On Valentine’s Day, 2020, attendees of Ocean and You will be the first to try Waikiki’s newest island cuisine experience.
Out at sea, they will enjoy sampling courses that will guide them through all Hawaii’s best flavors, enhanced with a flare that only a seasoned chef can provide. The brain behind the unique Ocean and You menu is local Chef Elmer Guzman.
“One of the goals that when we created this menu is, ‘where can you get this in Waikiki?’” Chef Guzman said. He defines cooking style as Hawaii regional cuisine with a New Orleans twist. Guzman explained that he wants tour guests to feel a “wow factor” from the Ocean and You dishes, from the fresh-caught ahi poke to the Kiawe smoked mushroom arancini.
But who is Chef Elmer Guzman? We sat down to talk story with him about his background, his biggest influences and what makes his cuisine so special.
Growing up in Hawaii
Guzman was born and raised in Kahului, Maui. Although cooking wasn’t something he initially wanted to do as a career, it always came naturally to him.
“All my life we cooked for our family,” Chef Elmer said. “We got basically the hang of cooking everything. It was second nature for me.”
Guzman’s Filipino heritage influenced his appreciation for fresh ingredients. Everything was cooked from scratch in his household, he said.
But it was growing up in Hawaii that contributed to his originality in cooking later in life. He learned to mix and match different types of cuisine by eating at his friends’ houses with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
“We’re a mixed plate here in Hawaii,” Guzman said. “So that’s one thing that’s kind of exciting.”
After High School, most of Guzman’s friends decided to move to Oahu to go to culinary school. On a whim, and without any plans of his own, Guzman decided to follow suit.
Little did he know that he would thrive in a culinary environment. As he made his way through school, he found himself excited by each new lesson.
“Once you start doing baking, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s so exciting! What else is out there?’” Guzman said. “That’s when I knew that this was my passion and this is the career path I’m taking.”
Aside from the hands-on instructions in preparing gourmet food and French techniques, Chef Guzman gained invaluable lessons from his many notable teachers.
Learning from “Mega-Chefs”
One of Guzman’s instructors at Kapiolani Community College was the ambassador of Hawaiian cuisine, Alan Wong.
When Guzman graduated from college, he called up Chef Wong to ask if he could work for him at his iconic Big Island Restaurant, the Canoe House.
Chef Wong opened up Guzman’s eyes to what was possible in the culinary scene in Hawaii with his trend-setting style, Guzman said. He worked there and learned from Chef Wong for three years.
After rising to executive levels in Chef Wong’s kitchen, Guzman was ready for something new. He moved to the Mainland U.S. to get his culinary degree from the prestigious Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship Program in West Virginia. He graduated with honors.
With his new degree under his belt, he went on to work for celebrity chefs with worldwide fame. Among them were television personalities Emeril Lagasse and Sam Choy.
“I call them ‘Mega-chefs’ because you see what they do to get to that point in their careers,” Chef Guzman said. “What I learned from them made me successful with who I am today.”
Making a Name for Himself
More than a decade into his career, Guzman had risen to the top of his class and worked for some of the world’s greatest chefs, but he had yet to brand his own menu of cuisine.
With support from his wife and a small well of funds to draw from, Chef Guzman opened up his first restaurant: Poke Stop.
Poke, which is diced and seasoned raw fish, is one of the main dishes of Native Hawaiian cuisine. Drawing from his culinary training, Guzman was one of the first to bring the dish to the national stage with fresh, local ingredients and newly envisioned flavor combinations.
Not long after opening, Poke Stop was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Guy Fieri called the salmon poke “mega gangster fresh”.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s subsequent popularity justified franchising. After his initial venture’s success, he went on to cut the ribbon on another restaurant, Fish Hook Cafe, which showcased his expertise in seafood preparation.
In fact, Guzman’s knowledge of seafood is so vast that he published a book called The Shoreline Chef in 2003. Chef Emeril Lagasse wrote the foreword.
More recently, Chef Guzman has entered the catering realm of the Oahu culinary scene. He is excited to take on his newest challenge of catering for a Waikiki boat cruise.
“We’re ready for a new challenge,” Guzman said.