Part Three: Following Helena
By Lori Taketa
Craig Katsuyoshi thought he was coming home to take over his grandmother’s legendary Helena’s Hawaiian Food. He never suspected it would take 17 years.
Working to help the family has been a running theme for the Katsuyoshis. Since Helen Chock, Craig’s grandmother, opened Helena's Hawaiian Food on North King Street in 1946, generations have pitched in: Helen’s husband, Jong Chock, their three kids and later, their kids. As the eatery gained a reputation for soul-satisfying kalua pork, squid luau, pipikaula and other comfort foods, Helen’s continuing 16-hour days put the family through school, financed down payments and more.
Craig bussed tables and cleaned up. When his dad’s military career forced a family move to the mainland, Helen took him in so he could finish high school at Iolani. In 1990 Craig came home from the University of Southern California with a new degree. Helen was 73 and hoping to retire. The timing seemed perfect. “You come in thinking in five years this place will be all mine,” Craig says, “and it's going to run how I want it to run.”
Instead, he began a long apprenticeship. Talk about retirement all but faded as Helen—who showed no signs of slowing down—took her grandson under her wing. She began teaching Craig her techniques for making haupia and drying meat for pipikaula, training his palate for rich, perfectly seasoned beef stew and brothy chicken long rice.
This wasn’t Craig’s plan. His degree in communications had come with a business emphasis, which Helen had little interest in letting him put to use. “It was difficult because my mother is of the old way,” says Elaine Katsuyoshi, who watched the struggle between her indefatigable mother and glowering, headstrong son. “Craig looks to expand and buy a building for the restaurant, and my mother looks to just keep her customers happy and stay where she is because that's all she needs. She tried to hang onto that as long as she could.”
Adds Craig, “Transition between two generations is brutal. One just won't let go, and the other one just wants it.”
By the time a year-to-year lease forced Helena's to leave its spot across Farrington High School 11 years later, Helen’s confidence in her grandson had grown. Craig helped her find the current North School Street location. She let him remodel the interior so customers could see into the kitchen and he could see out. And she finally relinquished all kitchen duties to Craig.
He had a knack for cooking. He kept the food quality high when Helen's fatigue began to cloud her taste buds. In one of their longest battles, he finally convinced her to raise prices to keep up with rising costs.
“We had some wars over here, you know?” he says. “It's hard to just go home and forget about it. But she's above that. She understands things more.”
In the end, “She was kind of patient with me, and I grew up more.”
Helen’s last big trip was to New York City in 2000 to receive the James Beard Foundation’s Regional Classics Restaurant Award—given to a select few establishments that reflect their communities' history and character. The experience, while exciting, left her wanting to come home.
“She loved to come to work, and now I know why,” says Elaine, who since retiring from teaching has taken her mother’s place at the cash register. “She loved the customers and the customers loved her. Work wasn’t really work—it was her life, her pleasure. She did get tired, but you know, what better way to get tired than to be there with her friends and her customers?”
When she passed 80, Helen shortened her workdays to 12 hours. Sometime after she turned 89, she started asking to be driven home between lunch and dinner to nap. One day she was so tired she couldn't make it to work at all. A month later she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“She said, ‘Don’t save me.’ She didn’t want to just stay home and wait to die,” says Elaine. “She wanted to work up until the very end, and then one morning not wake up.”
So Craig continued to pick her up and bring her to work. He drove her home when she got tired. Helen spent her last three weeks in the hospital. On June 29, 2007, less than one month before her ninetieth birthday, she didn't wake up.
The absence of her gleeful smile and cackling wit behind the cash register is still unfamiliar. Even now, her daughter and grandson slip in and out of present tense when talking about her.
“She’s our best PR lady,” says Craig. “The line to pay would be backing up, three or four deep. She would add up everything by hand first and then check it on the adding machine. And people would just wait patiently to have their couple of minutes to talk with her. She just had a way with people,” he says, laughing. “There's nothing that can replace her.”
It’s his place now, but he misses her.
With no liquor license, Helena’s is BYOB. What does Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya, the go-to guy for Hawaii Regional Cuisine wine pairings, drink when he’s there?
Beer, of course, makes a lot of sense at Helena's. One that immediately comes to mind is Mehana Pale Ale, which comes to us from the Shindo family over in Hilo on the Big Island. Somehow a well-chilled, tasty, thirst-quenching Hawaiian-made beer seems so appropriate with Helena's Hawaiian food.
At the same time, don't forget to also consider a glass of wine as an alternative. My first choice would be a DRY rose.
When one dines at a casual bistro or cafe along the Mediterranean basin, it seems every table has a well-chilled carafe of dry rose. WHY? Because it goes with the food. There is a reason why so many of America's great restaurants feature one, two or three dry roses by the glass! Especially when you order well-salted meat preparations like kalua pig, lau lau, beef stew or pipikaula, you will find a cold, well-made dry rose, whether served in a wine glass or plastic cup, is an ideal beverage... thirst-quenching while keeping the palate fresh and alive between bites.
- Scherrer Dry Rose (roughly $16 a bottle). One of California's very best... a dry, elegant, classy, incredibly food-friendly blend of pinot noir and zinfandel crafted by one of our favorite winemakers in a very Old World style.
- Domaine Fontsainte Corbieres Gris de Gris (roughly $16 a bottle). An absolutely delicious, exuberantly fruity, cafe-styled rose from southern France.
- Chateau D'Esclans Cotes de Provence Rose (roughly $21 a bottle). Here is one of the world's finest dry roses--minerally, floral, captivating and effortlessly light and crisp, with delicate, sublime complexities and a world-class presence.