King Of The Supermarket Chefs

Keoni Chang

Keoni Chang knows what local folks like to eat. Nathalie Walker photo nwalker@midweek.com

Foodland corporate chef Keoni Chang took his talents to Dallas for the first Supermarket Chef Showdown, and came home as the grand champion

Gone are the days when a greasy chicken katsu bento or a plastic-wrapped Spam musubi make up the ready-to-eat aisle at the local supermarket. Now there are gourmet salad stations, hand-tossed pizzas and delis with multitudes of meats and cheeses.

The world has changed, and foreseeing this Foodland went outside the usual grocer circles to find a man to lead its evolution. In 2004 it brought on Keoni Chang, a local boy who cut his teeth by spending four years cooking on the line at the world-famous five-star resort The Greenbrier in West Virginia.

“My training was how to get the most expensive ingredients from the kitchen to the table in 30 seconds,” says Chang, who graduated from Kamehameha Schools and Kapiolani Community College before going on to receive his bachelor’s from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “Now I am trying to create something with a broad enough mass appeal while still being unique, and then also making it so that it can sit in the case for four hours and still taste like it was just made.”

This blending has brought locals such favorites as Portuguese sausage and corn meatloaf, and seared salmon in a sweet chili glaze, and has now brought Foodland nationwide fame as Chang has been crowned “Grand Chef” for winning the inaugural Supermarket Chef Showdown held by the Food Marketing Institute in Dallas.

The competition drew more than 150 chefs from around the country who submitted 357 recipes in four categories: Indulgent, Family Meals, Healthy Alternatives and Ethnic. Best in show went to Chang for his Deconstructed Ahi California Roll, which is his take on the most famous sushi roll of all rebuilt as a tower of rice, seared ahi, avocado and crab surrounded by a Sriracha mayo and sprinkled with shredded nori.

His win netted him admittance to the professional development course at his alma mater, the CIA, and a two-year reign as the Grand Chef of the supermarket universe. But while the winning was nice, it was the thrill of the competition that Chang took away from the experience.

“I enjoyed the showdown because it has been a while since I got my adrenaline fix,” says Chang, who relishes the memories of putting out 1,200 dinners in an evening during his years in West Virginia. “Being on the line is such a rush, standing there doing nothing, then everyone wants dinner at the same time, then nothing. I didn’t think I would miss it while I was doing it, but I do miss it now.”

There is not much standing over a grill these days, with the exception of his cooking at home. His expertise is more sought in advising culinary direction and streamlining the process of getting the freshest products to his customers.

The first step he took was having a central kitchen built for the 31-store chain, a place where they could ensure food quality and consistency. The kitchen operates nonstop and employs approximately 100 cooks and dishwashers.

The next step was figuring which foods could retain their flavor after a trip across town and a few hours on the shelf.

Certain things had to be avoided: Avocado oxidizes too quickly, fading from its inviting green to a foreboding black. Butter, while it makes everything better, solidifies once it is cooled, leaving food looking clumpy and the taste uneven.

“The idea is that time is precious, and we have to find ways to bring food to the consumer in ways that remove part of the preparation so that things are faster and easier,” says Chang.

One way of addressing this is to build the majority of it at the central kitchen and then train his cooks in the stores to finish it. Adding the rice in store keeps it from hardening, and sprinkling in delicate herbs right before shelving them allows their bright colors and flavors to hold much longer.

The next step is figuring out what local people want to buy and turning them on to new experiences at their dinner table. While he has had his fair share of hits – including several popular poke styles – he has watched favorites of his such as ahi cakes, smoked chicken leg and roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta sit unpurchased on his shelves.

“If I put in ginger, green onions and shoyu, then it sells,” says Chang with a laugh, only half-kidding. “I have found that local clients have an affinity for Asian food.”

Another balancing act for Chang is his concern for the health of the people of his Islands. On one hand, he must try to create dishes that will sell, but on the other hand he must weigh that against what is the best food for an increasingly obese society.

“We have to find a way to deal with processed foods that is healthy – it is a big issue for the supermarket industry,” says Chang. “My thought is it is our responsibility to provide options. We want to provide people with what they want, but we also want to provide a good balance of options.”

Those options continue to morph with the times, as Chang introduces Korean-style poke and shrimp ceviche, trying to stay ahead of a public that is becoming increasingly educated about food, thanks to the proliferation of cooking shows and food magazines.

“People are exposed to quality food more than ever before. They want the convenience but they demand the quality,” says Chang. “There has always been convenience, just not high-quality convenience.”

Battling nationwide chains with their in-store peanut butter grinders and olive bars is a tall task for the little local grocery that could, but Chang has over-seen the transformation of not just the food, but the addition of Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to several stores, as well as satellite versions of its renowned R. Field wine shops.

“I thought it was interesting that Foodland was looking for a chef. I thought it was pretty innovative for a local Hawaii company,” says Chang. “We are a conventional grocery store, but I think we have blended well into the gourmet arena. We have elevated the bar.”