Delia Romano and her fiancée Kim Lopez regularly stroll along Kalakaua Avenue. Progress can be slow because they are regularly stopped by passersby saying things like “Hey cutie!” The fans are talking to Batman, their charismatic four-year-old English bulldog, who has his own Instagram account (@batmanthebulldog_) and more than 5,000 followers.
The dog lovers aren’t aware that on the other end of Batman’s leash is a bona fide culinary Superwoman, who has risen from entry-level cook to executive chef and food and beverage manager of not one, but two hotels in two years (or three months in dog years).
The New Jersey native’s Hawai‘i story starts in 2015, when she was invited on an impromptu winter trip to Honolulu.
She liked it so much she moved to the islands a few months later, leaving behind her job with a large automotive parts distribution company, where she had also quickly worked her way up the ladder to overseeing stores from Connecticut to Pennsylvania.
She soon learned that on an island the automotive job market is a lot smaller, and she wasn’t finding opportunities in her field. A friend said, “Why don’t you try cooking?” While Romano had no professional kitchen experience, she was a talented home cook who has memories of making chicken paprikash and nokedli (the Hungarian name for spaetzle) with her Hungarian-German grandmother when she was five. Growing up in a multicultural neighborhood, she learned to make Puerto Rican empanadas from neighbors, along with the pastas of her own heritage. As she got older, she found herself always winding up in the kitchen with the people in her life.
So she found a job listing for “cook” online and applied. It happened to be for Michael Mina’s yet-to-open StripSteak at the International Market Place. “I had no idea who Michael Mina was,” says Romano. But she applied, got a call, and executive chef Ben Jenkins asked her if she had any professional experience. When she said no, he asked her what she cooked at home. “I told him I make empanadas and pasta. And he said, ‘Walk me through.’” So she did, and he asked if she could start work the next day.
But she didn’t stay on the bottom rung for long. “Chef Ben worked right in front of me every day, and I would watch everything he did. I tried to figure things out on my own, but also asked questions. Everything was so precise. That’s basically how I learned.” She went from prep cook to regular cook in a couple of weeks, then on to lead cook.
Not far into her new life as a professional cook, Romano made a second major life change—she went vegan. “I
Part of the film looks at hog farming in North Carolina, the home state of Romano’s then-boss Jenkins. “When I went to work the next morning, I didn’t eat anything and I mentioned a couple of tidbits from What the Health to Ben and he said it’s true. And from that day forth I haven’t eaten any dairy or animal products,” says Romano. “I lost quite a bit of weight at the beginning because I didn’t know what to eat. It was a bit of a challenge.”
In 2017 she started at Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort as sous chef and by the end of the year she was named food & beverage director of that property along with Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, while also still overseeing the kitchens. “They call me chef ’n’ b,” she laughs.
The Reef was home to the grill-your-own-meat fest Shore Bird Restaurant and Beach Bar, a favorite of generations of local carnivores. The owners retired last year and the hotel took over the space, which entailed rebranding it as the Reef Bar & Market Grill and hiring and training 100 new staff to run it.
“Delia was part of that team,” says Kelly Hoen, area general manager of Outrigger Hotels & Resorts. “We brought over an amazing gentleman from the mainland as food and beverage director, and once everything was in place Delia kept rising.”
Outrigger did a national search to fill the position, but when management conducted internal interviews, Hoen says Romano “just knocked our socks off.” To Hoen, “the distinctive qualities that Delia brings in a leadership position are just extraordinary. There’s compassion, there’s discipline, and there’s just fun. We call our employees hosts and our hosts were naturally going to her, asking her questions. She very quickly became a natural leader.”
The menu has a good selection of vegan offerings, and up to 50 percent of the menu can be made vegan. For example, a pork belly bao can be ordered with jackfruit instead, and the Beyond Vegan Burger, with a housemade egg-free aioli confounds diners.
But she still has to taste everything— including dishes made with animal products—and her staff is incredibly supportive of her situation. “We had a gelato tasting the other day. The sales rep was there and my sous chef walked up and a stack of paper towels ready for me to wipe my tongue and spit in it. They just know,” says Romano.
She has also found an additional benefit of becoming vegan—a heightened palate. When she was looking for a new burger patty made with locally raised beef, and had to taste a whole selection of meat. “Everybody thought they all tasted exactly the same, and I’m like, no, they don’t. I feel like because I don’t eat meat now, I’m not desensitized. I can taste different levels.”
Her daily routine sees her literally running back and forth between the two properties, bouncing from kitchen to kitchen making they are operating at the highest standard, while also giving chefs and cooks the direction they need to in turn become leaders.
“I bring it down to the cook level,” she says. “There are two dishes on the Reef Market Grill menu that cooks have made. I feel if you let people think about things and challenge them and make them think critically, they will push themselves because they want to succeed. For instance, I told one of my sous chefs I needed a dessert that was vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free— there are a lot of people with differ- ent allergies. She was upset and said a dessert like that doesn’t exist, that I was asking for a golden nugget. I said no, I need it by Monday. By Sunday night she said come to the kitchen. She had the whole thing done. Now we have this great dessert—an almond cake with hibiscus-poached pear and housemade strawberry sorbetti.”
But in the end, she most enjoys making people feel good. “Food is something you have to have, and if you make one great tasting thing, people are going to remember that. Like at the Reef we make a black bean hummus that is just a small component of a dish, but we have had people come over and say oh my god, that was really good. You can do little, subtle things that resonate with people. People connect memories with food and smells and taste, being a part of that is an awesome thing to do.”