Staying true to her (kitchen) self
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
'Olelo pa'a Faith Ogawa knows her own mind. She's changed her career, her home, even her name, based on what her inner voices tell her.
But she began as most of us do — unsure.
After graduating from Waipahu High School in 1971, the plantation-raised young woman didn't know what she wanted to do. "At that time, I don't recall them having a career day. You just kind of left in the desert, yeah?" she recalls with a local lilt.
But her mother, a widow, had taught Ogawa and her siblings a strong work ethic, and also urged them to "see the world, don't hold back."
Ogawa enrolled in Leeward Community College, a clueless liberal-arts major. One day, she took an aptitude test, which revealed that she would be good at the arts, doing things with her hands and cooking. LCC had just launched its culinary training program and Ogawa enrolled, even though the semester was four weeks along.
"Right away, I had a feeling, 'This is for me.' I loved going to school and cooking. It felt joyful for me. ... To this day, I'm passionate about it," says Ogawa, who owns her own catering company on the Big Island, Dining by Faith, and a food products company, Glow Hawai'i. This weekend she will be guest chef at the Ho'okipa 2007 fundraiser for Kapi'olani Community College's culinary school.
College was the beginning of knowing her mind.
Even when the program's advisory board, all men, snickered when she told them she wanted to be a chef. Even when one member of the board took her aside and said, "Look at this realistically; you should plan to be a pastry worker" (the traditional career path for women in the culinary field), Ogawa smiled and kept her dream.
"Inside of me, something told me, 'You can do it.' "
Her first big job was in a tough school: the now-defunct but once well-known Spencecliff organization's flagship restaurant, the Yacht Harbor. She was the only female cook. This was in an era when most head chefs in Hawai'i high-end restaurants were Europeans, stern men who had come from a top-down, tough school of apprenticeship.
"At the beginning, (the chefs) wanted to let me know 'You're in a man's world,' " she said. The chefs would order the slim, small-statured woman to move something heavy, then watch to see how she'd manage it. She managed.
Later, the head chef told her she had to be "one of the guys" if she was going to survive. She said nothing, worked hard, and waited for her moment. In the late 1980s, she became head chef.
"I think I made it through that time because I held on to my dreams," says Ogawa. She stuck with it not to prove anything to "the guys," she says, but because "it was my passion and my love." She always believed that there would come a day when she could be herself in the kitchen.
Yet at the top of the food chain, she says, she found herself copying "what I had seen before" — the tough, "I'm the boss" manner — "until I woke up and realized I didn't have to run a kitchen like that. It's OK to be feminine, and it's OK to allow your employees to be themselves. You get so much more productivity that way."
She credits the TV Food Network (and the labor shortage) with giving women a more accepted place in professional kitchens.
Between stints at the Yacht Harbor, she lived in Fiji, where she worked for Regent hotels, discovered Indonesian cuisine, and had her eyes opened to travel and different colors.
After Yacht Harbor, her next big move was to the Big Island, having some years before attended a conference at Mauna Lani. "I thought, 'I like this place.' I just knew someday I would go back." By this time, Ogawa was the single mother of a son, and she thought the Big Island would be a great place for a child. While working in restaurant kitchens and as a private chef, she focused her attention on parenting.
Today, her son, Kahlil, is grown. "Right now, it's my time," she said. In 1999, gearing up for a new phase in her life, Ogawa took a course in self-identity ho'oponopono training. Shortly after, a mentor gave her a Hawaiian name: 'Olelo pa'a, which means "forever, the very spark of existence" or "forever speaking of life."
She makes her home in Waimea still — "I really feel like the energy here calms me down" — and works with high-end customers who buzz in on private jets and hire her to prepare healthful, appealing meals for their vacation homes — Hawaiian-style caesar salad with mac nuts, mahimahi with tomato and onion confit, coconut and wilted taro leaves — with an emphasis on fresh, locally and organically grown ingredients wherever possible.
"I've always been attracted to the healing arts," she says. "With my food, I hope I can make a difference."
Ogawa, who was inducted in the Hawai'i Culinary and Hospitality Hall of Fame last year, says, "I've never been more alive. I've never had more creativity."
Faith Ogawa listened to her inner voices; now she's a chef for Fortune 500 biggies
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.