Feeding the Big Island through hard times

There’s something about an uplifting father-son story that beckons our attention. Perhaps it’s the endearing tale of bonding among men who grapple with immense life transitions—the younger finding his way as he comes of age, the elder coping with the passage of time—or perhaps it’s simply a happy ending in a commonly difficult family dynamic that we can’t help but find warm and cuddly. And depending on your own life experience, such tales may provide a much-needed cathartic experience.

Take the likes of Simba and Mustafa, Dell and Steph Curry, or Henry and Indiana Jones—much of the time their greatness blossoms in the face of conflict and their unions provide something we can all benefit and learn from. Meet Chef Jayson Kanekoa and his son Ocean—the father and son duo that snapped into action three years ago on Hawaii’s Big Island as the world came under the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic by combining their culinary talents and entrepreneurial spirits, they rallied around local farms and members of the community who were at risk of going without.

Chef Jayson, executive chef at Marriott Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, takes pride in sourcing roughly 90% of the ingredients used in the resort’s kitchen from local farms. However, when the hospitality industry came under lockdown, the then-14-year-old Ocean recognized the urgency of supporting these local farms and helping to feed the community. “We had to shut down the hotel and close for business, but my father’s true concern was for the farmers and a lot of the vendors on the big island,” said Jaydene Kanekoa, senior marketing manager at Marriott Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa—and Chef Jayson’s daughter.

“He took my brother at the time—who was also out of school—and they went and did rounds at the different farms around the island,” said Kanekoa. And what they quickly learned was that many of the producers were forced to till their crops beneath the topsoil, simply leaving them to rot on the vine, as there were no available options for them to sell their produce.

Planting Seeds of Hope

person standing among stacks of boxesThe situation struck a true sense of urgency in Ocean, says Kanekoa. “They came home, and we were talking and he said ‘we need to do something.’ So, we started Pa’ina by Ocean,” noting that the meaning of Pa’ina in Hawaiian is to form a gathering and come together to celebrate. Getting Pa’ina by Ocean off the ground required the young son to venture around the island to the various vendors that typically supplied local hotels and started assembling community agricultural boxes in the form of meal kits and to sell them throughout the community at a reasonable rate to help sustain local vendors.

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“We started with the idea of assembling 25 boxes, hoping that we’d be able to sell them, and by the end of the program which lasted one year, we were doing about 2,000 boxes a week,” Kanekoa said. And much of that volume was set afloat by nonprofits, such as the IRONMAN Foundation, that committed $1 million to the island to help feed families and individuals in need during the shutdown.

As the program progressed, the boxed meal kits were enhanced with custom recipes. “It was really to help people avoid buying produce aimlessly and then letting it go to waste,” she said, adding that the meal kit options also included proteins from local farmers and fishermen. The program has since ceased operations as pandemic restrictions have been lifted and business has resumed.

A Local Celebrity Chef Is Born

two people sitting in front of hotel window
Chef Jayson and nine-year-old Ocean prepping for a corporate event at Tokyo Marriott

Ocean’s family made certain that word of the ambitious young man’s efforts got out, marketing his local startup over social media, including YouTube videos.

“This is where it really started,” Kanekoa said. “What transpired from all of that, my brother really getting into the culinary side of it.” It wasn’t long before local news outlets began picking up Ocean’s story. “He became pretty well-known for being the kid who started the agricultural box program, but who also liked to cook.”

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Ocean’s notoriety as an up-and-coming chef soon gained national attention. In 2021, he was picked up by the series Top Chef for the show’s Family Style edition, a spin-off from Top Chef Junior. Overseen by head judge and celebrity chef Marcus Samuelson and hosted by Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter and TV personality, Meghan Trainor, the format of Top Chef: Family Style paired a junior chef with an adult and inexperienced family member. “I was my brother’s partner,” Kanekoa said, adding that her father had too much culinary experience and their other sister is a culinary teacher at a local high school, essentially barring them from competing on the show. “I was the black sheep that was not good in the kitchen, so we got to do that season of Top Chef.”

With over 30 years of culinary experience, Chef Jayson is now coupled with his son Ocean’s status as an emerging talent and reputation for embracing Hawaii’s cuisine. The duo has garnered the attention of event planners who are looking to wow attendees with the father-son duo, “which is pretty unique,” she said.

“We get picked up by a lot of meeting conventions that come to the hotel,” Kanekoa said. “They bring Ocean in and it’s really neat to see the different generations of our family in the kitchen. A lot of information—nearly everything has been passed down from my father to my brother and it’s great to see how he takes it, interprets it into his own and how he applies it to a lot of the meetings and conventions hosted at the resort.” Kaneko also attributes much of her brother’s popularity with event planners thanks to their local DMC partners who have made a tremendous effort to promote Ocean.

“We’ve done tastings for different groups, and they end up falling in love with the little kid who can cater an entire dinner for them because he’s literally in the action and doing everything.”

Up Next

“The one thing for both Ocean and my dad, coming off the program started during Covid, is how to keep that momentum and support going for local vendors, trying to become more sustainable on the island and we do that through highlighting the food through their culinary experiences,” Kanekoa said.

One way Ocean is pursuing this goal is by inspiring the next generation of culinary professionals to embrace agriculture and the culinary world, which can be a very tangible and crucial factor to destinations dependent on tourism dollars such as Hawaii. Culinary programs hosted at various schools such as junior colleges have seen moderate attendance figures in the years preceding the pandemic with attendance having dropped to a fraction of that since Covid.

“That’s concerning,” Kanekoa said. “And this something we’ve heard all across the nation with trying to get the younger generation interested in the culinary art,” adding that identifying younger people with an interest in agriculture poses an even greater challenge, especially considering that many of Hawaii’s farms are generational.

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“That was one of Ocean’s main goals while running the program during Covid,” she said. “The thought was, your kids are at home—get them in the kitchen,” she said. “How do they learn to cook dinners or help mom and dad in the kitchen,” adding that getting kids involved was a large part of the concept.

One avenue of inspiration that worked well for Ocean is participating in the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, placing his culinary skills center stage. “They have these programs to inspire kids to get in the kitchen and Ocean has definitely been their poster child for inspiring younger talent to get involved,” Kanekoa said. All of the proceeds from the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival go into funding culinary education on the island.

“Chef Jayson has reiterated this several times that you can only hope that your child takes an interest in something and really wants to pursue it with passion,” she said. “Being in the kitchen and being in the culinary arts is hard,” adding that Chef Jayson’s mission was to guide Ocean while letting him choose his own path. “From a father’s point-of-view, he’s very proud of what he’s accomplished so far.”

Ocean and his family plan on touring colleges this summer before he graduates high school next year. “He’s looking at a few schools on the mainland,” Kanekoa said. “He checked out the Culinary Institute in Napa Valley and toured French Laundry and learn about their internship programs and now we’re looking at San Antonio and possibly upstate New York as well for the different CIA (Culinary Institute of America) schools they have there.”  Ocean’s goal is to not only gain an education in the culinary arts but to receive an education in business as well.