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Rising Stars: Meet Jesse Keoni Kamai-Yarbrough

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jesse Keoni Kamai-Yarbrough. 

Hi Jesse, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
Aloha and thanks for the spotlight. My name is Chef Jesse Keoni, I’m Hawaiian and African American, I was born on the North Shore of Hawaii, grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and Oceanside, California. Ever since I was a little boy, I was blessed to always be around good food and great cooks.

Those great cooks were my African American Grandma Ruth, who helped raise me because my parents worked all the time to provide for us. I remember coming home from school and she always had something delicious cooking or already ready to eat on the stove for me…from hot water cornbread to fried pork chops to her famous sandwich burgers. Soul food became familiar to my palate at a young age. I think that was when it clicked and I realized food is love and when someone cooks for you that it’s coming from the heart and you can taste it. She definitely planted that seed in me and it hasn’t stop growing.

It was also my Aunties and Uncles on my Hawaiian side of the family that I was constantly around just to be with my cousins every weekend. Oh my goodness they are so talented when it comes to cooking, catering and making everyone smile. They would cater Luaus and guess who was the help… that’s right it was all of little kids in the family. It was very fulfilling to see first-hand how Polynesian culture and food could influence and bring joy to people who knew nothing about it. From cooking the food in the “imu” (underground cooking), to dancing Hula and sharing the Aloha spirit. Another seed was planted that I attempt to honor in all the dishes I come up with.

My parents would cook when they had time. They really enjoyed spicy foods like Thai and Indian curries to Authenticate Mexican food, so that was something my tongue became very familiar with right away growing up, and as you can tell many of my dishes have some kick to it.

Moving forward to my college years, this was the first time being alone with no one to rely on to cook for me, so I had figure out how to cook or I was gonna go broke eating out every day. So, I grabbed a few boxes of tuna helper followed the directions and I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to cook. The more I cooked it I tweaked and started adding things to it and before I knew it I was understanding spices and sauce pairings with different dishes.

When I was around my family…mainly cousins all we would do is work or go to school, hang out, and BBQ all the time. When I say all the time, I really mean that. This is where my true passion for fire and food started. I would always try to have the best marination to see if it would be better than all my cousins. It took a lot of trial and error, but it got to where I was very happy with results but I definitely could’ve done it without the friendly competitiveness from my brothers and cousins. All love!

Life was tough at times and I realized cooking for others was my happy place. If I could make someone smile even for a moment just from tasting my food, that filled my heart with gratitude and put me in a mission to figure out my angle in this industry. I started watching Food Network and haven’t stopped to this day. I tell people that’s the culinary school I went to jokingly but I learned so much. Thank you Food Network! From there I quickly knew food was a passion of mine.

I started to make my own renditions of dishes, one of them is my popular Boogie Burger. It started about 15 years ago, I made it once and people were freaking out on how good it was. So, I made it again and again, evolving to what it is today. It’s a spicy yet sweet hearty burger patty. No condiments needed is the idea because of what’s inside the patty. It’s definitely worth trying once in your life.

I used the same thought process and started coming up with more fusion food dishes than traditional. It separated me from others and that’s what I was looking for. I still adapt and push that line to this day with my dishes. I think it’s a beautiful way to look at food. I tell people I treat an empty plate like a painter’s canvas and the ingredients and flavors are the colors I see and taste. Just like art not everyone will like it but will appreciate it, and those that love my food I’m so grateful.

I’ve been grinding and hustling my way through the street food scene here in Southern California in hopes of one day getting my own food truck or brick and mortar. My first food concept Hawaiian Hippy, which is fusion Hawaiian food serving my rendition on everything from Spicy Poke, Loco-Moco, Loaded Kalua Pork Fries just to name a few. The people have accepted and love my style and I continue to grow bigger each pop-up or event I do. It’s just me and my daughters who help take orders and prepare dishes. I appreciate and honor the fact that I can spend that time with them and they can learn business and social skills. Very proud Dad to have them by my side always.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
It has not always been smooth, like any other business you’re starting. The permits, regulations can make things very tricky. Along with marketing yourself in this world of social media. Thank goodness I do all my own social media and website work so I don’t have to rely or pay someone to do that for me. It’s been working out good for me and now that my kids are getting older they help me a lot. Honestly speaking on today’s conditions economically…food/travel costs is more of a struggle but we manage and push through and usually come out on top.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I’m focused on doing more events, pop-ups and catering gigs in Southern California and sharing my food with as many people as I can. I’m always learning new flavors and cooking techniques to help my menu continue to grow and become even more delicious.

How can people work with you, collaborate with you, or support you?
I love to collaborate with other creatives like myself in any capacity. I think that’s the beauty of being creative is you can create something no one sees yet. I open to ideas, collaborations and can reach me on most platforms listed below.

Contact Info:

  • Website: www.hawaiianhippy.com
  • Instagram: @hawaiian.hippy
  • Facebook: @thehawaiianhippy
  • Twitter: @hawaiian_hippy

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