Kanoa and The Grandmother
Working in a food hall has its challenges, but one thing that stays constant is the overall consensus that ‘food is life’. As cooks, managers, servers, baristas or personnel, we hold a high standard for food in all of its capacities, as well as to make sure that the customer is fully taken care of. We consistently strive to create the ‘next level’ dish and know that taste is most important. In making sure that customer service comes first, we are left to the finer details in the back of the house, ensuring that no matter what ingredients we’re using, they always taste delicious. A happy customer is a repeat customer.
Please enjoy reading my story, as these are the things that I hold dear to my heart. A young kid in search of a passion is something special, and as adults, we sometimes forget how simple that idea really is.
See you soon,
He’d always wanted to learn how to cook. Most of the boys in his school were interested in video games or girls, but not for Kanoa. He was more interested in figuring out the complexities of sauce, the equal distribution of salt and pepper into a vegetable medley, or what it meant to ‘chiffonade’ herbs.
On his way home from school, Kanoa would steal a pineapple from one of the neighboring farms and bring it home to his grandmother. The smells wafting from the kitchen were intoxicating; sage leaves soaked in butter and brown sugar, flaking puff pastry, cinnamon and sweet potatoes. These were the things that Kanoa most looked forward to.
As he walked inside, he noticed that his grandmother was chopping garlic. Without turning around, she asked him a very familiar question.
“Do you have it?”
Kanoa pulled his book bag off his shoulder, reached into the larger pocket and pulled out the pineapple. He handed it to her gently.
“Here it is” he said with a grin from ear to ear.
She took a deep breath and smelled the pineapple. After exhaling, she took comfort in knowing that its ripeness was spot on. She could smell the sugars developing as the aroma was thick from the outer shell...just one of her ways to test that the pineapple was ready. Just to be certain, she grabbed one of the leaves from the top of the fruit and plucked it, coming out as easy as water from a faucet.
“Easy peasy” said the grandmother.
What was about to happen in the kitchen was what Kanoa thought was magic. A combination of flavors and ingredients all coming together to create something as divine as a sunset on a warm summer day. And it wasn’t just the physical things. Kanoa would watch his grandmother and her processes; each stage specifically designed to craft and wield into the next, setting off a chain reaction like dominos crashing into one another.
“Chop, slice, cut. Pinch the blade of the knife with your thumb and index finger like this” she said as she showed him how to correctly hold the instrument. “Cut forward, not back. Tuck your fingers and thumb in on your non-cutting hand so that you don’t chop them...OFF!”
Kanoa pulled his fingers back just in time before the blade took his hand off.
“Always be aware. And focused. You could end up in the hospital if you’re not careful” she repeated often.
“You have multiple things going on in the kitchen at once. Potatoes boiling, oven preheating, chopping vegetables, timers. Organize yourself. Give yourself enough time to make sure that if you make a mistake, it can be fixed. Don’t assume. Know.”
Kanoa had a difficult time taking it all in but knew that if he repeated her processes, over time, they would come to him naturally. He observed. That’s what he was good at.
His grandmother had finished cutting the sweet potatoes and put them into the pot of boiling water. Once done chopping garlic, she moved it to the side of the cutting board. Her herbs and spices had been put in proper containers so that they were ready to be distributed proportionately.
“This is the time where we wait until the potatoes are cooked. Let’s sit down”.
Kanoa and his grandmother sat down at the kitchen table, which was lined with a red and white checkerboard tablecloth. In the middle of the table was a Lazy Susan containing typical condiments: ketchup, salt/pepper, a tchotchke doll from a recent vacation and hot sauce. Adjacent to the table were black and white photographs of Kanoa’s parents. He missed them dearly.
“How was school today?” she asked.
“Fine” he replied.
“What did you learn?” she wondered.
“Nothing” he responded.
This was typical table chit chat. Often times, the grandmother became upset but never expressed it externally. She usually brushed off Kanoa’s subtleness with a loud sigh and proceeded to the more important questions...the questions that she knew she would get an accurate response from.
“How do the pineapples grow?” she asked already knowing the answer but to see if Kanoa was paying attention.
“Pineapples grow to be between 1 and 1.5m tall. The plant has a short, stocky stem with tough, waxy leaves,” he responded.
“Go on” she insisted.
“Once the plant flowers, the fruit is called a pineapple”.
“And what are the uses of a pineapple?” she asked for more.
“In some cultures, the pineapple is sold on roadsides as a snack. Chunks of pineapple are used in desserts and savory dishes such as pizza, grilled rings for hamburgers or fruit salads. Crushed pineapple is used in yogurts, jams and sweets. And pineapple juice for drinks such as a pina colada” he answered.
“Very good. Up we go”.
The grandmother turned off the stove. Kanoa grabbed a strainer from the cabinet and placed it into the sink. When finished, he took the potatoes and dumped the pot into the strainer, catching the cooked pieces. He put the pot back on the stove and added the garlic that was chopped before. The tiny pieces began to sizzle as the pot was still at a high temperature. Kanoa shook the remaining water off of the potatoes and dumped them back into the pot adding some cream and butter. The grandmother handed him the potato masher and, with a grin, told him to go for it.
