Kapolei Q&A: What’s It Like To Be The Executive Chef At Mina’s Fish House?

Garrick Mendoza grew up in New Mexico, got his first restaurant job as a teenager, and made his way to New York where he studied at the Culinary Institute of America and was a sous chef at the celebrated restaurant Del Posto. He moved to O’ahu in December 2017 to join Mina’s Fish House, where he’s Executive Chef.

Howzit Kapolei: What’s a day like for you?

Garrick Mendoza: A day for me is waking up about 6:30 with my kids, seeing them off to school so that I actually get to see them, because when I get home it’s like 10:30, they’ve been in bed for like two hours already.

So it starts there, and as soon as they’re out the door, I get myself together and head to the office.

My day starts on a computer, checking the slew of emails, which is my least favorite thing in the world. Checking in with the other chefs to see if they need anything.

Then we’ve got to start our production for the day — what are the longest projects that are needed for the day, and who’s going to start those projects.

HK: Do you sometimes get involved with what’s needed for the day?

GM: Every day. Every single day, yeah.

HK: Are there specific things that you really like working on?

GM: One of my favorite things has always been cutting fish, even before I was working here.

And the reason is that I get to work with my knives, making sure my knives are sharp, making sure that my hand skills are in tune with what they should be.

HK: Cutting fish is not the easiest task in the world.

GM: It’s time-consuming, it’s difficult. But you see an end result within hours. You’ve cut all this fresh fish. You got it in a certain way, you got to check over it.

Then you get to experience what happens when you set it front of somebody and they enjoy it. You get a message like: “Hey, table 297 said that that was the best piece of fish they ever had.”

That’s a great feeling. It makes you feel like your entire day was pretty valid. Even if it was just one!

HK: Do you have a favorite local fish?

GM: I was actually fortunate enough to hop on the boat and go fish for ono. And, I’m not going to say I caught—the guys setting the lines and throwing it out, they’re the ones who are fishing—but I got to reel two in.

I actually got to bring those fish into the kitchen straight out of the water and cut into ’em. And eat it while it was nearly still vibrating with freshness. That was one of the best experiences for me thus far of being here, and also gave me a newfound respect for that fish.

Chef Mendoza's ono crudo was inspired by a local fishing experience
HK: What led you to become a cook?

GM: It started pretty early. I had my first job in a kitchen at 16.

HK: Was that something you sought out?

GM: It was kind of a combination of things. I wasn’t the all-star student to say the least. I needed to get a job for graduation. And I found an ad in the paper for a fry cook position at a local steakhouse called K-Bob’s. First night there, I was in love.

I mean, I had no clue what I was doing and they were very aware of that. And I remember talking to the kitchen manager and I was like, I have no experience.

She looks right at me, she’s like, “That’s perfect. Because then you’re only going to do what I want you to do.”

That’s great, I love that.

HK: How did you hear about the job at Mina’s?

GM: I got a random phone call one day from one of my mates that I met in New York City. He’s like, “We have a pretty wild opportunity if you’re interested in changing it up a little bit.” Like, what do you got? He’s like, “Well we have an opening in Nashville, and we have an opening in Hawaiʻi.”

Like Hawaiʻi, I mean, come on. I never even thought about going to Hawaii once in my life. And he’s like, “Well submit your resume if you’ve got it handy,” you know?

Sent it and two hours later I’m on a phone call with an interview. I didn’t think it was going to be that day, you know?

HK: Wow.

GM: Two weeks later they flew me out to do a tasting. And it was literally a matter of like 20 days between interview, doing the tasting, giving my notice, and winding up here in Hawaiʻi.

It was a super quick process. I did not by any means think it was going to work out.

I was like, I’m just going to go for it and see what happens, you know? I didn’t think that I had the ability to work in a Four Seasons. I always thought of it as a place I really couldn’t even walk into as a customer, you know? Thus far everything has been great.

Black Garlic & Miso Black Cod is one of Mendoza's favorite dishes

HK: How do you like living in Hawaiʻi?

GM: I love living here. Weather is great. I just had my folks out from New Mexico and they’re still talking about 40 degree weather, and I don’t miss it. I don’t miss it.

It’s perfect living up there in Makakilo. I mean, don’t have a heater, don’t have an air conditioner, I’ve got a nice breeze.

And I’m sure my family loves it even more than I do.

HK: Do you have kids here?

GM: Yeah, I’ve got a six-year-old and a nine-year-old. And they both go to Mauka Lani in Makakilo. Actually my wife goes there too. She got a job there now, she’s a substitute teacher. So they all three go to school in the morning. It’s great.

I really can’t ask for more. My family’s happy. I have my daughter coming home from school in fourth grade telling me that she had an amazing day, which wasn’t the case when we were back home.

She came home Monday, she’s like, “I have a best friend.”

HK: When you do get a chance to spend time with them, what kinds of stuff around here do you like to do?

GM: First things first, we go to the beach. Always grab a couple fishing poles, not that I know how to fish.

I knew how to fish in streams and lakes, not the same. It does not translate the same. So I bring ’em anyway. And I try. I have fed the fish very well. Not yet pulled one in. Other than the ono that I kinda caught.

Mina’s Fish House combines line-to-table seafood caught in Hawaiʻi’s waters with international flavors and an amazing beachside setting. Happy hour is 3pm-5pm daily, and dinner service starts at 5pm. Here’s the link to make a reservation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.