From The Stage To The Kitchen …

At one time, Iva Kinimaka was synonymous with entertainment that made Waikiki a must-see attraction for visitors and locals, if you wanted to see the best Hawaiian artists and musicians performing live and on stage. During the heyday of the live show performances in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, think Don Ho, Society of Seven, Melveen, Loyal, John Rowles, Nephi, Carole Kai, Sam Kapu, Marleen Sai, Jimmy Borges, Teddy and Nancy Tanaka, Barry Kim, Al Lopaka, Liz Damon, Surfers, Al Harrington and Zulu, among others. Kinimaka was right up there in the constellation of stars whose names were identified with a Waikiki showroom or lounge.

'Singing Chef' Iva Kinimaka at his Iva's Hawaiian Grinds food truck on Sand Island Photo from Mufi Hannemann

‘Singing Chef’ Iva Kinimaka at his Iva’s Hawaiian Grinds food truck on Sand Island
Photo from Mufi Hannemann

With Kinimaka, it was the Royal Lanai, Cock’s Roost in the old International Marketplace, C’est Si Bon at the Pagoda Hotel, Dukes, the “home” of the Don Ho show for many years, and Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Garden Bar and Longhouse that served as a showcase for his musical artistry. He Aloha Mele, written for his daughter Chamonix, the apple of his eye, who grew up to be a medical doctor, was Kinimaka’s signature tune, and he amassed a devoted following through the years. Christmastime Again Aloha, which he co-wrote with my brother Nephi, was another local favorite that the duo would perform during the holiday season.

As Kinimaka fondly recalls, he had a strong local base of friends and supporters who frequented his shows, especially at the Cock’s Roost.

“It was one of the hippest places to be,” recalls Kinimaka, and a venue for discovering the latent singing talents of some of Hawaii’s biggest celebrities. Such a person was two-time Michigan State All-American fullback and Farrington legend Bob Apisa.

“I was always so giddy to have a football star like Apisa at my show that I would always give him a great buildup and intro, so he had to come up and do a song.

“But guess what? The bugga could sing. Man, am I glad he went into acting rather than singing as a career — with his voice, name and everything else, he would’ve had us looking for another line of work,” says Kinimaka with a chuckle.

When I queried Bob, who resides in Southern California, what was that song that had Kinimaka and the audience swooning, the iconic Apisa pauses then laughs. “It might have been Rock of Ages,” he replies.

Asked which national recording star gave him the biggest goosebumps when they performed on his stage, according to Kinimaka, “No question, it was Frankie Avalon.” Of course, that brought a smile to my face, as Venus always has been on my top 10 all-time favorite oldies.

Times have changed in Hawaii’s entertainment scene, and Kinimaka, like many of his contemporaries, is no longer performing in Waikiki. Many of them have retired, departed to a “better place” or have shifted to a different career. But 74-year-old Iva Kinimaka nowadays is still going strong and is performing as “The Singing Chef,” cooking some of the tastiest, most onolicious local dishes that can be found anywhere. The loyal throng of fans and supporters he built up from his show biz career has followed him as he made the transition into the culinary and restaurant business, operating restaurants all over Oahu, from Kalihi to Moili‘ili to Pearl Kai to downtown Honolulu to Sand Island — the present site of Iva’s Hawaiian Grinds on the corner of Sand Island Access Road and Kaliawa Street next to the Union 76 station. Says Kinimaka, “Cooking is so easy for me, and I can do it all myself. (He has single-handedly catered luaus for more than 400 people.) I love the creative aspect of it — to be able to come up with new recipes and menu items, and I really enjoy the interaction and talking story with the public.”

So what is the most popular concoction that he has ever created?

“A dish comprised of poke, lomi salmon, limu kohu and inamona (kukui nut) topped with opihi,” he replies. “But I didn’t know what to call it. In walks Brickwood Galuteria, who encourages me to call Sam Kapu, his radio partner, to come up with a clever name — and he did: ‘The Raw Deal.’ I knew I had a hit on my hands when, soon after I unveiled it, Gov. Waihee walks into my Kalihi restaurant with Senate President Dickie Wong and shouts out as only Waihee can, ‘Heh, Mr. Chef, two Raw Deals, please.’”

At his latest venue at Sand Island, Kinimaka cooks inside a white lunch wagon (gotta warn you, it’s a plain white wagon with no exterior signage other than his menu), and his plate lunches with heaps of kaukau sell for a very reasonable $6-$7.

“My most popular dish is the garlic pork, but my Tutu Special consisting of smoked ham and kalua pig, and my Tita Special comprised of hamburger steak and mushroom chicken are on a lot of my regular customers’ grind list,” says Kinimaka, “and on Fridays I serve up my broke da mout’ Hawaiian plate, complete with chicken long rice, squid luau and the whole works.”

Always known as one of the nicest and most affable guys around, Kinimaka continues to exude great warmth and charm, and he’ll still sing at the drop of a hat to show that his voice is in top shape and that he can belt a tune with the best of them.

Very much aware that he turns 75 in a couple of months, he confesses he ain’t ready for retirement anytime soon. Asserts the proud Kailua class of ’58 grad, “I heard someone once say, ‘I’m not getting any older, I’m just living longer.’ Well, that’s my philosophy too.”