He mashed up the potatoes well until they were smooth. While stirring, he added the correct amount of salt, pepper, cinnamon and sage to the mixture. The grandmother began cutting the pineapple, first the shell and then again over the eyelets so that it was flush all around. Cutting around the stem, she sliced lengthwise into long pieces and then into tiny cubes. Once finished, she poured the juice into a glass (Kanoa’s favorite) and disposed of the rubbish into the container.
The grandmother laid out the pieces of puff pastry into 6x6 inch squares. Once finished, Kanoa placed a large spoonful of the potato mixture in the middle of each square, then polished the top with a couple of tiny pineapple chunks. Another small dash of cinnamon was dusted on top before they began using the egg wash on the sides of the pastry. Once complete, Kanoa folded one side over and then the other, creating a puff pastry pocket. In Hispanic cultures, they called this an empanada. Or in Asian cultures, a dumpling. It was his favorite snack not just because he loved the taste, but because he was able to spend time with the grandmother; a person he looked up to, a teacher and most important, family.
After all of the squares were folded over, they placed them into the oven on a baking sheet at 425 degrees.
“Now we wait 30 minutes” she said.
Kanoa and the grandmother walked into the living room. It was tiny, with a rather beaten up cloth reclining chair and love seat. Above the TV hung Kanoa’s fathers surf board, an old Arrow longboard fluorescent blue in color. Pictures lined the walls, old photos of traditional Hawaiian culture. Parties on the beach, people on the street. It reminded them both of the comfort of community and home.
A couple of minutes passed by in silence, the grandmother reading the paper and Kanoa twiddling his thumbs. He was nervous around her; he didn’t want to mess up any part of the cooking.
“What are you afraid of?” asked the grandmother shielded by her newspaper.
Kanoa thought about this question before answering. He didn’t know why she would ask it or rather, what she was getting at so he stayed quiet.
“Kanoa, what are you afraid of?” she asked again.
This time, he truly didn’t know what to say other than everything. But he took a deep breath and tried, as that is what his father always told him to do when things got tough.
“I’m afraid that I can’t do anything right. I chop and mash and cut. Sometimes, I cry in my room. It’s all hard. If I mess up, I feel ashamed. I feel that mom and dad don’t love me. I feel that I’m a failure” he responded and began crying.
The grandmother came over to console her grandchild. She pulled him in with a big hug and wrapped her arms around him.
“There, there” she said while wiping the tears off of his face.
She took a second so that he could stop crying and took his face in her hands.
“Kanoa. Cooking is about failure. It’s about understanding that a lot of the time, nothing goes right. We can only hope for the best. We follow recipes in cooking and in life. When it doesn’t happen the way we want, it’s ok. It’s about finding out how to make the bad things good and the good things better. You should know that you are my most precious gift. Every morning, I wake up, go surfing with your dad’s board and just listen to the waves. It’s peaceful, like nothing else matters. I can truly be myself and nobody can stop that. I want cooking to be like that for you. If it’s something that you truly care about, I’m willing to teach you. The techniques, the passion. All you have to do is adopt it and keep it close to your heart. That way, nobody can ever take that away from you”.
Kanoa began crying again but it was a happy cry. He knew that although he had lost his parents, he had gained something of equal value. He hugged the grandmother tight. It was in that moment that felt like every bad emotion had disappeared. It was no longer a problem knowing that he had his knowledge, his knife skills and his ability to become what could be one of the greatest chefs in mainland Hawaii.
‘DING’, went the timer.
Kanoa went to the oven and turned on the light. A plethora of fluffy pastries topped with a golden brown shimmer were illuminating through the plated glass window. He put on an oven mitt and removed the baking sheet from the rack.
No more than 10 minutes later, Kanoa was enjoying his favorite snack with his favorite person. With each bite, he could taste all of the flavors; the caramelization of the sugar, rich earth like tones from the sweet potato, the crunch of the puff pastry. It was like that sunset, a beautiful scene of hard work and determination resulting, in Kanoa’s mind, that magic he always knew was there.
Before bed, Kanoa took out his notebook that he kept on his bedside nightstand. In it, he kept personal memoirs, thoughts and secrets. He flipped to a new page and titled it ‘Cooking and The Grandmother’. After underlining the title, he put the butt of the pen up to his head thinking about what to say and after having an ‘ah-ha’ moment, he put the pen down on the paper:
My name is Kanoa and I’m a cook. I make delicious food for myself and the people I care about. People know me and my family. They also know my family’s history. Cooking is my passion. I have learned by reading and I have also learned by doing. I know that failure is ok and that it will happen often. I also know that I will be successful. Cooking is in my heart. I notice the details; how to cut vegetables, how to use timing to my benefit and the organization of being in a kitchen. If I continue the path I’m on, my hard work will not go unnoticed. I am strong. I am emotional. I am willing.
He closed his notebook and drifted off into a dream where he was surfing with his mom, dad and of course, the grandmother.
The next day, when Kanoa came home with yet again another pineapple, he took in the familiar smells of the kitchen. And as excited as those smells were, he couldn’t wait to get back into the kitchen.
Written By: Noah Feldman, Aloha Pokē Manager