Chelf, culinary instructor and two-time cancer survivor
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Mark Oyama, born and raised on Kaua‘i, is known as a fun-loving guy and a serious chef. He is also known for his big heart. This I know firsthand – he was there when I needed help on Kaua‘i. I gigged as a producer for the national PBS series, “Family Ingredients,” a food, and travel show centered on Hawai‘i’s multicultural melting pot. There is no better person on the island for the show’s genre than Oyama. Telling food stories infused with local culture is an integral part of Oyama’s story. He hooked us up with intriguing people and ideal locations that immersed the TV audience in the moment. He brought friends together including farmers and ranchers who prepared a feast showcasing Kaua‘i’s incredible bounty. Their warm and generous hospitality felt unique to the people and place. As locals would say, “Kaua‘i as why.”
Chef Ed Kenney, the host of “Family Ingredients,” said this about Oyama: “His love of fishing and feeding folks manifests itself in a contagious smile and positivity that knows no bounds. There’s not a bad bone in this guy’s body.”
Oyama is Yonsei. His paternal great-grandfather is from Fukuoka and his maternal side is from Kumamoto.
His paternal great-grandfather, Kyujiro Oyama, worked at Pa‘auhau sugar plantation on the Big Island and later moved to Kaua‘i to work at the McBryde plantation. After leaving the plantation, he and his son raised pineapples in Kaläheo on land they had purchased.
His maternal great-grandfather, Tajiyu Isoda, worked at a plantation in Kealia, Kaua‘i. After he left the plantation, he worked as a liquor salesman for a store in Kōloa. After that closed, he worked for the Koloa Trading Store, which became the Koloa Plantation Store from where he retired.
Oyama is deeply rooted in Kaua‘i.
Oyama’s Culinary Journey
His dream of becoming a chef started as a young boy at weekend cookouts at the beach with family and friends. He and the other kids spent all day in the water swimming, diving and fishing. When lunchtime came, they were hungry. Oyama’s uncle, Taka Isoda, would be cooking one of his specialties like chicken hekka to accompany a potluck spread of local favorites.
Feeding people good food is what young Oyama took away from those weekend beach cookouts.
I had the good fortune to experience a beach cookout with Oyama and his friends. As many locals would say, everything tastes better when cooked at the beach. A bowl of ashitibichi, pig’s feet soup, a favorite of mine prepared on the spot by Oyama’s close friend, Daryl Kaneshiro, was so satisfying. That’s not common fare for a beach cookout unless your hosts are Oyama and his friends. I left for home on O‘ahu with a bag of limu kohu (known as the “supreme” or “pleasing” seaweed – Slow Food) that Oyama and a friend harvested from the shoreline that day.
Another experience as a young boy that influenced Oyama’s career path was helping at his Uncle Roy Oyama’s vegetable farm. He was about nine years old and would harvest, wash and sort vegetables like corn, cucumbers, radishes and other vegetables. He also raised hogs, steers and heifers as a member of the Kauai 4-H Livestock Club. He fed pigs, washed pens, cut grass for the cattle and the hard work and care he put in paid off in competition. His animals and his showmanship won numerous ribbons such as grand champion and reserve champion at the annual Kaua‘i County Fair and the State Farm Fair.
Oyama put in the sweat and got his hands dirty at a young age. And he got to enjoy the fruits of his labor to fully appreciate what we now call “farm-to-table.”
After graduating from Kaua‘i High School, it was on to Kapi‘olani Community College in Honolulu. He graduated with a degree in culinary arts and received the Outstanding Student award.
Upon graduation he went to work for Chef Alan Wong who just took the helm of the Canoe House restaurant at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on the Big Island.
It was at the Canoe House that Chef Alan’s culinary star really started to shine. “Mauna Lani’s executive chef, Piet Wiegman, basically told me to just cook, and make people happy – the menu is yours,” said Chef Alan. His food was new and bold and won high praise from the food press. He was part of a food movement called Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine that put Hawai‘i on the world’s culinary map.
Oyama was in the kitchen soaking it all in. Oyama said, “Alan was a huge influence in my culinary journey. He taught me flavor balancing. That was huge and at a time when not many people were doing it or understood it. Chef Alan’s food was explosive and complex but flavorful.”
Chef Alan had this to say about Oyama: “Oyama is a talented culinarian, and he has a great palate. I have many fond memories of him in the early days at the Canoe House.”
Oyama wanted to follow in Chef Alan’s footsteps and attend the Greenbrier Resort culinary apprenticeship program in West Virginia. But Alan suggested working for Chef Christian Bertrand at the Bertrand Pittsburgh restaurant in Connecticut. Chef Bertrand was a longtime sous chef under Chef André Soltner, founder of the famed Lutéce, “the” French restaurant in New York City at the time. Chef Bertrand was Alan’s chef when he was at Lutéce.
Oyama said, “When the opportunity came up it was a no brainer to work for the man.” Oyama said Chef Bertrand was very knowledgeable and inspirational, but he had a hard time at first. He was the only American in the kitchen with French cooks. One of his duties was to break down (butcher) veal and lamb carcasses and cleaning fresh pheasants and game hens with a cleaver. “I was nervous at first, handling expensive ingredients. Eventually I found my groove and confidence and excelled at the restaurant,” said Oyama.
