Hawaii Mom Blog: Gems of Life: John Iha




September 30, 2019

Gems of Life: John Iha

Chicken Katsu
You may know John Iha as the very "punny" Chef / Owner of Gochi Grill (home of the best chicken katsu, in my opinion).  Or perhaps you remember him as the Executive Chef at Hiroshi's Eurasian Tapas.                 

Despite having gone to the same high school as John and being just two years apart in age from him, I only met him last year during a media preview of Gochi Grill, and since then I've gotten to know him better and am happy to call him a friend.

His first stint in the industry was at Sushi Ten in Aiea over two decades ago.  He subsequently graduated from the Kapiolani Community College Culinary Arts Program, and worked in some of the most reputable restaurants throughout the state - L'uraku, Sansei, and Hiroshi's, to name a few.

He persevered over twenty-plus years, always striving to be the best in a tough and demanding industry, when 60-70 work weeks were the norm, it was commonplace to be yelled at or have things thrown around in the kitchen, and smack talk was expected if you couldn't keep up.

Now, it's a complete 180, according to John, as he talks about today's culinary industry.  He feels that today's generation cannot handle the pressure.  They have thinner skin.  They have less heart.  They need to be coddled more.  If things get too hard, they quit and find another job.

Instead of "Chef, what you need?" it's now "Chef, I need help."

Gochi Grill Cooking Class
After years of working professionally in some of the busiest kitchens in the state, he began to feel burnt out and disenchanted, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

"There are people who make something happen, and people who wait for something to happen," says John.

He opened up Gochi Grill, where he manages a small operation that produces what I consider "gourmet plate lunches."  He was fortunate to have found a Sous Chef in Sean Uyehara, who he describes as a "good kid" with "fortitude" and "heart."

Gochi Grill has become a very popular restaurant in Downtown Honolulu with a loyal following, and John feels one of the most rewarding things about running his business is the relationships he's formed along the way with his customers.

He has worked hard for his successes, and learned a lot about the industry and himself along the way.

Foot speed
You can tell a lot about somebody when you watch their movements - their foot speed.  Whenever I do an interview with somebody, I'm going to give them paperwork, so I walk very briskly all over... "Follow me to the office, I'll grab some paperwork."  If they keep up with me, they're good... I think speed is very, very, very critical in the kitchen.  If you're not quick, and if you don't have that mentality to always get faster and better...you won't be like what we call in the kitchen, a "banger."

A good heart, motivation, and honesty
Even if you're not the fastest, strongest, or smartest, if you have a super good heart and you're super motivated, you can't trade that for anything.  I look at that beyond anything else in somebody.  That, and honesty.

I knew I was capable of intimidating people pretty well.  At times you need people to fear you a little bit.  Because if they don't, they're not going to do what needs to be done.  I don't know anybody who can run a super high intense kitchen and not be a little edgy and not instill a little fear...if you fear something, that you means you care.  That's the style I was raised in.

I gain success when the guys I teach succeed and become better than me.  At every level, one guy will eventually spread his wings and go.  Whenever I head a brigade, I tell everybody "I like you guys be better than me.  I going be hard on you guys.  The moment I stop being hard on you guys is the moment I stop caring."  

John Iha, Sean Uyehara
If you don't self-reflect, I don't think you can ever improve upon something, because you're not looking at yourself and trying to get better, which means your ego is in the way.

Experiencing tragedy
It doesn't get easier the older you get.  I think it gets harder, because you feel more.  [Tragedy] makes me appreciate my family a lot more.  It makes me appreciate everything I have.  It makes me realize "Hey brah, things could be a lot worse, man."

Social media
That can be the death of people.  How can you not take it personally?  If you get one problem, come in through the door and talk to me like an adult.  There are different ways to solve problems versus just taking things to social media.  Why can't you just talk to my manager or my server versus just complaining on social media?

Unfortunately, that's why lots of local small businesses fail.  People don't realize how damaging social media can be.  

The biggest sacrifice is the change in lifestyle.  In the kitchen, there's no success without sacrifice.  You cannot expect to succeed in anything without sacrifice, especially time.  You gotta put in your time.  You gotta put in your work.  If you think it's going to be just handed to you, that's the biggest mistake.  And if that's the case, don't even get in the kitchen.

Having goals
My goal was to be good enough to be on TV, to where I was a heavy-hitter.  To be a banger, to be sought after.  Because in order to be on TV, you gotta be good.  My goal was to always be anyplace I wanted and to always have a job.  You have to reset your goals.  My biggest goal was to be an executive chef at a reputable restaurant before the age of 40...and I did that.

My goal now is to sustain what we have here at Gochi Grill.  To succeed, and make it so that I can open another one and give Sean a restaurant. 

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