Christopher Kulis began his culinary career at the tender age of 5 years old with the intention to never stop cooking. So far, the 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef has succeeded in his goal. Kulis attended the Culinary Institute of America, then worked at The Broiler Room in Lake Tahoe before taking a job at California's Bouchon, where he stayed for three years. Kulis then worked throughout Europe as part of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. While in Italy Chef Brian Etheredge approached Kulis with the idea of joining the team at Capische? in Maui.
Kulis takes to heart the idea of farm-to-table (or as he calls it, dirt-to-mouth), working with local farmers to develop an on-site vegetable garden (complete with irrigation system), using the day’s catch as inspiration for the menu, and preferring not to serve product that would need to be flown in from the East Coast or New Zealand. However, he is not a slave to “local only,” willing to use beef from Idaho or other off-island product when warranted. Kulis also recently started Stir, a personal chef company, and The Salt Box, a high-end picnic basket caterer, and is exploring pop-up restaurants on other islands. Which is to say, so far as we can tell, he’s sticking to his childhood plan to never stop cooking.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Christopher Kulis
Rachel Willard: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally? How did you get into the business?
Chris Kulis: I started cooking when I was 15 because I needed a job and money—and a car—in that order. Working at a restaurant, I got addicted to service and the fast paced lifestyle. The addiction later turned to passion. That was 15 years ago. I was more interested in cooking than high school and luckily that paid off for me.
RW: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CK: I like to have fun with traditional aspects and local products. We have all these beautiful fish here, so I’m not going to just bring in salmon. I use the ingredients I have around me to make the food that I would eat. That’s what it really comes down to.
RW: What culinary trends do you see in Hawaii?
CK: There are a lot of younger chefs that are trying to get away from older Hawaiian techniques and traditions—we have a lot of guys who are trying to step it up. When I got here 6 years ago, it was a little scary, a little abysmal. It’s now exciting. It’s fun that everything is moving forward. Hopefully that will continue.
RW: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
NR: To get their culinary school paid for. I’m almost done with mine now. No, just having standards from the get-go and sticking with it. Whether you are cooking at your house, your restaurant or someone else’s, you have to have the same quality and care, no matter what. That’s what I try to do. You keep those standards and skills and don’t let anything change that. Always listen to that little voice, that conscience.
RW: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
CK: I hire my cooks without background who have a passion for food. But I’m glad I went, not for the cost but for the doors it opened up. When I went to [the Culinary Institute of America], the amount of different food I ate and the people I saw and met took me all the way to Bouchon. It depends on the person but, for me, it made it more of a career that just being a cook. It’s the best decision I ever made for myself.
RW: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job? Or a challenge you have had to overcome?
NR: Obviously, when you’re first starting out, finance is a big thing. You don’t get paid much for years. It’s hard to work your ass off and struggle without getting paid. That was hard but then everything becomes one-sided. Balance of life becomes hard to do. Living my life and running the restaurant is my biggest struggle.
RW: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
CK: I don’t know. If I did something over, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Not to say that all my decisions have been the best, but I wouldn’t have what I have now. I also might need a few more years to figure that one out.
RW: What does success mean for you?
CK: In this industry, it’s just making people happy. Every night can be a success. That’s what we try to do. Its constant, every night people come here on a honeymoon or because they heard about a really good meal. It’s not about a little write up or even a James Beard Award. We are here to make the people happy.
RW: How do you define Hawaiian cuisine?
CK: I don’t feel like my food is Hawaiian. I take different techniques and local ingredients. I think local cuisine is growing and it’s going to be constantly changing. Hopefully, we will even be getting local olive oil here in Maui. It’s a whole different ball game now.
RW: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Personally, I would like to see myself with a wife and family, but as far as my career, as long as we keep on the path and keep growing. Making Capische?
and side projects even more successful. You know, the sky is always the limit so I will keep heading in that direction.