Chef Kaimana Chee
Chef Chee is a celebrity in his own right. He’s competed on various televised cooking competitions like Guy’s Grocery Games and Masterchef and won Cutthroat Kitchen. Chef Chee hails from the island of Oahu in Hawaii and infuses his rich and diverse heritage into every menu item he offers at Uncle’s. Aside from being an award winning chef and restauranteur, Chef Kaimana is also a philanthropic one. He lends his talents as a corporate outreach chef to JUST, an organization committed to providing a fair, honest, and just food system in every community around the world. Let’s dig into my delicious conversation with Chef Chee.
The Fork Life: How did the name of your restaurant come about?
Chef Chee: Uncles: So, in the Hawaiian culture and the local Hawaiian culture, we don't use the term “Mr.” and “Mrs.” normally, so anyone who's older than you and I would say approximately 10 years or older, whether it's a family friend, whether it's the lady at the supermarket, whether it's somebody working in a department store that's about 10 years older than you, out of respect, instead of saying Ma'am or Sir or Mr. or Mrs., we refer to everybody as Uncle and Auntie. It's a familial sort of sense. It implies that our culture is about a village and we’re all in it together. Grinds in Hawaiian is slang for delicious food. So a lot of times, they'll say to friends, “Hey, we will get some grinds”, which means “Hello, let's go and have some delicious food”, but in Hawaiian Pidgin.
TFL: What is the star dish?
CC: Whew, that's a tough one. Well, I would say the last time we checked, the most popular dishes are the mixed plates on the menu. We have Uncle’s (a sampling trio of BBQ Chicken, Shrimp Shack Skewer and Beef Teriyaki served with Asian stir fry) and Aunty’s (sampler of Chicken Katsu, Da Kalua Pig, and Lomi Salmon served with Asian stir fry) and that's because each of those come with three different proteins. So it's like a sampler plate of three different entrees. So the Uncles I think is still number one and then the Aunties is shortly behind.
TFL: You have had the opportunity to compete (and win!) on a variety of cooking shows including Cutthroat Kitchen, Master Chef and Guy’s Grocery Games. Out of all those opportunities, which ones has been the most memorable?
CC: Quite honestly. I remember every moment of every single one of them, but each of them play an important role in my life. I would say the first time I was on the Food Network, which was with Guy's Grocery Games with Guy Fieri, everything happened so organically. Right before the show, I had written a song for the show and the producers heard me play it. Then they wanted me to play on the TV show. So I would say that first time onto the Food Network was probably the most memorable.
TFL: What ethnic food do you feel is underrated right now?
CC: Well, I think I'm going to be a hometowner and say that Hawaiian food is now becoming more popular with the addition to Poke across the American culinary landscape. A lot of Poke restaurants are popping up everywhere, so we're seeing that come out. But if I was talking about something not Hawaiian, I would say that other Polynesian cultures like Tahitian and Samoan and other Polynesian cultures have great dishes to offer to the world culinary landscape. But they are probably not heard of because they're so far away.
TFL: When you go home to Oahu, where is your first stop for food besides family?
CC: Yeah, that's a good one. Most Hawaiians who live abroad, when they go home, their first stop is usually a place called Zippy’s which is quintessential local food. Everything that you grew up with, you can find at Zippy’s. It's not traditional Hawaiian or traditional Japanese or anything. It's a mix of all of those in one place.
TFL: What foods are you craving right now?
CC: Everyday, I want to eat raw fish. Right now if you say what I'm craving, I crave poi because it’s something I grew up with. It's taro, steamed and mashed with water. It’s our staple that we grew up with that you cannot get out here. So that is something that I often crave.
TFL: You are on the road a lot, having logged 200k miles this year alone. What are your favorite places to get Hawaiian cuisine in the world?
CC: Probably California because it's so close to Hawaii. There are actually a couple of restaurants in Japan where you can get some decent Hawaiian food as well because the Japanese culture has embraced Hawaiian food and Hawaiian culture as well.
TFL: In addition to owning your own restaurant, you are also a corporate outreach chef for a global food company, JUST, an organization that aims to provide healthier, sustainable food that is also delicious and affordable. How did that come about and how do you contribute?
CC: It came about actually through networking through my appearance on Cutthroat Kitchen. I met a chef named Richie Farina, who was my competitor. He joined the JUST team a few months after we were shooting our episode. He reached out to me on Facebook and thought I would be a good fit. Two and a half years later, I’m thriving, I love it and I am passionate about it. I've had the opportunity to travel around the world. How do I contribute? I get to tell the story of JUST through the lens of my own culinary background where I grew up and I also get to innovate with their products and share them with people around the world. So I'm there to talk about food, to cook the food, to show people how the food can be used contextually within their own sort of culinary experience. And then I get to really just tell the story of how the world goes about eating more sustainably so that future generations have a landscape that sustainable.
TFL: Thank you Chef!
CC: Thank you Jae!
Be sure to check out this video where Chef Chee shares his passion for cooking as well as what's next for him and Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz!