Life Lessons From the Kitchen: Q&A with Food Network Star Kaimana Chee

Photo courtesy of Hampton Creek

Photo courtesy of Hampton Creek

Kaimana Chee knows a thing or two about working under pressure. The 39-year-old chef gained major attention after appearing on several popular cooking competition shows, including Master Chef with Gordon Ramsay, Guy’s Grocery Games and Cutthroat Kitchen, which he won back in 2016.

These days, Chee, a native of Hawaii, is busy with several new ventures. Just last fall he celebrated the opening of his first restaurant, Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz, in Fallston, Maryland. He’s also been working as a concierge chef with plant-based food company Hampton Creek. He has dedicated a lot of time, not only to educating the younger generation on eating healthy and promoting better-for-you ingredients in various K-12 schools, but also works closely with education institutions and staffs to bridge the gap between food that tastes great and healthy foods that fit info their nutritional standard. 

We recently caught up with Chef Chee to talk all things culinary, including the biggest lesson he learned from cooking competitively and how he’s sharing his passion for healthy, sustainable cooking.

FoodableTV: First thing’s first: tell us about the moment you fell in love with cooking.

Chee: The first time I fell in love with cooking was probably one of the first times that I was able to cook breakfast for my dad. Breakfast in our family is very big, it’s the start of the day. I think I was in about fifth grade first time I was able to make breakfast by myself for my pops. Seeing how proud he was of me — it ignited that passion at a young age.

FoodableTV: What are three ingredients you love to cook with?

Chee: What I love to cook with the most are any ingredients that are really fresh and in-season. I grew up on a makeshift Hawaiian farm so I became very used to relying on locally-grown and sustainable ingredients without even really realizing it as a kid. We harvested what we had and the rest of the time we used canned goods because we were low income and had a big family. Using fresh ingredients from our farm is how I learned to cook and I really enjoy cooking with the same type of ingredients today —  fish right out of the ocean, fruit right off of a tree, green onions from our yard, things like that.

Photo courtesy of Hampton Creek

Photo courtesy of Hampton Creek

FoodableTV: We imagine that cooking for T.V. and cooking professionally are very different experiences. What did you learn from cooking competitively that has helped you grow as a chef?

Chee: Cooking competitively on T.V. is the absolute opposite of what you learn in a professional kitchen. As a professional chef, you have to know how to plan and organize and really think about why and how you’ll put certain ingredients together. You also think about who will be eating your food. When you’re cooking on a T.V. show, they tell you what to make in a certain amount of time; they give you crazy ingredients and not all of the tools that you need; and then they just make you go because that’s entertaining. But the level of resourcefulness that you learn on a cooking show when you have, say, 30 minutes to shop, cook and plate a dish, is unlike any lesson you’ll learn anywhere else.

FoodableTV: Through your restaurant Uncle Hawaiian’s Grindz and your work with Hampton Creek, it seems like a lot of your work is centered around education, not just from a technical perspective, but from a health perspective, as well. Tell us about some of the things you’ve been working on and why has this become a passion for you?

Chee: It all started January 1, 2015. I started with Hampton Creek as a concierge chef and what that entailed was taking, not only the products made by Hampton Creek, but also the message that delicious food can be accessible, healthy and affordable. I’ve spent time traveling to hospitals and universities showing chefs, not just how to swap out better ingredients in their everyday cooking, but also creative ways to enjoy food that’s healthier and more sustainable.

What I realize is that we all identify our “comfort foods” early in life — that meal we go to when we’re sad or stressed. Take a grilled cheese, for instance, it’s a popular comfort food most of us ate as kids. You take bread, cheese, slather some butter or mayonnaise on it and put it on the grill. It’s delicious, but it’s not the healthiest. By substituting a product like Just Mayo, which is egg-free, dairy-free and Non GMO, you can make it healthier. In addition to teaching the health components of Just Mayo, I also educate chefs about the technical cooking benefits, as Just Mayo holds up really well in high temp / heat cooking applications vs egg-based mayo which breaks down easily, hence a great use in grilled cheese, a base for sauces, to thicken soups, etc. It also has greater viscosity which gives it an extra shelf life.

FoodbleTV: What are some easy ways that restaurants/food companies can focus more on health and sustainability?

Chee: In my restaurant, I work closely with local suppliers within 100 miles. My menu serves modern Hawaiian, so there are certain ingredients that naturally fit better into my menu. However, I’ve made a commitment to the farms I work with to remain sustainable and help minimize food waste. So, for instance, when a farm has told me they have a surplus of beets or green tomatoes, I’ve taken them, even though they are ingredients that are not necessarily something we’d normally offer. But I’ve charged my team to be creative and to create Hawaii-appropriate dishes with these ingredients that fit into our menu.

Another thing I’ve learned about healthy, sustainable cuisine is that when I educate my patrons and provide them with a little more information about where their food is coming from and why a certain dish might be priced a little higher than they’re used to, they understand and they’ll come to expect it. This means purveyors will soon start having to be more transparent and honest with everyone. As restaurateurs, we have to hold our providers and our distributors accountable and then we have to not underestimate the intelligence and integrity of our patrons.

It’s also all about getting to know the farmers who are closer to the source and seeing things from their perspective.  At Hampton Creek, we work with farmers like David Witzaney, fourth generation farmers who are personally invested in the long-term well-being of our land. They give us a direct feed into what it really means when we talk about sustainable ingredients and help us to better understand crops that can better nourish and restore our agricultural landscape.

FoodableTV: Finally, if you could make dinner for one person (dead or alive) who would it be?

Chee: I have a lot of answers for this one but if I had to pick one, I’m going to say my mom. She died when I was 2 1/2 years old in a car accident. She doesn’t get to see where I am today so I would love to cook dinner for her.