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Susan Kang Sunderland

Piece of Cake

Celebrity chef/cookbook author Candice Kumai of ‘Iron Chef America’ fame is headed to the Islands next week for Hawaii Wine & Food at Ko Olina Resort, where she’ll prepare specialties made with ingredients from local farmers and producers in her own signature style

Candice Kumai could very well be the local girl next door with her hapa-haole looks, surfer dude lingo and pantry full of Asian foods. But this San Diego native, now residing in New York, has only a hanai relationship with the Islands. As a youth, she spent many summer vacations in Waikoloa on the Big Island and learned to surf there.

So it makes it special to have her as one of the celebrity chefs at Hawaii Wine & Food May 17-19 at Ko Olina Resort. For Chef Kumai, this is a “homecoming,” and she’s excited to be part of the culinary event. Although her name might not be familiar to uninitiated foodies, she will relate well to local folks and their penchant for Asian fusion cuisine.

But there’s a twist to her food preparation and cooking style. Kumai is always looking for ways to infuse wellness into even the most indulgent of foods. Her dishes are loaded with FWB (“food with benefits”) – like protein, fiber, and omegas – and are free of the “processed junk that is all too common in the American kitchen.”

“My recipes keep you feeling lean, lovely, satisfied and of course sexy,” she says.

Best of all, it’s not “diet” food. We hate that four-letter word, and so does Kumai.

Would a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef like Kumai resort to such trickery? No way.

The former model-turned-chef, who traded high heel shoes for kitchen clogs, chooses “real foods” that keep fat and calories to a minimum while boosting flavor and plate appeal.

She puts lean ground beef sliders with caramelized onions and mushrooms on King’s Hawaiian sweet-roll buns; pan-sears mahimahi with black bean salsa, and does a miso-glazed salmon that gets rave reviews. Recipes are in her cookbook Pretty Delicious.

She’s known as the “Stiletto Chef,” and we chase her down between busy meetings and blast questions at her with the hope that she gets off her high heels and lets her hair down.

In a New York minute, we get her full-course bio.

Prior to training at Le Cordon Bleu-California, Kumai was strutting run-ways and gracing the pages of magazines as a fashion model from the age of 15. Taking a leap of faith, she decided to pursue food, captivated by the styling, beauty and aesthetics of fine dining. She was soon discovered by the casting directors of Bravo TV’s Top Chef show. By the age of 23, she had already begun inspiring viewers with her unique take on food and her bubbly personality.

She is currently a judge on Iron Chef America, a cookbook author, and a food writer for several lifestyle publications.

She is a contributing author to New York Times best-seller Cook Yourself Thin, and will release Cook Yourself Sexy in October 2012.

When Kumai isn’t cooking, she practices yoga and does Bar Method body sculpting workouts. She’s known for throwing dinner parties for her friends and indulging in champagne and chocolates – we love her already – at favorite Big Apple restaurants such as ABC Kitchen, Marc Forgione’s, Mercer Kitchen and Beauty & Essex.

She lives by the mantra “All things in moderation, including moderation.”

Foodies at the Hawaii Wine & Food gala will sample Kumai specialties made with ingredients from local farmers and producers. Her food presentation will have her signature simple but sophisticated style.

Although her career is based in New York, she still draws upon island connections for wholesome, organically produced ingredients, such as Makaha mangoes.

Hawaii Wine & Food showcases three events celebrating top cuisine and renowned California vintners. This is Kumai’s kind of event that showcases food, fashion, music and a community cause. The fifth annual gala benefits the Kapolei Foundation for educational and scholarship programs for Leeward Oahu youths.

A preview party welcomes winemakers, entertainers and chefs to Azul Restaurant in the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa Thursday, May 17, at 5 p.m. ($150 per person).

Grand Tasting, Beachside Barbecue & Fashion Fusion follows Friday, May 18, at 6 p.m. at Paradise Cove ($100 per person). Attendees can chat with chefs and winemakers, enjoy a fashion show by Hawaii designer Valerie Joseph, and groove to the music of Pa’ahana, Sunway and jazz sensation Steve Oliver.

Multicultural cuisine will be served by chefs Kumai, Ronnie Nasuti of Tiki’s Bar & Grill, Jingie “JJ” Praseuth Luangkhot of JJ Bistro & French Pastry, Kevin Haney from 12th Avenue Grill & SALT, Scott Higa of JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa and Paoyuan Huang, a Taiwanese star chef.

Saturday’s Grand Finale and Fashion Show ($150 per person) May 19 at 6 p.m. features styles by Honey Girl Swimsuits & Khush Clothing, entertainment by Steve Oliver, Rolando Sanchez and Kimo Keaulana, as well as jewelry by Padma & Pickles.

Gourmet grazing cuisine will be presented by Chef Kumai; Patrick Callarec, Aulani Disney Resort & Spa; D.K. Kodama, Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar and d.k Steakhouse; Luangkhot; Goran Streng, Tango Contemporary Café; and Darryl Shinogi, Roy’s Ko Olina.

Told of the company she’s keeping in the chefs’ spotlight, Kumai marvels at the caliber of her colleagues and looks forward to networking with them. She’s a chef who teaches and inspires others but never stops learning herself.

She considers her Japan-born mother and Polish-American father to be powerful influences in her life, along with a sister whom she regards a philosophical soul mate.

“My mother is all about respect, culture, beauty and class,” Kumai says. “My father taught me the importance of hard work and integrity.

“Our dinner table was always a crazy cultural mix,” she adds. “I don’t know many people who count both miso soup and pierogis (Polish dumplings) among their fave comfort foods! But it was all made with care, and the best ingredients we could afford.”

We ask Kumai if she had not pursued food as a profession, what she might be doing.

“I’m obsessed with men’s fashion,” says the just-turned 30-year-old. “I think I was a men’s fashion designer in a past life. I just love the simplicity and bold lines in menswear. There is something hot about a well-dressed man.”

Whether it is men’s fashion or beautiful food, Kumai looks for originality, quality and craftsmanship. She says it’s a reflection of her days as a model and being surrounded by gorgeous people.

Asked about a romance relationship and whether she’s single and available, Kumai responds, “Evidently I am. I’m attracted to someone who makes me feel special. I look for humor and someone with the same morals. I work with a lot of businessmen, but I find there are few who have a real big heart behind their suit. I find others who are incredibly selfish and disconnected from the world.”

It’s the reason she looks forward to networking with Hawaii’s chefs, her cooking colleagues at Hawaii Wine & Food. She recognizes the diversity and talent they represent, and feels they have a responsibility, as she does, to help the community with healthy living and eating.

“Chefs have a powerful influence on food trends,” she says. “As a participant of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I support federal programs to improve one’s quality of life including the cultivation of fresh, healthy, sustainable foods.”

We’re impressed with the natural affinity Kumai has with Islanders.

This accomplished woman might be towering in those stiletto heels, but really she’s a rubbah-slipper-and-barefoot tita at heart.

“That’s me!” she says with a laugh. “I’m not bringing any of my stilettos to Ko Olina. I’m leaving them at home. This is the first opportunity I’ll have in a long time to kick back and relax from TV appearances, teaching cooking classes and rushing to book publication deadlines.”

Well, Chef Kumai, that’s how Islanders like their chefs. Relaxed, refreshed and ravishing.

See you May 17-19 at Ko Olina, where the surf’s up for famished foodies.

Tickets for Hawaii Wine & Food are available at tix.com. Candice Kumai’s website is StilettoChef.com, or tweet food questions to @CandiceKumai.

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