and it showed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Tsuchiyama and Nonaka helped prep menu items like kalua pig, hoisin baby back ribs, mochiko chicken, tilapia tempura sandwich, mac nut coconut lamb chops and more.
Before their departure, Tsuchiyama and Nonaka enjoyed a White House tour, including a look at the vegetable garden, and got one final thank you and handshake from Obama.
“Being in our logo uniform at this event, the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, Kapiʻolani Community College and the UH Community Colleges overall received high recognition,” says Nonaka.
“It demonstrated that Hawaiʻi has a great culinary education program that top chefs and restaurateurs such as Alan Wong are willing to make a part of their team.”