The charismatic Maui chef talks about Extreme Chef and cooking in paradise
Editor’s Note: As noted in my blog on November 17, sadly, our friend Chef Raja passed away unexpectedly on September 30, 2013. The article and interview below is from 2012.
Rodger “Chef Raja” Shortell, 44, grew up in Maui and owns Tikitorch Productions (808-870-3451), a catering company in Wailuku that emphasizes fresh, local ingredients in preparing meals for events from large weddings to romantic dinners for two. When he’s not cooking, he’s often out taking advantage of Maui’s spectacular outdoors offerings—surfing, swimming in caves, and cliff diving—water skills that came in handy during his turn on the Food Network’s Extreme Chef in 2011. He’s also a certified HIV counselor, tester, and outreach worker for the Maui AIDS Foundation.
What was it like to grow up in Maui?
CR: My parents moved here when I was 3, and so I grew up in Kula, on a farm. When people hear that I grew up in Maui, they think, Oooh, it must have been great, sitting on the beach, drinking piña coladas. But we’re normal people here—we just have a better view.
What made you want to be a chef?
CR: Of course, there is a story about an Easy-Bake Oven. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baker, and for Christmas one year, I really wanted an Easy-Bake Oven. But I didn’t get it because it was a girl’s toy—I got a truck. That truck sat on my shelf untouched for a year.
But I was always drawn to the kitchen. I think growing up here on Maui is a part of it, too. My dad and I would hit the Japanese market and try seaweed salads and fish that you wouldn’t normally get at an ordinary market. And we had all of this great fresh produce, plus these rich cultures—Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese—that influenced our food.
How would you describe your cooking style?
CR: My food philosophy is fresh, big, bold, beautiful flavors, with a touch of the Pacific Rim. One of my signature dishes is curried opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper) with a lemon-basil sauce and a pomegranate Thai chile reduction.
But when I’m working with people, what I really want to know is: what do you like? I always tell people, my food should say more about you than it does about me. Tell me what you like and what you don’t like, and I’ll create something for you out of the freshest products here.
Do you expect more catering business now that civil unions are legal?
CR: I really think that it’s going to bring a lot more people to us. And maybe then we’ll get a real gay bar. That would be awesome. … We want to dance, for fuck’s sake!
Can you tell us a little about your work with the Maui AIDS Foundation?
CR: On this island, we suffer from a variation of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”—our island youth attract the tourists, and the tourists attract the youth, and young people today think, Oh, AIDS, that’s nothing; you can just take a pill. So I do testing, and I do a lot of counseling on risk reduction. I go to beaches and to sex areas and put condoms in those areas, and if anyone talks to me, I talk to them about testing. It’s definitely a character-building job.
Speaking of character building, how did Extreme Chef come about?
CR: Extreme Chef attracted me because it had a physical element. I’d been teaching spin and yoga at a gym here, and when you combine physical challenges with food—those are two things I love! I sent them pictures of me jumping off of cliffs, and they called me right back.
The show itself was a blast. I won the physical challenge, and I won the first food challenge with a shrimp poisson cru, a French Polynesian ceviche. I made it all the way to the end. … I was up against chef Francis Dimitrius [of Villa Blanca in Beverly Hills], and the ingredient was squid. He made a batter on the beach and stuffed the squid. I made a dragon fruit salad underneath and infused the squid with jalapeño. … I thought, God, the first thing everybody does with squid is batter it. The judges didn’t agree. I thought I should have won, I’ll say that.
what are you doing when you’re not eating or cooking?
CR: I’m an adrenaline junkie! I’m a big surfer; I love cliff jumping, diving in caves. And also camping and hiking.
But really, I’m also kind of a homebody. I’ve got a big garden, with three types of lilikoi (passion fruit) growing in it. I just spent the day cutting it back and juicing the lilikoi and freezing them for the off-season. I’d make a good wife someday.