Oyama cut his culinary chops in French cuisine and Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine from two esteemed chefs. That gave him a solid foundation to carve out his own place as chef.
Kaua‘i drew him back in 1991 and he got calls to do catering work. The following year he took a position as a culinary instructor at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kaua‘i Community College. After 31 years, he continues to teach as an assistant professor. “It’s rewarding to see young culinarians believe in themselves and gain confidence. I try to teach them to be lifelong learners and to accomplish their goals, not only in culinary but in life itself,” he said.
Oyama continued to grow his catering company while teaching and today his Contemporary Flavors Catering, which specializes in Pacific Rim cuisine, is one of the largest full-service catering companies on Kaua‘i. In 1998 he opened Oyama’s Place, a popular plate lunch spot for locals and a food destination for visitors. Oyama’s Place also became home of his expanding catering company.
Wendy Oyama – Partner in Life and in
Wendy graduated from Maryknoll High School on O‘ahu. She met Oyama at Kapi‘olani Community College and the two aspiring young cooks fell in love. Wendy graduated and received the Most Outstanding Culinary Student award. From then on, they were inseparable and destined to become chefs.
Oyama said Wendy came along when he interviewed for the job at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. When Executive Chef Piet Wiegman learned that Wendy was there, he interviewed and hired her to work at the Canoe House as well.
“Wendy, as a cook, was very steady, quiet, and a quick learner, like Oyama. You only had to tell her once and she got it,” said Chef Alan Wong.
Wendy followed Oyama to Connecticut cooking at the Box Cat Grill and back to Kaua‘i where she worked at food establishments while helping Oyama build their catering business.
Wendy and Oyama have two daughters, and she took on the bulk of the child rearing while Oyama worked 12 to 18-hour days. Now both of their daughters are in college.
Oyama said, “Wendy runs the businesses today. She’s the backbone of the company.”
Beating Cancer – Twice
In May of this year Oyama was honored with a Beacon of Hope Award at the American Cancer Society’s 9th annual Hope Gala in Waikïkï. He had announced the award on social media and said he normally would not talk about his bouts with cancer. But he decided to accept the award and share his story with the hope it would encourage others to be proactive and get checked for cancer.
In 2009 he was diagnosed with malignant fibrous histiocytoma. “Until this day I don’t know what that is,” Oyama recalled. “When older people found out they would talk to me like I was going to die.”
I remember screaming out at the top of my lungs and crying by myself trying to find answers about why it had happened to me. I just had my first child – am I going to be able to see her grow up, graduate, get married, and will I be able to spoil my grandchildren?
I felt ashamed to have cancer. I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want any help because I wanted to keep it a secret. I didn’t tell my family much either. I didn’t want them to worry and go through the same emotions that I was going through. I held everything in and didn’t talk to anyone.
But it crushed me.
When I went in for treatments, I saw people younger than me and the children especially, that really affected me. In my mind, I know how emotionally challenging it was for me, but I couldn’t imagine what I would be going through if that was my child.
Eventually, I talked to other cancer patients and the support staff. Emotionally, that really helped and gave me the support and hope to survive.
Excerpted from his Beacon of Hope Award acceptance speech
Then in 2017 Oyama was diagnosed with colon cancer. He said, “the doctor had to remove a large tumor that was almost clogging my intestine. Luckily, it didn’t spread from the tumor, so no additional treatment was needed. It was a miracle that it didn’t spread considering the size it was.”
Oyama said he became determined to not let cancer beat him.
Kōkua for Kaua‘i
On Thanksgiving Day, you will find Oyama, Wendy and their Contemporary Flavors Catering team at the All Saints’ Gym in Kapa‘a for the Interfaith Association’s annual Thanksgiving luncheon. For several years running the Interfaith Association covered the food cost, and the CFC team would give their time to prepare and serve lunches for up to 1,500 guests. Guests included küpuna, the less fortunate and lunches are also delivered to those without homes.
For 15 years Oyama oversaw his culinary program’s annual Spring Gourmet Gala fundraiser, which would regularly sell out. The hope was that funds that were raised could go to purchasing kitchen equipment, classroom supplies and to provide student scholarships. Top Hawai‘i chefs like Alan Wong would volunteer as headliner chefs, which Alan did from the first to the last gala event in 2017. The event exceeded expectations where they were able to also build a new kitchen, purchase computers and much more.
When COVID-19 started to disrupt his businesses, Oyama decided to cover his employees’ medical insurance. He was spending reserves not knowing how long the disruption would last. Oyama said, “It got to a point where I thought I was going to go bankrupt.” Luckily, with the help of the federal Paycheck Protection Plan he was able to stay afloat.
These are but a few examples of how selfless and giving both Mark and Wendy are.
Oyama’s giving nature comes naturally but it also reflects his deep gratitude for what his life-changing experiences have taught him. Oyama is focused and driven, puts in full days to support his family and to keep his staff gainfully employed. But knowing how fragile life can be, he’ll make time to live it with gusto!
Oyama would ask that we support the American Cancer Society and the Clarence T.C. Ching Hope Lodge. To find out how you can help, go to: cancer.org, oyamasplacekauai.com, contemporaryflavorscatering.com.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and was a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.