Course Correction – part two

This is the second part of my story about how I found my way back into the kitchen after a near career-ending injury. Read Part 1.

chang2I set a goal — to find a way to cook at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. Given all the chefs I had met, I was sure one of them wouldn’t mind having an extra pair of hands. I was surprised at how easy this turned out to be once I had become clear in what I wanted.

While talking to Kealoha Domingo about a fundraiser for Papahana Kualoa, I mentioned that I had always wanted to experiment with sour poi to make sourdough bread. Domingo had lots of pa‘i‘ai from the lo‘i at Papahana. “Here,” he said. “Go make me some to use for the fundraiser.”

Sour Dough 4A month later, I returned with my first batch of pa‘i‘ai sourdough. The fundraiser was rained out, but Domingo liked the bread so much he asked me to make some for Papahana Kualoa’s event at the festival.

When the day arrived, I was filled with anxious excitement. I showed up with pa‘i‘ai sourdough loaves and croutons.

To my surprise, word had gotten around with the other chefs.

9684482528_e6f7848e93_hChef Ed Kenney was talking with his Town Restaurant chef Dave Caldiero, Onopops’ Josh Welch and TV personality Adam Richman. “Don’t you go anywhere,” Kenney called out. “I have some questions about your pa‘i‘ai sourdough.”

Even after four years out of the game, I could still make people take notice. It was a great ego boost. I started to believe I could do it. Despite some lingering nerve damage in my hand, I still had the skills to make it in the food industry. I now set a new goal — to work in a kitchen again.

Even so, I wasn’t prepared for a meeting a few weeks later with Monica Toguchi, the owner of Highway Inn. We met at the restaurant’s new Kakaako location to talk about my helping with the soft opening.

Interior construction was still being done, and the air smelled of sawdust and paint. The custom furniture that was due from Vietnam had been delayed almost a month by a typhoon.

FaleafineSomehow, the conversation turned. We started talking about my becoming Highway Inn’s pastry chef. It hit home when Toguchi showed me the display case, which was still wrapped in protective plastic. “This is your pastry case,” she said. “Now you have to fill it.”

That was last fall. Just before the soft opening, I wrote a letter to a friend who had supported me through this four-year odyssey.

“Today is a big day for me. Nearly five months ago I set goals to get back into cooking. My short-term goal was not just to cover the event; I wanted to cook at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, which I was able to do. My next goal was to work in a restaurant again, and today, I am helping to open Highway Inn Kaka‘ako.

Hoang2Last night I put on one of my old chef coats to see if it would still fit. It actually was loose due to the weight I have lost since beginning my journey back to the kitchen. Because I hadn’t worn it for so long, having the coat on felt strange, and self-doubt began to kick in. Am I ready? Do I still have what it takes?

I got up early this morning after only two hours’ sleep. As soon as I got to the kitchen, I thought, ‘I’m home.’”



Party pics: Sailor Jerry Hangover Breakfast

Young’s Market closed out the Pacific Ink Expo with a special “Sailor Jerry Hungover Breakfast” that took place Tuesday evening At Downbeat Lounge. Along with breakfast grub, plenty of Sailor Jerry drinks flowed throughout the gathering.

Sailor Jerry’s Brand Ambassador Paul Monahan was on hand to share stories along with spiced rum cocktails like the “Old Ironside” and my personal favorite, “Shave and a Haircut.”

Sailor Jerry Hangover Breakfast

Photo by Ed Morita

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Course Correction – part one

okimoto 2Recently a friend read my palm and observed that my lifeline forked and then merged, indicating that my life had gone off course before returning to its intended path. Not one to believe in palm reading, I nevertheless couldn’t help thinking she was right.

In 2009, I was the Pastry Chef at Longhi’s Restaurant. My right hand was crushed in a work accident.

No bones were broken, so I expected to be back at work as soon as the swelling went down. Instead I learned that there are far worse injuries than broken bones.

hand x-rayIt took two weeks for the swelling in my hand to go down enough for the doctor could get a good look at the severity of my injury and begin to prescribe any real treatment.

As my rehabilitation progressed, it became apparent to the doctors and physical therapists that I had severe nerve damage in my hand. At one point, my therapy began to regress due to the pain from my hand traveling up the nerves in my arm affecting my elbow, shoulder and eventually causing radiculitis in my neck. Despite the funny name, the pain was debilitating and would leave me sprawled out on the floor at home, unable to move.

Fifteen months after my accident, following surgery and painful rehab, I still had not regained much strength or dexterity. One day a thick envelope came in the mail from the insurance company. A line on page 28 read, “Based on the results of the functional capacity evaluation … the employee is unable to return to his usual customary job as a pastry chef.”

I was devastated. I had spent 10 years honing my skills in a craft that I loved, and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and spent weeks in despair.

ozawaGranted, during my time on worker’s compensation, I had begun to transition into photography and professional blogging, however I never intended on an actual career change. These were distractions to keep me occupied while I waited for clearance to return to the kitchen. I wrote about this in a 2011 blog post titled “Identity Crisis.”

Now these distractions were my career. Many viewed this as an ideal life. I was paid to eat at the best restaurants, attend events and go to concerts.

electionWith my camera, I worked behind the scenes helping Gov. Neil Abercrombie, then-Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, Sen. Mazie Hirono and Mayor Kirk Caldwell get elected. Despite all this, I look back at this period as the least productive of my life.

There came a point when I had to choose between continuing with the Hirono Senate campaign or blogging for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. While I made good money working for the campaign, the crossroads made me realize that even though I could no longer work in the food industry, I still wanted to be a part of it.

okimotoI had convinced myself that covering events was enough. It enabled me to forge relationships with some of the best chefs from Hawaii and around the world. However, as the 2013 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival approached, I realized that instead of connecting me to the industry, my camera disconnected me from what I truly loved. I had the skills to be cooking at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, yet I had allowed limiting beliefs like, “I’m not good enough,” convince me that it was okay to become a spectator in my own life.

I decided I could no longer use my injured hand as an excuse.

I set a goal—find a way to cook at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.

Party pics: Le Diner en Blanc

The international dining experience, Le Diner en Blanc, took place Saturday night for the first time in Hawaii. Equal parts pop-up and flash mob, guests are brought to an undisclosed location with instructions to bring, a table, chairs, table settings, and to dress all in white.

For the inaugural event, hosts Maleko McDonnell, Aubrey Akana and Malie Moran brought bus loads of people decked out in their best white outfits to dine on the grounds of the historic Iolani palace.

Le Diner en Blanc

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Did this: 2014 Mangoes at the Moana

Summer brings mango season, which means it’s time for the annual Mangoes at the Moana. Chefs from the Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Waikiki, MW, Town, Koko Head Cafe and more were on hand with mango-themed dishes to celebrate the popular tropical fruit.

Here’s a look:

Mangoes at the Moana 2014

Chef Dave Caldiero of Town Restaurant with his Mexican Street Cones.

Photo by Ed Morita

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