Maple glazed wild salmon with fennel salad, saute green beans and wild rice ($19.95 but part of a full meal), one of our favorites prepared by the HCC students.

Hello, Hilo: Dining at Bamboo Hale

A look inside Hawaii Community College's culinary program
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Now that the pursuit of culinary arts has been elevated around the world, it's neat to see talented young chefs blossom from students to industry powerhouses. If you haven't already, check out your nearest community college's student-run restaurant to see (and support) its culinary school and get a glimpse of our future in dining.

I recently went to Hilo with my coworkers primarily to — believe it or not — visit Hawaii Community College's Bamboo Hale, the restaurant in which second-year students put their classroom knowledge and skills to practical use. They learn everything about running and working in a restaurant, from cooking and waiting tables to workflow, nutritional considerations and business principles. Not all of them will end up as chefs; some go on to front-of-the-house management, product development, and other related careers. Most end up at Kona resorts, but some will venture to Oahu or the mainland.

Brian Hirata in the HCC classroom with his students.

Chef/instructor Brian Hirata (originally from Pearl City) gave us a little tour of the school and had us meet his students — all of whom stay in the same learning pod for the entire two years. About 60 percent of them make it all the way through, with the bulk of changes in the first two semesters. "Many of them find their more appropriate career path," Hirata explained.

Unlike four-year colleges (which usually takes people longer to finish), you can fast track yourself to your career with this two-year program. It's also much easier on your finances, as you could get through the program for about $5000. Prerequisites only include a high school diploma or GED. There's no test to be enrolled in culinary program, although they will use various other measurements (like high school grades) to determine where to place students for their general education courses such as math and English. Just thought I'd put that out there in case you were thinking of a career in culinary arts.

Gem Nishimura of Hawaii Mom Blog treated us to lunch — you get a salad, soup AND entree for about $19, which is an exceptional value. The students create menus inspired by cuisines around the world throughout the semester, and on this week, they were exploring Mexico. I can't show you everything we ate since that would be too much. What a deal, right? I'll just show you some of our favorites. To see her write up on Hawaii Mom Blog and the menu schedule, click here.

Pork chalupa salad, with house masa crouton, achiote braised pork belly, cabbage slaw and fresh salsa. We loved that this was unique, like a deconstructed taco salad.
Tarta de queso, or cheese tart, from the Mexican menu. People make savory bread puddings, so why not make a savory cheesecake? 
We loved the seafood "causa," a salad comprised of shrimp and ahi escabesche, potato puree and aji amarillo emulsion. It does seem like there's a lot going on in this plate, but the flavors and textures all worked together very well. It wasn't as spicy as it looked, but there were a lot of rich flavors and varying crunches. 
The New England style seafood chowder was pretty decadent, which was quite a surprise for the value (and considering it was just for classroom purposes). There were scallops, oysters and shrimp, which provided a surprise in each bite. 
The black bean soup didn't look like much, but it was one of our favorites, as well. It was very comforting, but it still had a bit of spice, thanks to the chorizo.
Tamales two ways: pork en mole amarillo, Oaxacan mole verde, poblano chile and queso, chipotle salsa and refried pinto beans. This was good, but super filling! I felt bad that we left so much behind, but we just couldn't finish it.
Stonehenge! Actually, it's a cumin and lime pork loin withe sweet potato mash, tomato and squash salad, and chimichurri. The pork was moist and tender, and the sides provided just the right amount of sweetness to bring out the flavor.
We ordered all three desserts offered, but our favorite was the peanut butter mousse cake ($4.60). Anything with peanut butter and chocolate is full of win, right? We loved that the desserts were all subtly sweet. 
Hirata, right, with student Jesse in an area being renovated for the school. HCC is the oldest of the culinary schools in the state, but is the last to get a facelift.

We were all really impressed with the students' professionalism and skills, and I think you will be, too. There are usually a lot of kinks to work out when dining at a student-run facility, but these kids nailed it. It's also a much better value than other community college restaurants ... you just have to get yourself to Hilo!

If you're interested in dining at Bamboo Hale, it's open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Reservations are requested. 

If you're interested in enrolling in the HCC culinary program, early registration starts April 9. For more information, click here.

Bamboo Hale
Hawaii Community College
1175 Manono St.