Michael Kitano loves mixing flavors and cuisines, so it’s no surprise that when he decided to launch his new catering company, Hapa Meals, he would pull together what some might call unlikely pairings to create unique dishes with a twist. Asian inspired Chicken Parmesan? Hawaiian Meatloaf? Poke Nachos? Korean Style Tostadas? Yes, please!
Kitano’s love for cooking and inspiration to get creative with recipes began by watching the original Iron Chef on TV. Iron Chef showed him that there is room for experimenting in the kitchen. Looking for an outlet to express himself, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Orange County. Even at Le Cordon Bleu, his yearning for creativity and innovation was met with some resistance.
“One Cordon Bleu instructor asked all of the students to state two foods that go together,” said Kitano. “Students said things like, ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ or ‘bacon and eggs.’ I said ‘chicken and waffles’ and even the instructor was shocked! They had never heard of putting chicken and waffles together!”
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, he got a job working at Disneyland. He quickly discovered that this position didn’t allow any deviation from recipes and was definitely not the type of cooking he had hoped to be doing after culinary school. Everything in the kitchens was prepackaged, premeasured and carefully designed. Kitano knew that this was not the vision that he had as a chef and he left after two years. He bounced around from restaurant to restaurant for a while until he landed in a traditional French restaurant. This eatery utilized the French Brigade System or Brigade de cuisine, a system of hierarchy found in restaurants and hotels employing extensive staff. The concept was developed by Georges Auguste Escoffier in 1846 and is still used in many kitchens today. So, Kitano began as a dishwasher and worked hard to move up through the ranks and ended up being trained by a French saucier. His mentor spoke no English and Kitano spoke no French, but he learned the impeccable technique that is required to make the five French mother sauces: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato. This classical sauce making technique would later earn Kitano many awards in competition cooking.
Kitano then moved to Pennsylvania because his family was opening a restaurant there and he knew he could help. When things didn’t work out as planned, he wanted to get back to his Southern California roots. Originally from Culver City, he was looking for some place close to home and ended up in Westchester. Unfortunately, after so many ups and downs in the restaurant world he felt like his “culinary flame died out.” He stopped cooking for a time and went to work for his father.
After a few years, he began volunteering to make meals at the Venice Free Methodist Church for their large events. He learned what it took to cook for big groups of people, and he was finally allowed the freedom to try out new recipes and experiment with his idea of fusion cuisine. He quickly discovered that people loved his food, and his culinary flame started to re-ignite.
Kitano took pleasure in cooking for friends and family, and his food was getting rave reviews, but then 2020 hit and so did COVID. With no gatherings to try out new recipes or competitions to enter, he used quarantine to learn everything he could about grilling. Through YouTube videos and lots of trial and error, he is now a self-taught pit master and expert on smoking meats. Char-Griller took notice and now he is sponsored by the company, which sends him their newest grills and smokers to try out. Sparked by his newfound skills, he launched Hapa Meals in February of this year. The catering company is based out of his home and customers can place orders online and pick up their meals curbside. The future of Hapa Meals includes brewery tours, as well as other pop-up events.
Over the years, Kitano has enjoyed entering competitions and as early as 2015, began winning blue ribbons for his cooking in numerous categories at events. In 2015, his bean dip took first place at the Orange County Fair, and he has won ribbons at the Orange County and Los Angeles County Fairs for dishes like deep fried Spam musubi and kimchi.
He added to his ribbon collection this year when he won first place, as well as the whole sauce division for his Korean-inspired BBQ sauce at the 2021 Orange County Fair. His culinary genius was on full display during the creation of this recipe. He was whipping up his regular sauce and added spicy Korean bean paste by accident instead of another ingredient. He tried it and discovered that it was a tasty mistake. He added other Korean ingredients and his blue-ribbon winning sauce was born. He enjoys entering competitions because he feels it is validation for him and his cooking.
“I feel like, if the judges like it, people will like it too,” said Kitano.
His French sauce training has come into play in another one of his passions: Italian food. His alfredo sauce won the 2018 Sauce Off at the Westchester YMCA. He even beat out a few local, well-known hometown food heroes. He is proud to mention that his sauce won by a landslide. Italian food is one of his favorite types of cuisine to pair with other flavors.
“Italian food can be fused with anything. It is a good foundation for all other types of cooking,” he explains.
This month, he will compete in the Westchester Elks Chili Cook-Off competition for the first time, and is hard at work crafting his recipe.
Kitano lives in the Osage area of Westchester with his wife and two daughters. The family enjoys entering family cook-offs, as well. His daughter is following in her dad’s footsteps and won second place at the 2018 L.A. County Fair in the Spam recipe contest.
In addition to cooking, Kitano is an avid runner and continues to volunteer at the Venice Free Methodist Church.
Kitano is a quiet and humble person, and when asked he says that he has no aspirations to appear on a cooking competition TV show, like the one that originally inspired him to want to be a chef.
“I don’t want to be in front of people,” said Kitano. “I prefer my food to speak for itself.”
Visit hapameals.com or view his Instagram @hapa_meals to view his current menu and future pop-up events.
By Lydia Smith. Photos by Neil O’Loughlin.