Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
The end of April marked the beginning of a new story — a story about the realization of a dream that took root more than two decades ago.
Long before his career took him on a triangular journey between the 50th; Seattle, Wash., and the Bay Area, Chef Kelly Degala and his wife, Kirsti Mittag-Degala, had dreamed of opening a restaurant of their own. They even had a name for their pipe dream restaurant — GALA, reflecting both the concept with which life is meant to be celebrated and enjoyed, and Chef Degala’s name and his proud Filipino heritage.
And now that dream is finally real.
Chasing the Dream
Hawai‘i-born and raised, Chef Degala launched his career after earning a culinary degree from Kapi‘olani Community College in 1984. His first stint took him to Fuller’s Restaurant in Seattle’s Sheraton Hotel, where he worked his way up to sous chef. In 1993, Degala returned home to become the executive chef of the Harlequin in the Alana Waikiki Hotel.
A year later, he opened the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant at the Aloha Tower Marketplace, where he remained for several years until being appointed corporate executive chef of the Gordon Biersch empire in the Bay Area.
Chef Degala returned to Seattle in 1998 when he was named director of culinary development and corporate executive chef for the Anthony’s Restaurants group. Three years later, the Bay Area called Degala back, keeping him happy and challenged for the next decade, primarily as executive chef and chef partner in Va de Vi Wine Bar and Bistro and Pres a Vi global kitchen and wine bar.
It was during this period that Chef Degala began experimenting with the concept of globally inspired small plates with a changing seasonal menu. I sampled his cuisine for the first time during one of our annual vacations in the Bay Area — his offerings included locally inspired Loco Moco with a braised short rib and veal demi, Peruvian-style hamachi sashimi, Italian truffle risotto, and Spanish-style roasted potatoes with Serrano ham and Romesco sauce.
Washington state called again and Degala headed back up the coast to become the executive sous chef for the W Hotel Seattle for a couple of years . . . until Hawai‘i’s Kosasa family recruited him as corporate executive chef of the expanding ABC Stores empire, culminating with the opening of Duke’s Lane Market & Eatery.
Located at 808 Sheridan St. in the 808 Center (same building as Sushi Murayama and DADA Salon) behind the Walmart/Sam’s Club parking structure, GALA Honolulu is as quaint as restaurants can get. The two- and four-top tables can seat about 36 guests, with another 10 or so seats just outside the front door. The space was previously occupied by Urban Bistro, and before that, Five Spice Kitchen. Earlier this year, the operator approached Chef Degala about taking over the space. After discussing the offer with his wife Kirsti, they decided to finally take the plunge and open their own restaurant.
Kirsti, a professional interior designer who specializes in repurposing materials and sustainability, developed the restaurant’s décor. It is understated chic, adorned simply with several oil paintings by Canadian artist Audrey Mabee, who, like Kirsti, hails from “the Great White North.”
GALA Honolulu was blessed on April 18. A soft opening was held two days later. One major detail escaped Chef Degala, however: the all-important green placard from the Department of Health. Due to the multitude of last-minute details Degala had to tend to, he had forgotten all about it, until a DOH inspector showed up to remind him of the requirement. The inspection forced him to push back the restaurant’s soft opening.
A Sort of Restaurant Review
Although I had sampled Chef Degala’s cuisine in the Bay Area long before I got to know him personally, our current relationship with the Degalas is personal. I’ve shared several meals with them. The Mrs. and I, along with his family and staff, were invited to the blessing for GALA Honolulu. Chef Degala prepared a menu of simple comfort food for the occasion.
On this one evening, the menu was Filipino cuisine through and through, including traditional and vegetarian pancit, traditional and vegetarian garlic fried rice, pork adobo, lumpia, and steamed buns filled with roast duck, braised pork belly or tofu. Chef Degala said he intends to incorporate Filipino flavors into his globally inspired small plates at GALA Honolulu.
The adobo had the perfect balance of savory, salty and sour. My homemade adobo is usually a little too salty or a little too sour, but then again, I don’t have any Filipino family members who can share their cooking secrets with me. Chef Degala’s pancit was fresher on the palate, containing much more fresh produce than the usual variation. I guess it’s his way of updating dishes he grew up eating.
It was also unusual that he created both traditional and vegetarian versions of the same dish. Nowadays, diners seem to have an array of dietary restrictions, be it shellfish or a nut allergy or gluten or the desire for an animal-free diet.
GALA Honolulu’s menu had not been finalized by the deadline date for this column, but if it is anything like what he served at Va de Vi and Pres a Vi, his guests are in for a real treat. The restaurant also has a complete liquor license and they plan to serve signature cocktails that not only stand on their own, but also complement his food.
Street parking is available, depending on the time of day you dine. If you can’t find street parking, valet parking is available off of Sheridan Street, next to the 808 Center. It utilizes an automobile elevator. GALA Honolulu is starting with dinner service only and will eventually expand to breakfast and brunch.
All the best to Kelly and Kirsti. I hope that GALA Honolulu is a resounding success so this couple can settle down and enjoy life.
808 Sheridan St., Suite 109
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”