Cameron Lewark always wanted to be a chef, but for a time he also had no choice. While his mother worked two jobs, the 10-year-old Lewark often cooked dinner for the family, and actually tried experimenting with the meager ingredients at hand to create flavorful dishes. So while high school found Lewark playing football and even receiving scholarship offers, he knew his future would be in food.
He visited several culinary schools, but Lewark knew he needed professional kitchen experience first. Fortunately, among his first kitchen job was apprenticing with Lee Heftner at Wolfgang Puck’s Granita, peeling potatoes, doing whatever was asked of him, and basically building up the kind of endurance and “yes” attitude an early career requires.
Lewark started as a prep cook, and then a year later was working in the bakeshop. He then followed Heftner to Spago Beverly Hills, where he often slept in his car between shifts (when he wasn’t helping cater to the glitterati or at Oscars parties). In 2001 Lewark was tapped to move again, this time to Hawaii, joining the opening team at Spago Maui as sous chef. He was made chef de cuisine soon after, at 29 years old. Now the 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef no longer peels potatoes, but designs a constantly evolving Hawaiian fusion menu that draws heavily from Southeast Asian flavors and ingredients.
Interview with 2012 Hawaii Rising Star Chef Cameron Lewark
Rachel Willard: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally? How did you get into the business?
Cameron Lewark: I’ve always had a passion for cooking and I grew up with a single mom who worked two jobs and have to come home to make me dinner. I felt bad so I started to cook for the family. Then I started watching a PBS show called “Great Chefs.” That furthered me into cooking and I also started experimenting with game and meats like deer and pheasant starting when I was in the fourth grade.
RW: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CL: I truly believe in utilizing local fresh farms and helping the local community. We always have been farm-to-table, I know it’s a popular thing now but we have been doing if for years.
RW: What culinary trends do you see in Hawaii?
CL: Hawaii follows all the same trends on mainland but it takes longer to reach here because it’s so secluded from the outside world. It gets to us later.
RW: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?-
CL: The most important thing is to work in the business. It’s hard to choose what path they are going to take. Do you want to be a hotel chef or restaurant chef? There are a lot of choices. You definitely want to immerse yourself in that world before you enter it. Most importantly, if you’re not willing to sacrifice your life for work—don’t become a cook. Sacrifice is a good word for it.
RW: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
CL: I can talk for hours about this—it all depends on the individual. If the individual is going to “get” school, then yes, go. If they didn’t do well in high school or college or anything then no, probably not. No matter what, throwing yourself into practical experience is the best. Normally, people know—I wasn’t good at school, but I was smart enough to know not to go [to culinary school] and started working when I finished high school, and a little bit during high school.
RW: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job? Or a challenge you have had to overcome?
CL: Going back to the word sacrifice, you have to be willing to sacrifice your personal life, relationships, your family, holidays—it takes a toll. But that sacrifice is also the most rewarding in the end.
RW: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
CL: Early in my career, I would have probably gone to Europe to travel and cook for a while.
RW: What does success mean for you?
CL: Success … well, I don’t think there is ever a level of success, in my world it’s unachievable. But it’s trying to achieve the unachievable. The pursuit of the unachievable. Happiness has to do with it too—if one is happy they have succeeded. I love to cook and doing what I love makes me happy. It’s certainly not about money, or a budget.
RW: How do you define Hawaiian cuisine?
CL: It’s definitely a melting pot of different cultures from Portugal to China to Japan. They were brought over [years ago] to work the fields for cheap labor and that has created a unique kind of cuisine.
RW: Where do you see yourself in five years?
CL: In a kitchen. Hah. No, I’m an associate partner here and with that, I don’t see myself going anywhere any time soon.