The Call of the Kitchen

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Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, seen here in a 1978 photo riding in an Aloha Festivals pa?u unit, is a lifelong horse rider and has always cared deeply for her horses. Janet Van Bebber of the American Quarter Horse Association, says that Kawananakoa will be remembered for how she treated her horses—ensuring they were rested and providing them with the best pastures. “She raised the bar.” (photo by Honolulu Star-Advertiser).

FOR 53 BY THE SEA EXECUTIVE CHEF, LANCE KOSAKA, THE KITCHEN HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE HUB OF COMMUNICATION, GATHERINGS, FAMILY AND FRIENDS. The Aiea native has the fondest childhood memories of spending time near the stove, especially with his mom and aunty. “I remember making pancakes with my mom and trying to make a dutch baby in the skillet. I though it was incredible this little batter could climb up the sides of the pan batter could climb up the sides of the pan and I just enjoyed it, my aunties and my mom … they were the best cooks and it was really nice,” he reminisces.

The sights, scents and the moments shared together meant a lot to the child who grew up as one of two siblings with a passion for delicious food. “It always meant that family was together and it was nice because everybody was one in the kitchen, we would eat a little bit and talk story and so I think that is what drew me to cooking,” Kosaka adds. Even after high school the theme of solidarity and community in the kitchen grew stronger at the University of Hawai‘i, where the ‘Iolani School graduate studied sociology and gathered with friends in the kitchen. “Cooking always brought people together, even when we were in the dorms … and I always enjoyed it.”

As a child, Kosaka admits he would man the hibachi grill and was always willing to help his mom with making meals. But once he set out into the real world with a college degree he thought it was best to get a job work- ing in the fuel dispensing industry. “I worked in construction with Kagami Inc. They are a super nice family. I used to do a lot of the gas lines, service stations and even acquired my certification to work on pump calibration and essentially help the construction guys.”

But his desire to be in the kitchen continued to grow and he eventually opted to go out on a limb and pursue his passion by registering for culinary school. “I started my official culinary training really late, when I was 24 years-old, which is later than most. I wanted to try before I got tied down and I wouldn’t be able to change. I dropped everything and I told my boss ‘I want to go to culinary school’ and they were extremely supportive and nice, they even helped me buy my books and my knives to start.”

Kosaka acknowledges he has been fortunate to have the love and support of so many on his quest to find his life’s purpose. He believes back in college he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do, but found that his calling was
to be in the kitchen—where he had no professional experience and no formal training. “I have been fortunate along the way, people have been good to me and I am very thankful for that. I think at first, I felt that being older was a setback because everyone starts so young—and I had no idea since I had never worked in an actual kitchen before. I was far behind but it also drives you.”

At that time, the aspiring chef seized an opportunity to stage (unpaid intern- ship) at Roy’s Restaurant. The stage with culinary school also led to new opportunities to work as an extern at The Lodge at Koele with Chef Edwin Goto. “He was a great chef, very patient and the people on Lana’i were so nice,” he says. “I took so long to do things, but I got there and they were so kind to me. Getting hands-on experience was priceless. I was only supposed to stay three months but they let me stay seven [months] and also invited me to come back.”

In 1995, acclaimed Hawaii Regional Cuisine pioneer Alan Wong opened his flagship King Street location and Kosaka was anxious to get his foot in the door. The only opportunity available was a dishwasher position, so he took it. “I got to move up quickly and it was a great place to learn at that time. Everyone worked really hard together. What I learned was that if you don’t love it you are not going to do well. This industry is not an easy industry. Before I even started this whole journey I spoke with some people and they were like ‘Why? You are making good money in construction and you are going to leave to make mini- mum wage or less?’ I realized you have to be passionate. If you are in it from the beginning for piety and to get rich, it is not going to work.” After nearly two decades at Alan Wong’s, Kosaka set out to explore his own passions in the kitchen and partnered with others to open his own cafe. Café Julia at the YWCA in Downtown Honolulu was a learning experience and he eventually left after a year and then headed into Waikik?—straight to the top: Top Of Waikik? and Sky Waikik?, where local favorites were elevated and island ingredients added flair to classic dishes. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Waikik? restaurant and popular bar shuttered its doors; but luckily a new door opened for the chef with a huge heart and appreciation for kindness. “I feel very fortunate because in all of my experiences when one door closed there was another that opened right away. You gotta feel thankful for everything you have.”

Gracefully back in the kitchen at 53 By The Sea, Kosaka is home and reunited with his former coworkers from Alan Wong’s too. He feels this is an exceptional experience to reconnect and work alongside others whom he watched grow up and succeed. “It is nice to be reunited with some of the old Alan Wong’s staff. Great to see them work their way up and see their successes, where they went, watching them achieve their dreams.”

His concept for the 53 By The Sea menu doesn’t really have a specific definition. Essentially, Kosaka hopes to create delicious food for people to enjoy with global yet contemporary inspira- tion. “I have been fortunate in that every place I have worked they allowed me to create the culture that I want. They let me try to mold the kitchen to what I want. We are on a good path.” Currently, that path leads to Hawaii Regional Cuisine, mixed with Vietnamese, Italian and Peruvian influences utilizing local products and showcasing fresh seafood alongside specialty premium meats.

After nearly 30 years in the kitchen, Kosaka proudly chuckles to himself, as his sister, Melanie Kosaka, is the only one in the family with a distinguished James Beard Award. The producer, content creator and author’s The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter put the Kosaka name on the national map and she also garnered an Emmy Award for her documentary production work as well. “I am really proud of her, she knows food and her very first show was about Roy (Yamaguchi).” This hits close to home for the Kosaka family to have momentous successes and accolades from two very passionate, hardworking siblings.

After all is said and done, family means everything to Kosaka—during his spare time he enjoys the simple things including being together with his family, dining out, watching movies and spend- ing quality time together. With his wife and daughter by his side, he feels empowered to do what makes him happy and to bring other families together with his culinary expertise. “My family has been very patient with me and you know in this industry … we work so hard, but it is actually the spouses who are always waiting for you,” he explains. “Our job isn’t a regular job, it has unpredictable hours. Kathleen has been patient and understanding and during my time off I love to spend time with her and my daughter.” Whether it be with his work family, kitchen family, his immediate family or with his wife and daughter at home, Kosaka is very grateful for their time together and to be able to enjoy his love, his passion and his pride each and every day.

53 by the Sea, 53 Ahui St., (808) 536-5353, 53bythesea.com

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