Celebrated chef shares his story

Celebrated chef shares his story

Credit: Honolulu Star Advertiser

The hottest food trend on the mainland right now is something we in Hawaii have taken for granted for generations: poke.

Chef Sam Choy hopes it’s not just a flash in the pan, he told culinary educators at a workshop. Not because he just opened Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max in Seattle after finding success with food trucks there, but because, as he said, “it’s a true taste of Hawaii.”

His Seattle restaurant brings in 1,000 pounds of ahi each week from Hawaii, Choy said.

The Hawai‘i Culinary Education Foundation staged the workshop at ChefZone on Thursday to give high school and community college culinary teachers insights into Choy’s career journey. The educators got to see a demonstration of classic and contemporary poke dishes, and watched the chef prepare a dish from a box of mystery ingredients, among other things.

The gathering also had other components, including a presentation on safety and energy-saving by foundation sponsor Hawai‘i Gas, as well as time for the educators to plan for the coming school year with professional chef-mentors.
In talking about his culinary journey, Choy told stories of how large a role food played in his family while he was growing up in Laie. They raised their own vegetables and chickens, and they would walk to the ocean and fish, taking only what they could eat, he said. “Old Hawaiian ways ensured sustainability,” said Choy. “It was really my mom and dad’s house where I learned about food.”

On Wednesdays, the family went to restaurants he and his siblings chose, which could have been in Honolulu, Kaneohe or the old Crouching Lion Inn. Sundays were all about Chinese food.

“We eat not only to nourish our bodies, but (food) brings a lot of happiness to a lot of people,” he said.
To practice knife skills, Choy went into the family’s backyard garden and used his mother’s vegetables. “I got dirty lickins,” he said, laughing, and suggested that teachers encourage their students to practice their own knife skills on ti leaves, torch ginger stalks and other plants the family isn’t depending on for future meals.

He was hired as a chef’s assistant at Turtle Bay Resort, then known as Kuilima Resort, but learned on his first day that he would instead be a dishwasher. Banging pots and pans around, he angrily finished his shift. When he got home he told his mother he had quit. She persuaded him to stick with it, and he decided to be the best dishwasher he could possibly be. Chefs would share samples of their dishes with him in exchange for expedited washing of certain pans, and one day Choy was put on the line to cook, as someone else had called in sick. His two years of dishwashing duty were over.

“If you have the right attitude, you can fill a room with success,” Choy said.

The following recipe is based on ingredients available in pre-contact Hawaii. Choy’s tip: Serve the poke very, very cold, with beer or a good wine.

Before Captain Cook Poke

  • 1 pound fresh ahi, diced into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon Hawaiian salt
  • 3/4 cup limu kohu (see note) soaked in lightly salted water to allow sand to sink, then squeezed
  • 2 tablespoons inamona (roasted, crushed kukui nuts; see note)
  • 2 Hawaiian bird chilies, minced (optional)

In a bowl, mix ahi with salt and refrigerate 30 minutes.
Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

Note: Limu kohu and inamona can be purchased at Haili’s Hawaiian Foods and Young’s Fish Market. Tamura’s Market in Wahiawa carries inamona. Best to call ahead to confirm availability.

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