This is the first part of a three-part chef chat series. Look for Part 2 and Part 3 in this space Thursday and Friday.
Houston may be a melting pot, but it's still pretty uncommon to find a Hawaiian in Houston. Enter Executive Chef John Sikhattana of Straits, who came to Houston via Hawaii. Even if you didn't know he came from Hawaii, there's something in his soft-spoken voice and laid-back persona to clue you in to his true roots.
We sat down for a chat last week about how he started his career at the very bottom, working his way up to an executive chef position by the time he was 21.
EOW: You have an unusual last name. Where does it come from?
JS: I'm half-Chinese, half-Laotian, born in Thailand, raised in Hawaii -- we moved there when I was ten months old.
EOW: So you're essentially a Hawaiian local. What part of Hawaii?
JS: I grew up on Oahu, suburb of Honolulu, on the Waimanalo side, which is considered the country. My dad still lives out there; he has a farm out there.
EOW: He has a farm?
JS: Yes, my parents were farmers; I grew up on a farm. We grew Asian produce, mainly Asian herbs and vegetables, to sell at the farmers' market out there.
EOW: Did they cook, too?
JS: They worked so much on the farms that the cooking was really left to my older sister, or my mom would just leave big pots of things for us on the stove. So we had to fend for ourselves, and I guess that's where I first started cooking.
EOW: How old were you when you started? What do you remember making?
JS: I was in grade school, probably around eight years old. I don't remember specifically, but it was something easy, like eggs.
EOW: Tell me about that life.
JS: Let's see...wake up in the morning, 6 a.m. in the morning, my parents are already gone to the farmers' market. We'd take the bus to school, then walk home. Come home, we'd have chores on the farm, whatever needed to be harvested or planted, or washed or cleaned; parents would come home and help with the farm work; we'd have dinner, then do homework, and do it again the next day.
EOW: Did you ever think about taking over the farm?
JS: I enjoyed living on the farm, the food, the vegetables and things, but I didn't want to be a farmer.
EOW: You said you kind of scrounged for food. What did you grow up eating?
JS: A lot of vegetables, a lot of salad. We had things made in every way that you can imagine, from raw to cooked. My favorite growing up was the Japanese cucumbers that we grew and made into salad. I remember my auntie coming over and stir-frying them with ground pork, and being amazed that you could eat cooked cucumbers.
EOW: Tell me how you got into the culinary industry. Hawaii is big in hotel and restaurant management; is that why?
JS: By 12 or 13, I knew that I could cook. I was making a lot of Thai and Chinese dishes. My mom and my aunties taught me how to cook. My aunties actually own a few Thai restaurants in Hawaii. I barely made it through high school, tried college for a little bit, but it wasn't for me. When I was 17, I applied at Roy's restaurant, and I applied as a server. The maître d', I remember to this day, kind of laughed at me, because it was a fine-dining establishment and I had no experience. He was nice about it, and told me, "We don't have anything for you as a server, but we do have a position as a dishwasher upstairs."
EOW: What's it like being a dishwasher?
JS: What's it like? It's the sh*ttiest job in the world! (laughs) It's dirty, you're wet, you're dealing with all the stuff that nobody wants to touch for eight hours a day. But I was just a kid, I didn't know what I was doing, and I'd go home soaking wet every day, but I was making money. I washed dishes for about a year before I started as a prep cook.
EOW: What precipitated that?
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JS: Same old story -- somebody didn't show up for work, and it was like, "Hey, I need your help with this." It was a prep position, and I guess my organizational skills were excellent as far as cleaning the walk-in and the dry storage, so I got promoted to prep cook. I did that for three months before they moved me up to line cook at the veg station. By the time I was 19, I was cutting fish, fabricating meats -- I was a cook. By the time I was 20, I was a sous chef, and right before I turned 21, they asked me to become executive chef for one of their restaurants on Kauai. And I turned it down.
JS: I was like, "Are you kidding me? I can't do that!" I didn't want to move up, and at that point I wasn't sure if I wanted to be in the restaurant industry as a career at all. There was a lot of self-doubt. But one day the owner called me in his office and he offers me the job again, and I explained to him my reservations. And he says, "Only certain times in life, opportunities come, and you either take it and see where it goes, or you'll say no and you'll always wonder. Even if it doesn't work out, down the road, you're young enough so you can pick up something else." So I moved from Oahu to Kauai, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Check back with us tomorrow as Sikhattana talks about what he's doing at Straits Asian Bistro in CityCentre.