Chopped Winner Lance Nitahara

Chef instructor, Flint Hills Technical College, Kansas.

Where were you born and raised? I’m a Wahiawa boy!

Did you know you always wanted to be a chef? No! I went to KCC after graduating from Leilehua, but they kicked me out after a year, as I wasn’t really enthused. I joined our family’s business – my father has a glass and screening business in Wahiawa – and I worked there for a couple of years. Then my wife Kelli signed me up for a weekend cooking class and I realized I loved it so much that I went to the board at KCC and appealed and begged to be given a second chance! I got good grades the second time around and eventually went to Culinary Institute of America.

You were recently a winner of Chopped, the popular TV Food Network show where you gave part of your $10,000 prize money away as soon as you won. There was an amazing competitor with me who wanted to go to France to see her dying grandmother. When I ended up winning the money I decided right there to share the money with her so she could fulfill her dream.

What happened after that show aired? Oh, I’ve had so many calls and invitations – the day after the show aired I had 750 emails, many from people saying how inspiring the show was. It was encouraging. Someone even wrote to say that they had been inspired to go back to church after years, some said they had rediscovered their faith. It was quite a weight on my shoulders!

Favorite restaurants when you come home to Hawaii? Almost any good Japanese restaurant, L&L for plate lunch, and Zippy’s of course – got to get to Zippy’s. And last night we had dinner at OLA at Turtle Bay, which was wonderful.

Biggest influence? My mom, Carmen. She has been inspiring in my life. She’s the reason I cook. She has always encouraged me. She’s just wonderful. And her teri beef and tomato is my favorite food.

Do you cook at home? Once in a while. Kelli is really great. She is my favorite chef.

What’s always in your fridge? Capers and sriracha.