Story by Becky Speere
“Is there enough ‘ahi for tonight’s special?” “Did my (sous chef/pantry cook/first cook) call in sick again?” “Inventory’s due tomorrow . . . and what? No dishwasher?!” Stress is a common ingredient in running a restaurant. If you’re a relative newbie, the challenges multiply exponentially: the investors are watching, and so is the entire industry. Who are these young chefs and why do they do what they do? We asked three of the best.
Isabella Toland, 32, Executive Chef, Travaasa Hana
What inspired your career?
I was born in France and lived many years in the Philippines, with life in Los Angeles sandwiched between the two. My dad is French and my mom is Filipina, and food was central to everything that we did during family gatherings [and] while traveling. It’s hard to say that anyone influenced me, but I do have a food memory that was really fun. My best friend’s father was the executive chef at [Hawai‘i Island’s] Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. It became our playground during that summer. I had a lot of fun cooking with them—but I never thought it would lead to my profession.
Which chefs do you most admire?
My father always talked about the “great chefs of France,” so I could say that Paul Bocuse and the older generation of chefs were influential. My grandmother also gave me the cookbook Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain when she saw that I was interested in the food scene. And Wolfgang Puck. I worked as a line cook for his Las Vegas restaurant, got promoted to sous chef at his Los Angeles venue, and transferred to Spago [a Wolfgang Puck restaurant] at the Four Seasons here. Learning from those chefs gave me the confidence to be a private chef for two years, before taking the position at Travaasa.
I am constantly reading and learning from everyone around me, be it other chefs or line cooks, or people in farmers’ markets.
Was there a defining moment that made you realize you weren’t meant to be a career line cook?
When I was a student at The Culinary Institute of America, one of my instructors gave me some great advice. He said, “Don’t ever let someone tell you what you can and cannot do.” In the first restaurant I worked at, they were going to put me into a prep cook position and I said, “No, put me on the line and if I can’t do the job, you can put me in as a prep cook.” I stayed on the line. I worked overtime so I could learn, did inventory and was basically available to work whenever they needed me. I still work on the line—I consider myself a working chef.
The demands on a chef can be all-consuming. How do you balance work and personal time?
I live my career. Food is my priority at home, and my husband works at Spago in Wailea, so it’s part of our [family’s] culture. It’s why we travel: to learn new techniques and tastes.
What cookbook would you recommend to an aspiring young chef?
My go-to reference book is Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America. Also Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point with an updated introduction by Thomas Keller. A book that I gift to aspiring chefs is The Food Lover’s Companion, for its simple read and wealth of information.
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Maui chefs don’t just create delectable meals; they’re inspiring the next generation of chefs. For twelve weeks, some of the island’s top culinary professionals did some hands-on mentoring with students as part of the American Heart Association’s Teens Cook with Heart. Get the web-exclusive story, plus videos and a recipe for whole-wheat pancakes made by some cute little kids, at MauiMagazine.net/AHA-Teens.